Fall in Kurohime, Nagano
We began our blog last month with a gloomy rainy scene from the front porch of our home in Kurohime. So, it is only fair to show what a difference a month makes. And Jim would match up a Kurohime fall afternoon in November with the finest days in the woods of New England or the forested hills of the Ardennes in Belgium — both of which we have enjoyed many times. That said, sunny, brisk November weather in Nagano comes too late for the grapes — which are harvested in October. The irony is that nothing goes better with a beautiful fall day in Nagano (or anywhere for that matter) than a nice glass of Merlot. So, we will be introducing three of these in this month’s blog.
The first two come from the Manns Winery in Komoro, Nagano and are marketed under the brand name, Solaris. We touched on this last month in introducing Mann’s Chikumagawa Rouge, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which was brought to market this year for the first time at a very reasonable price point — and for that reason may NOT have been marketed under the Solaris label. This obviously leads to the question of whether the higher priced Solaris red wines are worth the money. We chose two Solaris reds this month to look into this question.
A third Merlot candidate comes from the Votano Winery run by our friend Mitsuhiro Tsuruoka. We think that he makes some of the best Merlots in Nagano (and maybe in Japan) and does so at a price point that fits neatly between the two Solaris offerings. Like Manns wine (and frankly most of the wineries in Nagano), Tsuruoka-san has had trouble ensuring that the grapes he selects for his Merlots (both from his own vineyard and from contracted farmers in the area) are as ripe as possible under the weather conditions. This has led to some variability in the quality of the wine that he produces — and we were eager to see how his recent offering fares.
Solaris Juventa 2018
Manns Winery evidently took some care in putting together this wine. It was laid up in French Oak barrels for 20 months. This is nearly a “millennia” in terms of Japanese wines where the mean is less than six months and where consumers in this price range tend to buy “new” wines rather than those from earlier vintages. Thus, a bottle released in 2022 is thought to be necessarily better than one (as in this case) from 2018. People that know wine “know” better, but for the average consumer the best loved wine is Beaujolais Nouveau — which is released with great fanfare in 7-11s and supermarkets across Japan just shortly after its November release in France.
As a result of the attention that Manns has given this wine, it is a REAL bargain. The wine has a deep purple color, an alcohol level of 13 percent and a delightfully fruity nose. The predominate flavors are so Merlot, i.e. currants and blackberries — piquant and yet sweet. The finish is smooth and lingering — demanding another sip and then another. And, evidencing the validity of Manns’ decision to hold this wine back for a while, the tannins are satisfyingly robust — again very unusual for a wine in this price range. Just two words to end this review: BUY IT.
Available online from the winery; price 4,400 yen
Solaris La Croix 2017
This wine is meant to make a statement: the color is deep purple; it was aged for 20 months in French oak barrels, and it has a massive (for Japanese wine) 14 percent alcohol. The lineage of the Merlot grapes from which it was made is impeccable: only grapes from the Higashiyama area of Ueda City (the center of the Chikumagawa Wine District) were used. Yet somehow this wine does not make it across the finish line. The typical fruit flavors of Merlot are present but not memorable; the tannins for a five year old wine are surprisingly soft; and the finish is flabby. At this price point, you should get a lot more for your money and that only deepens the frustration. This wine is simply too expensive and is not even in the same league as its much cheaper compatriot reviewed above. Nothing necessarily bad about this wine — but it is hard to point out something good.
Available online from the winery; price 7,700 yen
Votano Winery Merlot 2018
We have been a fan of Votano Winery for years — and Tsuruoka-san has hit a homerun with this wine, with no hint of the vegetative flavors that have sometimes disappointed us. But let’s provide some additional context. Generally, Japanese Merlots are weak in the four key areas that define for us a great Merlot: sweetness, acidity, alcohol, and tannins. And, of course, price also figures into the equation. So where does this Merlot fit in? This wine is intensely but pleasingly sweet with flavors of raisins and caramel. The alcohol level looks like something from Napa Valley registering at 15 percent. We have been tracking Nagano Merlots for nearly five years now — and this is the highest we remember. Moreover, this wine has a tangy almost burning acidity and quite robust tannins. It is really the complete package –and we will be hurrying down to our favorite wine shop, Yorozuya, to pick up a few more bottles for the holidays. If you think in dollars like we do, this is a 35 dollar wine that will be a perfect companion to your holiday Turkey. It graced our table at Thanksgiving. Nagano may never be California — but this wine comes pretty close.
Available online from the winery; price: 5000 yen