Jim’s good friend and wine drinking partner, C.W. Nicol, passed away two years ago last April. Nic held a black belt in karate and worked briefly in the United Kingdom as a professional wrestler. He was a “bear” of a man, who seemed indestructible. And while he is now gone, his legacy, the Afan Forest Foundation and the 35 hectares of forest land that he brought back to life continues. Nic was Jim’s inspiration to build a home in the mountains of Nagano 12 years ago and it is no surprise that Jim’s “forest” is closeby to Nic’s and that he learned much from Nic’s experience and advice in reviving the 3.5 hectares of forest land that now surround our home in Kurohime.
Nic’s death has posed an existential challenge for the Foundation, which he launched nearly 20 years ago to support forest restoration and a broad range of other environmental initiatives (see: https://afan.or.jp/). Recently, the Afan Board convened in a plenary session to discuss next steps including deepening the Foundation’s ties with the local community in the the town of Shinanomachi where the forest is located. It was a productive discussion that continued informally at a tasting of Nagano wines that Jim organized at his home, which is just a five minute walk through the forest from the Foundation. The goal was to share memories of Nic and to strengthen the connection between the Board and local community leaders in building on and extending Nic’s legacy.
The gathering was also a great opportunity to expand the circle of “friends of Nagano wines”. For many of the Board members, the Afan staff, and even local residents, it was a first chance to taste and compare a range of selected Nagano wines. Jim presented five wines along with his personal comments on each of them, which you can find below. The overall response was strongly favorable from the 12 participants in the tasting, with the largest number of “thumbs up” going to the selection from the Obuse Winery (5), followed by Chateau Mercian (3), Shinshu Takayama (2), Izutsu Winery (1) and Domaine Kosei (1). By the way, Jim generally agrees with this rank ordering, which highlights the diverse and high quality offerings from large and boutique wineries in the prefecture — but it was a bit surprising that the tannin-rich “reds” did much better than the sweeter and lighter “whites”. This may upset the “common wisdom” that the Japanese wine consumer prefers white not red wines since the former pairs well with Japanese food.
Chateau Mercian Nagano Merlot 2017
Chateau Mercian is the largest producer of wines in Nagano Prefecture with facilities in both the Chikumagawa and Kikyogahara wine districts. The 13 percent alcohol level is unusually high for a Japanese Merlot and suggests that the grapes were picked at peak ripeness. This wine comes from the area of Shiojiri City and has a beautiful sparkling red color and tastes of plums and blackberries tempered by the passing scent of oak and tobacco. Tannins are soft but nonetheless present in this five-year old wine, which is ready to drink now. Chateau Mercian’s Mariko Vineyard in Ueda City opened in 2019 and the winery now also produces a “Mariko” Nagano Merlot that is really excellent. The grapes for this “Nagano Merlot” come from contract farmers and the quality can vary sharply from year to year.
Price: 4200 yen; available online from Amazon.
Domaine Kosei Kataoka Merlot 2020
We reviewed the 2019 vintage of this wine in December of last year and found it promising, so we decided to include the next edition of this wine (2020) in the tasting as an example of what new winemakers in Nagano like Kosei Ajimura, the former chief of winemaking at Chateau Mercian, are doing. Although it was ranked at the bottom by our tasters, we remain a fan. The wine has a deep red color, the nose is sweet and inviting, and the flavors are complex including nutmeg, cinnamon and a hint of caramel. Best of all, it is now easily available through Amazon. And, when you go to the online retailer, you will also come across the Domaine Kosei Kataoka Merlot Five Roses wine on sale for 8000 yen, which is made from a special subset of the Merlot grapes in the vineyard. Ajimura-san is both a good winemaker and a good marketer. We are not tempted to pay up now — but we may next year.
Price: 4200 yen; available online from Amazon.
Obuse Winery Cabernet Franc and Tannat 2019
You probably have never heard of the Tannat grape. It originated in the southwest part of France and (believe it or not) is the national grape of Uruguay. In terms of taste, it is closest to the more widely known Malbec grape. So why Nagano? We can thank Yoshihiko Soga, the charismatic and “difficult” owner of the Obuse Winery. This is a place that many regard as the best boutique winery in Nagano (and thus maybe Japan). The wine is a beautiful marriage of grapes bringing together the sweetness of Cabernet Franc with the tartness and robust tannins of the Tannat grape. Jamie Goode, the British wine critic and expert on Nagano wines, assigns it a rating of 93/100 — among the highest he has given to a local Japanese wine. The Tannat grape has a characteristic bitterness that may take some getting use to — but that is all the more reason buy a bottle and start the process. It is worth the effort.
