December 2022 Wine Review

Winter comes to Kurohime, Nagano

The snow has arrived at our home on the slopes of Mount Kurohime in Nagano. And this is just the first taste of what promises to be a long and very snowy winter. But that is why we have lived here for over a decade. And there really is nothing better than to sit beside our wood-burning stone and sample some local Nagano wines for inclusion in our monthly blog. This time, we are winding the clock back to the start of the pandemic in the Spring of 2020 when the rapid spread of the virus in Japan forced us to cancel plans for a series of wine-tastings and a wine dinner that we had planned for Friends of Nagano Wine in the Tokyo area.

For the first event in May 2020, we “zoomed”in on our good friend, Shigeyuki Kusunoki, who spoke to us from his wine cellar at the vineyard. And for the second event, in September 2020, we invited the viticulturist, Daisaku Ikeda, who is from the Azumino Ikeda vineyard of the Sapporo-owned winery that produces Grande Polaire, as our virtual speaker and guide. You can find a description of the programs and our comments on the featured wines at these links: Kusunoki Winery Virtual Tasting and Sapporo Grand Polaire Wine Tasting.

It is hard to believe that more than two years have elapsed since these programs. And for that reason to close out 2022, we thought that we might circle back to these two wineries and do an in-house tasting of wines available online that you might want to share your New Year’s table with. It also provided a good chance to reconnect with Kusunoki-san, who it turns out is hosting a wine-tasting program in Tokyo in February, which Jim may attend — the first one that he has joined since the onset of the pandemic. Maybe at long last there is some light at the end of this long tunnel!

Kusunoki “B” 2017

The “B” following the character for “Kusunoki” on the label is NOT meant to be the score that we give this wine — we like it a lot! And not just for its flavor, but also because it may open a new opportunity for Japanese white wines. Typically, the white wine menu in Japan begins with Chardonnays and ends with Sauvignon Blanc. No necessary problem here — but the quality of the Chardonnays produced in Nagana is more than sometimes marred by the sour taste of under ripe grapes while the Sauvignon Blanc have a grassy, mineral taste that mimics the Marlborough SB’s from New Zealand but not always in a good way. Of course, the solution for the latter in France has been to blend Sauvignon Blanc with the sweet Semillon grape. This is also a practice in Australia, where Kusunoki-san, studied winemaking, and the results from the Margaret River area have been noteworthy. So how does this wine measure up? In a word, “wonderful”! Kusunoki-san barrelled this wine for two years after blending and the result is a sweet, luscious wine leavened with the minerality that is increasingly becoming a trademark of Japanese SB’s. Alcohol level is 11 percent and the Semillon neatly ameliorates any off flavors.

Price: 3500 yen; available online from the winery

Two Grande Polaire Merlots from Sapporo’s Winery

Grande Polaire Nagano Furusato Merlot 2019

A wine starts with a “nose” and this Merlot literally stumbles at the gate — which is a long way from the finish line. The aroma of the wine is only faintly inviting — and it sets you up for more disappointment along the way. This failing is balanced somewhat by the bright, clear red color of the wine in a glass. Yet the flavors are simply not as advertised (raspberries, cassis, and cocoa). None of this is completely surprising. Merlot grapes mature late in the season and there was a lot of rain in October 2019 — although the label states that the grapes were harvested in the August-September timeframe. A contributing factor might be that the grapes used in the wine come from Grand Polaire’s Furusato vineyard located near Nagano city rather than the better known Azuminoikeda vineyard. We very much liked the 2018 Merlot from this vineyard that was on the program at the 2020 wine tasting, which we co-hosted with the Grande Polaire Winery during the pandemic.

Price: 3850 yen; available on Amazon

Grande Polaire Azumino Ikeda Pinot Noir 2018

We paid a bit more for this bottle, but the additional 1500 yen allowed us to check off some of the issues that tripped us up with the “furusato” Merlot above. The grapes were harvested in 2018 (one of the best recent years for Nagano wines); the source for the grapes (the Azuminoikeda vineyard) was prominently featured on the label, and the alcohol level was a healthy 13 percent. That said, we were tasting a “Nagano” Pinot Noir — which rarely meets our expectations. But (bottomline alert!), we were pleasantly surprised by this Pinot. It starts with the dark cherry color and a fruity, sweet nose, continues with hints of blueberries and strawberries and the contrasting earthy scent of dry leaves, and finishes up with a light dose of tannins. For those of you who read this blog in time — this is a perfect wine to go with your traditional Japanese New Year “o-sechi”. It is sweet enough to complement a range of Japanese New Year’s fare (which normally is paired with o-sake) and yet dry enough that you will want another glass.

Price: 5500 yen; available on Amazon

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