September and October are not surprisingly the best time for wines in Nagano. Why – because it is harvest season. And normally we would be gearing up to visit some of our favorite wineries to help with the picking and the sorting of the grapes as well as joining the picnics in the vineyards and sampling some of the just released 2020 wines.
Summer has come to Nagano – and we are enjoying a succession of warm, sunny days ranging up to 30 degrees Celsius and dropping in the evening to the low 20’s – an ideal diurnal range for Syrah grapes. As we noted before, the climate in Nagano is friendly to the Syrah grape and growers here are increasingly featuring this wine in their portfolios. Another reason may be that the wine produced from the Syrah grape in Nagano agrees better with Japanese sensibilities. It is light, fruity and hints of Japan’s local pepper, “sansho”. The contrast with California, Spain and Australian Shiraz wines can be quite stark.
Probably one of the largest obstacles to the growth of the Nagano wine industry is the challenge of producing wine at scale with the consequent ability to bring it to the local market at prices competitive with producers from Australia, California, Europe, and others. While tariffs remain on imported wines, they are slated to decrease over the next several years and the top level for the United States and Europe is currently just 15 percent and Australia only 4 percent.
Yorozuya, our favorite wine shop, has surprised us again with wines from smaller wineries that underscore the continuing growth, diversity, and vitality of the wine industry in Nagano. Reflecting this, we will also be providing links to two new online shop sites that were recently launched in the prefecture and feature Nagano wines exclusively, providing a platform for smaller wine makers to reach out to a broader slice of the wine-drinking market and to serve as an entry portal for, particularly, young people in Japan who are increasingly interested in visiting Nagano and other wine destinations in Japan to taste the local product. This is an important demographic shift from an older generation that enjoys wine but sees it as a “foreign” (French, Australian, American) product.
Amidst the more hopeful news about the pandemic, we keep on thinking that Spring is just around the proverbial corner. Yet the cold weather and more than occasional sleet remind us that the warm weather never really settles into Nagano until mid-May. There is one sure sign of Spring in Nagano though and that the release of a new vintage of wines. And among the most welcome (and hard to get!) are the red and white blended wines crafted by Akihito Kido at his boutique 4.5-acre winery in Shiojiri City.
This month we are continuing what we did in March and going back to check the recent offerings from wineries that we have liked in the past. The wineries we selected are the Obuse Winery run by the iconoclastic Akihito Soga and the Chateau Mercian Mariko Vineyard, which is operated by the Kirin Brewery Corporation.
Recently, we have been featuring boutique winemakers in Nagano spurred on by our local wine shop, Yorozuya, which takes pride in finding new wine makers and showcasing their products. But for this month, we decided to circle back and look at what three winemakers we have visited and written about previously are doing. What we found is that the three winemakers that we “liked” in the past are now creating wine that we really “like.” It is as if a corner has been turned—and much more quickly than we had expected.
We welcomed the New Year in Nagano with more than abundant snow. Quite a contrast to the previous year when the weather was generally warm and any precipitation usually took the form of rain. Needless to say, the pandemic has been a dark cloud on most everything – except our favorite pastime, which is to sit in front of our wood-burning stove holding a glass of wine with our young German Shepherd sleeping comfortably by our side.