This blog is published by the Friends of Nagano Wines and can be viewed online at friendsofnaganowine.com
Togakushi (Hidden Door) Ridge Line viewed from atop the Togakushi Ski Area
When not skiing (or playing golf), we have been contributing monthly to the friendsofnaganowine.com blog for four years! Our first piece was uploaded on January 31, 2019. And over this period a lot has changed in Japan and the world. We won’t go down the rabbit hole to document and evidence this point. But we will note that our first blog focused on a tasting and interview with the owner of one of Japan’s major independent wineries, Shigeyuki Kusunoki of the Kusunoki Winery. And coincidence or not, we will be attending in February a tasting hosted by Mr. Kusunoki of his new wines in Tokyo. It marks the first time since the start of the pandemic that Jim has travelled from Nagano to Tokyo for a tasting. Indeed, Jim’s last tasting in Tokyo was the (until then) annual Nagano wine festival, which took place at the Imperial Hotel in February 2020.
So with things seemingly returning to “normal”, we thought it might be a good moment to start a new tradition. This blog has been about a lot more than simply tasting and recommending Nagano wines. Jim has used it as well to comment on broader social and economic trends in Japan. As a former diplomat, academic and corporate public affairs type, he cannot help himself. But since you mainly read it with an eye to what you might drink this evening, we thought that as a “new” New Year’s tradition, we might draw from our tastings and recommendations over the past year to create a list of “best of Nagano wines”. And in thinking about it, we decided avoid a “top ten” list of Nagano wine–but rather offer up a more eclectic lineup organized around some of the themes that we opined on over the past year. Let’s get started!
Best Place to Drink Nagano Wines
Unfortunately, good wine restaurants are few and far between in Nagano. So where do you go? Well, hands down, the top choice is the Tomi Wine Chapel (sounds like a religious cult or a wedding venue)! Tomi City prides itself as being the “wine capital” of the Chikumagawa Valley and the “Chapel” and its wine list is a strong argument for this. See our February-March 2022 blog entry.
Mariko at Tomi Wine Chapel in Tomi City, Nagano
Best Large Winery
Nagano is host to all four of the major winemakers in Japan: Suntory, Chateau Mercian (run by Kirin Brewery Company), Manns Wine (owned by Kikkoman) and Grande Polaire (owned by Sapporo Breweries). These companies make a large range of wines from those destined for supermarket shelves and those to be featured at gatherings of the G-7 countries in Japan. Each has the resources to make extraordinary wines — but they come at a price well over 10,000 yen, which is outside the purview of this blog or Jim’s wallet. So, in this category, we want to see what they can do for under 3000 yen. And the nod goes to Manns Winery, which came out this year with two new very competitively priced wines, Chikumagawa Rouge and Chikumagawa Blanc. See our October 2022 blog write up.
Manns Winery in Komoro, Nagano
Best New Small Winery
This is a crowded category. Outside the Big Four, wineries in Nagano are generally QUITE small with production in many cases under two barrels — about 500 bottles. Overall numbers are hard to come by, but we would guess that there are 100 or more of these boutique operations — with new ones launching every few months. Almost all the smaller wineries are essentially labors of love. But another distinguishing characteristic, which goes quite beyond the taste of the wines they produce, is the inventiveness and personalities of the winemakers, who can range from the quite young to the retired. The quality of the wines really varies and one year’s home run can be next year’s strikeout. As our first ever best small winery choice, we want to recognize Wa Yawata, a winery in the Shiojiri area that released two excellent white wines this past year: a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay. The owner, Kiku Watanabe, formerly ran a boutique in Kyoto before buying a vineyard in Nagano from a farmer, who had planted the vineyard 30 years before to supply Suntory’s winery in Shiojiri City. See our July 2022 blog report.
