February / March 2023 Wine Review

Kusunoki Wine Tasting In Tokyo (Jim, Shigeyuki Kusunoki, and Chris Lafleur)

The two months since our last blog have gone by quickly. The above picture was taken February 6 at a wine tasting hosted by winemaker and good friend, Shigeyuki Kusunoki. The event took place at the Hotel Edmont Metropolitan in Itabashi and was packed with wine retailers and wholesalers as well as restaurant owners. The mood was upbeat and the winemaker did not disappoint. We counted some 32 wines on the tasting menu — all from Kusunoki Winery with vintages ranging from 2014 to 2022. The assembled wines reflected Mr. Kusunoki’s winemaking skills (honed at Adelaide University in Australia) and the journey he has embarked on to find grapes and wines that are best suited to Japan’s terroir and its unique cuisine.

Wine tastings have generally been on hold since the onset of the pandemic in late February 2020. In fact, the last one Jim attended was on February 10, 2020 at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. It was the annual “Nagano Wine Festival” organized since 2014 by the Nagano prefectural government and featuring winemakers big and small from across the prefecture. The goal is not just to showcase Nagano wines, but also to bring the industry together to share resources and experiences. The event was cancelled in 2021, convened online in 2022, and this year held at the Metropolitan Hotel near the central railway station in Nagano City.

In some respects, the Kusunoki Winery event signaled a tentative but positive step toward normalcy. And you could see it in the faces of those attending — that everyone was glad to be back drinking new wines and regaining some of the momentum and energy that was a distinctive characteristic of the wine business in Nagano. Long time readers may recall that the first winery in Nagano that Jim and Mariko visited was the Kusunoki Winery in 2018. It was what sparked our interest in the possibilities for Nagano wine and opened up for us a whole new dimension to living in Nagano.

So how was the wine? As always, we really liked the white wines from Kusunoki Winery. You may recall that we named his 2020 Kusunoki B, a Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend, one of our 2022 wines of the year. It is a great bargain at 4000 yen. We also quite enjoyed his 2020 barrel-aged Chardonnay again at 4000 yen. In fact, we liked it a bit more than the “special cuvee” from the same vintage that is on the market for 11,000 yen! Among the red wines, we call attention to the Muscat Bailey A 2018, which won a 2022 Sakura wine award in the Japan wine category. It is VERY reasonably priced at 2000 yen. Rounding out the list is a Pinot Noir 2020 Reserve. At 6000 yen, it is a bit out of our normal price range, but it is a good example of the potential for Pinot Noir in Japan. All of these wines and more are available from the Kusunoki Winery website.

This month, we are reviewing two wines from another winemaker, who like Mr. Kusunoki, we have known for many years and have written about his wines extensively. Manabu Yagasaki is the owner of ALPS Winery and the CEO of ALPS, a company founded in 1927 in Shiojiri City that produces not only wine but a wide variety of fruit juices that it markets along with many of its wines in supermarkets. Over the years, we have particularly liked the Sauvignon Blanc and the Syrah wines that ALPS has released at the very reasonable price point of 2700 yen. We have been less enthusiastic about the Merlots. That is why we got excited when we came across a 2017 ALPS Merlot Limited Edition at the Shinshu Kuraudo sake and wine shop inside Nagano Station. Kuraudo has a nice bar for sampling Nagano sake and wines as well as a very representative selection of wines from around the prefecture. Pro note: the best wines can be found in the large cooler close by the register.

If you go to the ALPS online shop, you quickly get a sense of the scale of their operations and the many price points at which they market their products. ALPS wines are always very prominent in supermarkets and take up a large corner of Kuraudo. They sell five grades of Merlot starting from Musee du Vin Shiojiri Merlot (2200 yen), Musee du Vin Maestro Shiojiri Merlot (3000 yen), Musee du Vin Dynastie Shiojiri Merlot (3500 yen), Musee du Vin Limited Shiojiri Merlot (5000 yen) and the Lique 1 (8000 yen). The 2017 Limited Edition is sold out online, which is why we were delighted to stumble upon it at Kuraudo. ALPS sources its grapes from its own vineyards as well as from contract farmers. We were privileged a few years back (before the pandemic!) to visit the wine operations and walk the fields, which are close by the Naraigawa that affords the micro-climates and gravelly soil that makes for the winery’s good wines.

ALPS Musee du Vin Limited Shiojiri Merlot 2017

Deep, dark inviting red color; excellent nose and the rich taste of currants and ripe red cherries. The rolling tide of flavors continues through the palette where the finish is rich and lingering with nicely developed tannins announcing their presence. This is the taste of a Nagano Merlot, and it evidences that when a good harvest ( 2017 and 2018 were surely that!) meets up with the experience and resources to make excellent wine (and ALPS certainly has this), you can expect (and indeed) demand great wine from wineries in Nagano at a globally competitive price. This wine thus joins a small, but growing group of Nagano Merlots that we think represent the best (and hopefully the future) of wine in the prefecture. They include Votano Merlot Ai 2018, Chateau Mercian Mariko Merlot 2017, Inishie no Sato Kuniko Cuvee 2018, and Solaris Juventa 2018. See our reviews of these wines in past editions of this blog. Check with the wineries and on Amazon/Rakuten Wines for online availability. Cost is generally between 4500 and 5500 yen (that’s around US$40 a bottle!).

Price: 5000 yen; available at Kuraudo Nagano Station

ALPS Musee du Vin Shiojiri Syrah 2021

Color is a bit light and the nose somewhat weak. The typical spice and pepper flavors of a Syrah wine are quite muted. There are no off-flavors, but there is less of the jammy feel on the tongue and the pleasantly prickly sensation on the palette that was found in the 2019 and 2020 vintages, which we have written about previously in the blog. Despite these weaknesses, the price (2750 yen) compared to the Nagano Syrah’s that we have considered very good (Votano Winery (2019) and Chateau Mercian Mariko Syrah (2017)), makes this wine a solid buy when you just want something simple and easy-going: Jim and a good friend opened and finished the bottle over a nicely lubricated conversation on the front porch last weekend. What more can you ask from a wine?

Price: 2750 yen; available online from the winery

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