September 2022 Wine Recommendations

There is an old saying in English that “it is an ill wind that blows no good”. Clearly, the global pandemic, waxing climate change and the precipitous collapse of the post Cold War global order fit the description of an “ill wind”. But is there a “silver lining” in all this?

Not to pursue this metaphor too far, one “tail” wind in our narrow view of the world could be the recent rapid appreciation of the U.S. dollar and the related retreat of the Japanese yen from 115 yen at the start of this year to current (as we write) rate of 136 yen to the dollar. This is a nearly 20 percent cut in the value of the yen over the past eight months. And, if we look back ten years to 2012, when the yen dollar rate was a (startling!) 80 yen to a dollar., the value of the yen has depreciated nearly 50 percent against the dollar over the course of the past decade.

So what are implication of this for Nagano wine? Clearly, if you calculate the cost of local wine in U.S. dollars, it has become marvelously less expensive in the past six month. And, of course, wines from outside Japan since the trade is largely conducted in dollars have become significantly more expensive — and that includes Chile and South Africa!

We used to think that, despite the enormous efforts and obvious talent of Nagano’s wine makers, they were faced with an existential challenge from foreign winemakers, who for a variety of reasons (an expensive yen among them), could undercut the price of local Nagano producers with little or no impact on their actual margins. In fact, readers of this blog may remember that we were advocating for a reimposition of tariffs on foreign wines to nurture and protect the still small wine industry in Nagano — tariffs that Jim during his time as a U.S. diplomat had worked tirelessly to reduce and then eliminate.

Of course, it is difficult to make a business plan and invest based on fluctuations in the exchange rate. Yet, it is also true that there is now an opportunity for Nagano winemakers to offer their products to Japanese consumers on a more equal footing. A common (and repetitive) theme in this blog is that Nagano winemakers over the past decade have by and large produced a better product — and that the growth of the industry has been constrained to a considerable extent by the explosion in Japan of lower priced wines from almost everywhere. You cannot go to a local supermarket (even in Nagano!) and not be greeted by shelves of foreign wines selling for 600 to 800 yen. This kind of pricing is no longer possible — and more than comparable wines in terms of quality from “supermarket” wineries, such as Izutsu Winery and ALPS wineries in Nagano, are suddenly very competitive..

So with this in mind, we are going to introduce a number of lower-cost wines from Nagano winemakers. These are the kind of wines you open when you have no place to go and an evening date with Netflix. You definitely do not want something expensive, but you do want to avoid a wine that you leave unfinished after the first sip. We think the 2000 yen to 2500 yen range is the sweet spot. That comes out to around US$15-$18 a bottle at the current exchange rate..

For those, looking for something a bit classier, we advise looking back at the many very good wines that we have recommended in the past year or so and know that you can now get them at a 20 percent discount (in dollars!). This is a time to explore Nagano wines with your U.S. credit cards!

Kusunoki Winery Muscat Bailey 2018

Our good friend, Shigeyuki Kusunoki, was trained in Australia and made his mark on Nagano wines by producing an excellent series of white wines, including the Hitakihara Chardonnay, that we tasted at our virtual wine tasting in May 2020. But today we are writing about a wine produced from the quintessential Japanese grape, the Muscat Bailey A. Readers of this blog know that we feel a bit like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick constantly searching for a truly good red wine made from grapes native to Japan. Well, it may be a winemaker educated in Australia who has unlocked the secret. We were attracted to his wine since it received the Sakura Wine Japan Double Gold Award 2022 (thus, the awkward picture above — we wanted to show the award sticker on the bottle!).

The standard for a Muscat Bailey A wine has long been established and defended by the Suntory Iwanohara Winery, which has no real challengers, although the 2000 yen price for this award-winning wine is very attractive (the Suntory wine is 5000 yen!). So how does it taste? We found the Kusunoki wine escaped the sometimes cloying, overly sweet flavors of less well-made Muscat Bailey wines. Indeed, cranberries was a dominant flavor. The wine was fresh and piquant. Tannins were, of course, limited (it’s not that kind of red wine) — but the wine had a full fruity finish that was tart and refreshing. It also reminded us of some of the darker Pinots that we have drank recently — a surprising comparison! It is all a matter of taste — but Mr. Kusunoki’s wine making craft demonstrates that Muscat Bailey A’s are not condemned to cloying sweetness. Alcohol is 12 percent. This grape unlike European varietals ripens early and does not exhibit the vegetative off-flavors that are the bane of most Japanese reds.

Price: 2200 yen;; available online from the winery

Izutsu Winery Merlot 2021 (Iwadarehara, Naraigawa, Kikyogahara)

We have introduced wines produced by the Izutsu Winery a number of times in this blog. Generally, we have been pleased by their price/performance, but overall this has been a second tier winery, i.e. not in the same league as the larger producers and not meeting the (albeit quirky) excellence of some smaller producers. In general, Izutsu has made its money selling largely to the “supermarket” crowd. See for example our October 2020 review of 2019 Izutsu Merlot. But something different may now be afoot.

Recently, Izutsu, in a departure from the past, released three new Merlots from the 2021 harvest, each with a geographic designation within the Kikyogahara Wine District, which is centered around Shiojiri, Matsumoto and Azumino cities. They are: “Iwadarehara”, “Naraigawa” and “Kikyogahara”. Iwadarehara and the area around the Naraigawa River are located within the Shiojiri city area and noted for their Merlot production. “Kikyogahara” references grapes sourced from the district as a whole.

The results are mostly encouraging. We sampled all three and not surprisingly liked Iwadarehara the best with Naraigawa (pictured) a close second. Both sported 13 percent alcohol with a deep sparkling red color and flavors of cassis, currants and blackberries. These are young wines but with nice, emergent tannins in the finish. The Kikyogahara was less appealing. The wine was thin and came with an annoying vegetative aftertaste, suggesting that the grapes came from farmers contracted to Izutsu throughout the district rather than from vineyards operated directly by the winery (alcohol is at 12 percent). This is a common quality issue for the larger operators given the uneven weather conditions during the fall harvest season.

Price: 2500 yen; available online from Rakuten (although we bought our bottles at Yorozuya, our local wine store, for just under 2000 yen)

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