Price: 4400 yen. Available ONLY at the winery or through a select groups of retailers in Tokyo and other major cities (the list is available online).
Izutsu Winery Barrel-Aged Chardonnay 2019
Izutsu may be the biggest winery that you have never heard of. Located in Shiojiri City in the heart of the Kikyogahara Wine District, Izutsu’s less expensive wines are available in supermarkets throughout Japan for 1000 yen or less. But if you are ready to pay a bit more, you can find some excellent wines under the Izutsu label. This wine is one. It has bright citrus and apple flavors with just the slightest hint of peach. Perhaps because of its proximity to the gravelly Narai river, this is a Chardonnay with a pleasing dryness and even a touch of minerals that is smoothed out by the oaking. Good Chardonnays are hard to find in Japan — especially in Nagano due to proximity of the autumn rainy season to the time of harvest. So don’t expect the full-blown taste of a California or French Chardonnay — this is a distinctly Nagano version.
Price: 4200 yen, available from Amazon online.
Shinshu Takayama Winery Chardonnay 2019
This is a promising new winery in the Chikumawa Wine District of Nagano in the hills overlooking Takayama Mura. The winery was opened in 2015 by Eiichi Takano, who had studied winemaking in France and later worked with Chateau Mercian. Takayama Mura is one of the important wine centers in the Chikumagawa District and Takano-san contracts with local farmers for most of his grapes, since farmland is difficult to purchase from the many small and elderly farmers in the area. This inevitably affects the quality of the product, especially the acidity since that is closely linked to the timing and methods of harvesting the grapes. Nonetheless, the quality of the Shinshu Takayama winery have steadily improved — and this Chardonnay has a nice fresh taste with hints of pears, apples and white peaches. It is a winery to pay attention to.
Price: 3000 yen; available from Amazon online.
Cup/Glass Wines from Goichi Winery and Izutsu Winery in Nagano Prefecture
As promised, we tasted the cup/glass wines recently released by the Goichi Winery and Izutsu Winery. The wines are sold in a five pack with Goichi offering a red and white wine (made in Japan) in a keepsake 120ml glass and Izutsu providing three wines (a red, white and a rose again from Japan) in 180ml plastic bottles capped with a reusable plastic glass. The presentation of the wines mimics what the Ozeki sake company and others in Japan have long done with their “one cup” offerings of sake — so it is a format familiar to consumers and likely to attract new wine drinkers both young and old.
So how do they taste? The Izutsu “cups” are likely repackaged versions of wines that Izutsu markets in its standard 750ml bottles of its Nagano Merlots and Chardonnays selling for 1500 yen — both of which we like from a price performance perspective. The Goichi wines are not quite as good as the Izutsu wines — but that is usually the case. An interesting fun fact is that the two wineries are across the street from each other in Shiojiri city so the difference in quality is likely less a question of the grapes but the capacity of the winemakers to produce drinkable wines at this price — and to be fair Goichi has some nicer wines at higher prices.
In terms of how these stack up against the Suntory canned wines offering that we reviewed last month, it is a bit complicated. We like to drink our wine in glasses not cans. We also feel that Suntory may be a bit disingenuous in marketing French wines under their own label as if they were made in Japan (although the origin is clearly stated on the can).
Nonetheless the Suntory wines are clearly a better value. The can of Sauvignon Blanc, which we had saved for last and sipped as we drafted this review, reminds us greatly of the Sancerre from Costco (!) that we drank the night before. This is the challenge for the Nagano winemakers. Competition for the consumer’s wine wallet is tough and is coming in all directions: Costco has recently doubled down on its excellently price selection of US and French wines available at their wholesale outlets in Japan and online. The good news is that more Japanese have more access to good wines — unfortunately these wines may not be from Nagano.
Price for the five pack of wines: 2150 yen; available online from Amazon.