Wa Yawata Winery and Kiku Watanabe in Shiojiri City, Nagano
There are many very good winemakers in Nagano. Among the most respected (and our favorites) are Tomoo Tamamura, Hideo Togawa, Shigeyuki Kusunoki, Akihito Kido, Yasuyuki Yumoto, Soga, and Mitsuhiro Tsubota — and there are more to be mentioned. So, choosing the “best” winemaker for this year is more subjective than objective. But we decided on Mitsuhiro Tsubota from the Votano Winery. Mariko and Jim had a great visit and tasting at his Winery in February 2022 and in the years that we have written this blog we have seen his wine go from good (drinking his Merlot Ai was among the motivations for Jim in helping launch Friends of Nagano Wine) to not so good (largely the problem of unripe grapes which are a general problem for the industry in Nagano) and now to even great. See our February-March 2022 blog about a visit to his winery.
Votano Winery Owner Mitsuhiro Tsubota with Mariko
This may seem like a crazy category, but the labels on Nagano wine over the period of this blog have gone from “blah” to “wow”. Japanese culture is steeped in tradition and history, but there is also a playful dimension along with a love for surprise in their graphic arts that draws on the postwar phenomena of “manga”. Over the past few years, the labels on Nagano wines have literally competed for attention with the wines themselves. And, in 2022, we saw a deepening and maturing of this trend. Our favorite labels are from Viniqrobe Winery with Mille Beaute Winery a close second. Take a look:
Four Wines with Amazing Labels
Best Red Wines
Yes, you had to read down to here to find our recommendations on wines! We have an excuse: we sampled over 50 Nagano wines this past year and liked (indeed loved!) many of them. At the same time, wine in Nagano is still an unfolding story and the industry has a long ways to go. As we have documented over the course of years, there are challenges with the weather, landholding policies, the short and shallow history of wine drinking in Japan, and the literal “tsunami” of inexpensive foreign wines that have swamped Japan since the reduction of tariffs on imported wines. Moreover, as we noted above, while Japan has the technical capacity to produce very good wines, these often come at a price. It is a big statement, but red wines worth drinking in Japan generally are priced in the 5,000 to 10,000 yen price range. Click for the reviews in our monthly blogs for our top red wine choices:
Grand Polaire Azumino Ikeda Pinot Noir 2018
Obuse Winery Cabernet Franc and Tannat 2019
Best White Wines
Sake is a popular beverage choice in Japan and, given the range of dry to floral qualities of that drink, one might think that white wines would rank well among Japanese consumers. However, white wines like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have faced challenges in gaining a wide following. The reason: the weather is not a friend — both grapes tend to mature just at the onset of the fall rainy season reducing their sugars and consequently alcohol contents. There also seems to be a cultural predisposition that wines as a foreign import should be red (after all the first most widely popular wine in Japan was produced by Suntory — its name was Akadama Red). This all said, we found some very nice white wines this year: check out this list on our blog by clicking each wine:
Izutsu Winery Barrel-Aged Chardonnay 2019
Best Japanese Varietal Wines
The search for the “Holy Grail” of Japanese wine was alive and well in 2022. The motivation for the quest is to find a Japanese grape (actually a hybrid of grapes native to Japan collectively called “yama budo” (mountain grapes)) and foreign varietals. The best known hybrids of these are marketed as Muscat Bailey A and Ryugan wines. Among the wines using these grapes, the two we liked the best this year are Hirasawa Farms Yama Sauvignon and Iwanohara Winery Miyuki Hana. See our October 2022 blog report.
Best Price Performance
Yes, we saved the best for last! What wines were sweet to our wallets as well as to our palates. This category is especially important in the Nagano context. As we observed above, the major wineries in Japan can make world-beating wines — but at what price? But this year, as mentioned above, Manns Winery came out with two very competitively priced wines, a Merlot and a Chardonnay, at 2750 yen a bottle. Not be outdone, Izutsu Winery put out three interesting Merlots sourced from three vineyards with varying terroir (Iwadehara, Naraigawa, and Kikyogahara) within the borders of Shiojiri City and priced them at 2500 yen a bottle. See our September 2022 blog round up.