October 2022 Wine Recommendations

Gloomy Weather in Kurohime, Nagano

We are opening with this dreary video (click the screen to play) of a rainy October 8 morning in Nagano so as to give a real time glimpse of the challenges to producing good wine in Nagano. This year, we had record snowfalls in Nagano, cool weather in June and August that only rarely felt like summer–and cold, rainy weather throughout September and now into October . This video was taken around 9AM from our front porch: it was raining (you can see the puddles on the gravel driveway) and 10 degrees Celsius.

We do not have the heart to call over to our neighborhood vineyard, San Cousair, to even inquire when they will start harvesting their Merlot and Chardonnay grapes. Normally, it would be this week. And yet the long range forecast is no better for next week. So our friend and the winemaker at San Cousair, Akio Nomura, will have his work cut out for him. We were planning to join, but will likely sit this one out.

A related issue is what kind of wines to take up in this blog. Usually Fall is the time that we “graduate” from the Chardonnays, SB’s and other white wines and look for something that is red and hearty. We have a fire pit near our gazebo in the upper part of our ten acre forest and there is nothing better to ward off the evening chill than to stand around it with a glass of red wine in hand.

The problem is that all too often the red wine in our glasses comes from California or France. We have documented our thoughts on Nagano Merlots over the past few years and, while the vegetative flavors that are so off-putting have become less of an issue, finding the right moment to harvest Merlot is increasingly a matter of luck rather than science. Simply put, the weather in Japan in the Fall is not kind to grapes that ripen late on the vine.

So what to do? Not a few of the growers are starting to seriously take a look at grapes native to Japan (the so-called”yama-budo” (wild grapes)) and explore how they might be tamed enough to join a dinner party. This interest in “Japanese” grapes is not new: We have previously introduced the Suntory-run Iwanohara Winery (Japan’s oldest), which successfully created the Muscat Bailey A grape in the 1920’s through cross-breeding grapes native to Japan with those from the United States.

A separate stream of innovation in winemaking in Japan has sought to build on European and U.S. experience in the blending of the popular European varietals, such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Kerner, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly, this was the approach taken by US winemakers in the 1960’s and 1970’s as they tried to build market recognition and share for US-made wine in a market then dominated by imports from Europe.

With this a background, we decided to literally “roll the dice” and tee up a number of “red” Nagano wines for this month’s blog. We further complicated the mission by setting a 3000 yen limit for the wines that we would sample. You see, given the time and the money, deep-pocketed Japanese winemakers like Suntory, Chateau Mercian, and Manns can compete with anyone. Japanese wines over 15,000 yen (not all that expensive at the current exchange rate of nearly 150 yen to the U.S .dollar) can compete with “good” wines made elsewhere. The problem is what do they have for the average consumer who wants to knock off a few bottles with some friends over a weekend bbq.

We had to do a bit of digging in this area–and given the weather it seemed a bit like “Mission Impossible”. But in the end we surprised ourselves and maybe you. We are introducing three wines: one from Hirasawa Farm (but made by Sun Sun Winery, a small operation located in Shiojiri), one from Manns Winery (a subsidiary of Kikkoman) and a third from the Iwanohara Winery (owned by Suntory).

Hirasawa Farm Yama Sauvignon 2019

It is surprising to encounter in the 3000 yen price range a tasty, well made Japanese red wine with an alcohol level of 13 percent–no problem with the ripeness of the grapes here! The reason is that this Hirasawa Farm red is made from a hybrid of the native to Japan “yama budo” grape and the Cabernet Sauvignon grape that was developed by Yamanashi University in 1990. For some background see here.

But this is only part of the start of the story. Hirasawa Farm is exactly that; a farm that grows grapes, but does not make wine. This is where a popular sommelier, named Yutaka Takano comes in. Mr. Takano is a bit of a media personality, active in promoting Japanese winemaking from local grapes. In this instance, he brought together Hirasawa Farm with Hideo Togawa, currently the chief winemaker at the Sun Sun Winery (see: Jaime Goode’s review). Mr. Togawa is a legend within the Japanese wine industry, having worked for many years as the head winemaker for Chateau Mercian. His tenure at Sun Sun Winery (which is owned by an elderly care and insurance conglomerate) is a retirement gig. The wine we review here is a product of his collaboration with Hirasawa Farm and we think that they may be on to something,

The traditional rap against “yama sauvignon” is that its high sugar content, which can reach 45-50 percent, makes it too sweet (relegating it to being a dessert wine) and that the “leafy” flavor characteristic of the grape can leave the wine with a vaguely “vegetative” taste akin to unripe European grapes. We detected a bit of this in our first tasting, but it dissipated once the wine had been appropriately decanted. The wine has the slightly rusty red color of the Asian vitis cognetiane grapes, which are half its heritage. The strongest flavor note is cherries with a hint of dark prunes.

