It may be July, but at our home 800 meters high on the slopes of Mount Kurohime in Nagano you still need a jacket in the evening and appreciate a blanket at night. The story elsewhere in Japan is different. Tokyo reached a temperature of 37 degrees centigrade this past week and Yamanashi prefecture, which rivals Nagano in the quality and size of its wine production recorded temperatures over 40 degrees.
Of course, it is the difference between the day and evening temperatures that produces the best wine — and that’s the challenge. As an island nation surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan, the weather here during the summer is generally quite humid, which compresses the gap between daytime highs and midnight lows. For that reason, Japanese growers particularly as they get into September need to pay close attention to the sugar content of their grapes in choosing when and what to harvest. This is especially true for Nagano, since its mountainous terrain and the shifting weather and wind patterns between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan produce a myriad of micro-climates that impact on the quality of the wine produced.
Two White Wines: Kurakake 2020 Chardonnay and Wa Yawata 2020 Sauvignon Blanc
This month we will be sampling wines produced by a young winemaker, Nobutaka Hatano, who unlike many of his compatriots did NOT travel abroad to France, Australia or the United States. Instead, he learned his craft in Japan, working at the Villa d’Est winery in a variety of capacities from the time that he was 17 years old.
The owner of Villa d’Est is Toyoo Tamamura. He has played a major role in developing and promoting the wine industry in Japan through the very popular and tourist friendly facilities at his winery and the launch of a school, Arc en Vigne, to train the next generation of winemakers in the prefecture. See Jaime Goode’s review of the Villa d’Est winery.
So Mr. Hatano learned the art of wine making not from foreign travel but hands on experience in Nagano: everything from field and harvest management to the production and marketing of wine. And, his most important learning may be his understanding of the need for scale in producing good and financially sound wine.
For that reason, he has sought to leverage his small operation by contracting with other small grape growers in the Tomi area to make and sell their wines under the umbrella of Cave Hatano. These currently include Sun Farms (Chardonnay), Kitagawa Budo (Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon), and Wa Yawata (Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc).
The last mentioned “winery” is owned by Kiku Watanabe, a female fashion designer from Kyoto, who fascinated by moving to the Nagano countryside and the allure of wine, bought her vineyard in 2013 from a local grape grower, who had previously sold his grapes to Suntory for their wine operations in Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures. See Wa Yawata.
Below are our tasting notes on two wines: one from the Kurakake winery, which Mr. Hatano operates directly, and the second from Ms. Watanabe’s Wa Yawata winery. Both of the wines were made by Mr. Hatano.
Cave Hatano Kurakake Chardonnay 2020
We have been on the outlook for a delicious Japanese Chardonnay at a reasonable price — and we think that we have found one. This wine is alive with fruit (think peaches, pears and pineapple). It also has a sparkling yellow gold color and a nose that heralds a rich sweetness that is balanced nicely by good acidity. Japanese Chardonnays usually fail on both counts, producing a wine with slightly bitter off-flavors and a weak to positively insipid finish. Mr. Hatano is by reputation a painstaking winemaker, who believes that good wines start with selecting the best grapes picked at the right moment. This approach can be seen in the 13 percent alcohol level of this wine — not too much and, more importantly in the Japanese case, not too little! It is a “Goldilocks” number and contrasts with most of the Japanese Chardonnays on the market. We have been pretty much in despair over the future of Japanese Chardonnays, but this wine has given us some optimism. There is still a ways to go — Nagano is not the United States or France, but there is a new generation of young winemakers who are increasingly knowledgeable about what it takes to produce good wines. Mr. Hatano is among the most prominent of them. Pick up a bottle if you can.
Price: 3960 yen
Available from a select group of retailers:, see https://www.c-hatano.com/shoplist/
Contact the winery at 090-6936-9646
Cave Hatano Wa Yawata Sauvignon Blanc 2020
There is no doubt in our minds that Ms. Watanabe got a great deal when she purchased the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay vineyards from a local vineyard that apparently wanted to focus on growing grapes for the table. The Sauvignon Blanc vines, in particular, were special since they had been planted more than 30 years ago — and could be among the oldest vines of this varietal in the prefecture. As a new entrant to the wine business, Ms Watanabe turned to Cave Hatano for help in making and marketing her wine — and Mr. Hatano, if anything, over-delivered. This is a beautiful wine: the taste is rich and creamy with a lovely sweetness that continues from the nose through the finish. The flavors are of lush passion fruit and ripe pineapple without a hint of the minerality we usually associate with wine produced in the Narai river valley. The best analogy is a quite “over the top” Napa style Sauvignon Blanc. Not surprisingly, the alcohol level is (an insane for Japan!) 14 percent. You have to drink this to believe it! But you will have to scramble: production is just one barrel (306 bottles)
Price: 3300 yen
Available as above through Cave Hatano