Last month, we wrote about Nobutaka Hirano and the support that he was providing to other small winemakers in Nagano with the making and marketing of their wines. We noted that Hirano had learned his craft locally, working at the Villa d’Est winery and the facilities at Arc en Vigne, an educational center for winemaking established by poet and winemaker Toyoo Tamamura.
This month, when we looked at the new Nagano wines in stock at our favorite wine shop, Yorozuya, we were interested to see that a number of small and newly established wineries in the Chikumagawa Wine District are now contracting with the Arc en Vigne Center to make their wines. We picked up two bottles from one of these, Mille Beaute, which we review below.
We had visited the Arc en Vigne Center several years back and were frankly unimpressed with the products made by the students. But no problem, they were learning “how to make” wines — not actually producing them for outside consumption (although the results of their efforts were on sale at the school). Now, this seems to be changing.
We asked our friends at Yorozuya what they thought of the Mille Beaute wines. They described them as “well made,” adding that the Arc en Vigne Center has changed its name recently to the Japan Wine Agricultural Research Center (JWARC) and its activities now go beyond “education” to contracting with wineries to produce and help market their wines.
We will be writing more on this as we delve deeper into what could be a potentially transformative development for Nagano wines. But just to preview the discussion: apart from the few large wineries in Nagano (Suntory, Chateau Mercian, Manns, and perhaps ALPS and Izutsu), nobody is making much money on wine in Nagano. Production is for the most part capped because of regulations on land usage and land transfer (designed to protect small plot rice farming) and the chicken/egg problem of the absence of a wine culture in Japan (folks prefer sake to Chardonnay with their meals).
These challenges in moving to scale makes Nagano wines expensive and sharply steepen the normal learning curve for newcomers, who initially start out making only a few barrels for sale. Separating the production and marketing of the wine from the growing and selection of the grapes is not the only or best solution, but it certainly might help in taking Nagano wines to the next level.
You only have to take a look at who is starting up new wineries (which are still popping up like mushrooms) in Nagano to see the nature of the problem. The “new” generation of winemakers are either young people with little or no education in wine, but who want something “different” in life than working for a large corporation in Tokyo. Or they are retired couples, who are investing their pensions and savings in a few acres of land to grow grapes that they can use for winemaking.
And that makes winemaking in the prefecture still generally more a “hobby” than a “business”. See this article introducing the “new generation” of Nagano winemakers. It is in Japanese, but the pictures tell the story.
Before and After Pictures of Mille Beaute Winery
The case of Yasushi Nakane, the owner of the Mille Beaute is typical of this trend: he retired in his 50’s after a career as a high school teacher in Saitama Prefecture and moved to Nagano in 2015 to pursue his dream of being a winemaker. In 2016, he bought some abandoned agricultural land near Komoro City in the Chikumagawa District of Nagano Prefecture (among the best wine areas) and over the course of six years transformed it into a vineyard capable of producing a successful Merlot harvest in 2020 and a memorable Chardonnay harvest in 2021.
Mr. Nakane enrolled in the Arc en Vigne Center wine school (now called the Chikumagawa Academy) shortly after arriving in Nagano and was among its early graduates. Thus, it was natural for him to contract his winemaking with the new Japan Wine Agricultural Research Center (JWRC). What is extraordinary and unexpected are the results of this partnership, given Mr. Nakane’s very limited experience in the wine business.
Nakane Family with their Dogs
Mille Beaute 2021 Chardonnay
This Chardonnay has a soft golden color and the fresh scent of pineapple energized with a hint of citrus. There is none of the under-ripeness that leaves a bitter taste in most Japanese Chardonnays. This is in part because the vineyard is located at 820 meters in the hills surrounding Komoro City and the grapes enjoy lots of sun during the day and cool evenings, producing an excellent acidity balanced by a delightful sweetness. The finish is smooth and floral. The wine was laid up in oak barrels for six months, which quietly gives the wine a presence without getting in the way as happens with wines that are less well made in Japan. Kudos to the team at JRWC who put this wine together — but Mr. Nakane also deserves a huge amount of credit for taking an abandoned field and turning it into a Chardonnay “gold mine.”
By the way, those are the Nakane’s dogs on the label, which was designed by local artist, Ayumi Shojima — it was the first thing that caught Jim’s eye as he was on the lookout for a delicious wine with a good story!
Price: 2950 yen;
Available directly from the winery online
Mille Beaute Merlot 2020
Good Merlots are if anything more difficult to produce than Chardonnays in Japan, but again clearly excellent teamwork between Mr. Nakane and the winemaking group at JWARC has helped take this Merlot to the next level. The wine has a brilliant red color and a fragrant nose. While fruit predominates among the flavors, there is also a leavening hint of leather. Alcohol is just 12 percent and that normally flags concerns about the ripeness of the grapes — but there is no hint of the vegetative off-notes that often spoil the work of inexperienced winemakers in Japan. Mr. Nakane reports in his bottle notes that the weather was good at harvest and that he was able to achieve good sugar levels for the grapes. The tannins in this wine are limited. It is ready to drink now and will pair nicely with dinner on a summer evening when you want to have a fruity red wine but don’t need the headache from a heavily alcoholic drink.
Price: 3200 yen
Available directly from the winery online