But, there is also a refined not overbearing sweetness, which moves this wine out of the cocktail wine category and into something that you might like to enjoy with a roast chicken or leg of lamb. Tannins are restrained at this point and it will be interesting to see how this wine may develop with age. An argument could be make that it will only get better as the “sweetness” associated with the “yama budo” grapes is increasingly balanced by the traditionally strong tannins of the Cabernet Sauvignon. This will be something to watch–and the price at current exchange rates of U.S.$19 a bottle makes it an easy choice.

Price 2750 yen; available online from the Sun Sun Winery

Manns Winery Chikumagawa Rouge 2021

Manns is one of the big three producers and, as such, makes a number of higher priced wines in the over 10,000 yen class that are quite excellent–to the point that they are served when Japan wants to put its best foot forward in greeting foreign dignitaries. See: 2016 G-7 Summit Wine List. The problem is that many of Mann’s lesser wines are not as good.

That is why when we encountered Mann’s Chikumagawa Rouge for 2500 yen (U.S.$18) we were immediately a bit suspicious. Further raising our eyebrows was that this is a new wine (not part of the established Solaris brand) and is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, a type of Bordeaux blend without the Cabernet Franc, Malbec or Petit Verdot, but also a blending of two red grapes that are both susceptible to bad weather during harvest. In fact, Cabernet Sauvignon is even more problematic than Merlot.

So why blend these two problem children and what was the result? We don’t know the answer to the first question, but the second is a surprise: at the price point offered, this is an unqualified success. At 13.5 percent, the alcohol level is exceptionally high, indicating that the grapes used were ripe with good sugar levels. The wine’s color is a pleasing ruby red and the taste is of raspberries and cherries. The bottle notes also mention licorice and a herbal flavor. We detected these in the first glass (and didn’t like it), but things settled down after the bottle was properly decanted. The tannins were not noticeable–but the wine is young and the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes may stiffen its spine as the wine ages. We decided to order a second bottle from Manns online shop and lay the wine up in our cellar for some time. You should too.

Price 2500 yen; available online at Manns Winery

Iwanohara Winery Miyuki Hana 2021

In searching for that perfect Nagano wine, an argument might be made that we are looking in the wrong place. The point is that just across the border from Nagano in Niigata Prefecture can be found the Iwanohara Winery, the oldest winery in Japan that is now owned by its largest wine producer, Suntory. The winery mainly produces wines from Japanese hybrid grapes, such as Muscat Bailey A and Black Queen. These are hardy fruits that can survive the cold, snowy winters along the Sea of Japan and are ready for harvest both early and late in season neatly avoiding the typhoons and rainy season weather, which plague the European varietals that operate on a different schedule.

Their flagship Heritage series at 5000-7000 yen a bottle defines the category–but are frankly too jammy and sweet for our taste. Indeed, wineries in Nagano like ALPS have focussed their efforts to create a Muscat Bailey A that is lighter, more accessible and less expensive. Well, Suntory seems to have stole a march on them with “Miyuki Hana”.

The name, Deep Snow Flower, evokes the harsh yet beautiful climate of Niigata, but the taste has a restrained sweetness and is evocative of strawberries. You are not going to find tannins or any bitterness in this wine, but it goes down smooth and leaves you open to another glass. It is a red that pairs well with seafood and can form the base for a wine spritzer with sparkling water.

Suntory thinks that this could be among the first Japanese wines to develop a following abroad particularly among women and young people that do not drink wine regularly. Most recently, they tested the waters in Paris entering Miyuki Hana in the 2022 Concours Mondial Féminalise and came away with a Gold Prize from the all women jury. It also was served at the 2019 G-20 Summit in Osaka.

The winery is just about 20 kilometers from our home and only 10 km from the Nagano-Niigata border. For that reason alone, we are inclined to support this promising wine and hope that you will too.

Price 2500 yen; available online from the Iwanohara Winery

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