Nagano wine region, Japan (6) - Manns Wines Komoro Winery

Manns wines is owned by soy sauce producer Kikkoman, and there are two sites. This, the Komoro Winery, is where the proper Japan wines (the legal term for wines made solely from Japanese-grown grapes) are produced, including the prestige Solaris range. The other site is the Katsunuma Winery in Yamanashi, where some cheaper wines are made that aren’t just based on Japanese grapes.

We visited with Dai Shimazaki, President and CEO. Dai studied in Bordeaux, and thus has an international perspective. The Komoro winery receives about 100 tons each year, and this is a 50:50 split between contract and own grown.

Old Chardonnay vineyard, with lyre trellising

We just tasted the Solaris wines, which are the high end wines from this region. These are classically styled, well made wines.

The garden at Manns Wine Komoro

The century old Zenkoji vine

The winery has a beautiful garden, including a century old Ryugan (aka Zenkoji) vine, which is a Chinese variety a bit like Koshu, with big bunches of big, pink berries. Near the winery there’s also a plot of old Chardonnay vines that are used to make their top Chardonnay.

The Chardonnay vineyard with the rain protection system that’s applied from August onwards, to protect the grapes from the seasonal rainfall that can cause disease problems

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Methode Traditional Brut Chardonnay 2009
100% Chardonnay, disgorged August 2017, no oak. Zero dosage. Crisp and focused with bright lemony fruit and good acidity. Very tight with a subtle nutty, slightly honeyed hint on the mid palate. Dry and focused with nice fruit presence. 88/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Method Traditional Chardonnay Barrel Fermented 2008
Disgorged November 2017, no dosage. This has a strong cedar/woody character from the barrel. The acidity is prominent and it’s really nicely focused, but the wood character is getting in the way a bit. 86/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Unoaked Chardonnay 2017 (tank sample)
Crisp, stony and focused with bright citrus fruit. Lemony and stony with nice precision. Lean, flinty and delicious, showing lovely restraint. 88/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Sauvignon Blanc 2017 (tank sample)
First release was 2010 in the Solaris range. Stony, linear and bright with crisp citrus fruit. Very lemony with a nice mineral twist and good acidity. This is really lean and focused with a really nice balance. It has some presence, too. 89/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Shinano Riesling 2016
Developed in 1970, but the first release of this as a varietal wine was the 1991 in 1992. They wanted to maintain the aromatics of Riesling but make the vineyard practice easier, so this is a cross between Chardonnay and Riesling. This is delicate and pretty with nice citrus and pear fruit. There’s some tangerine and a bit of table grape, too. Pure and refreshing with nice acidity and focus: a light, expressive dry white. 90/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Shinshu Chardonnay 2016
A hot year and the grapes ripened rapidly, with low acidity in the beginning of September. Then it started raining and it became a very difficult vintage. This is quite nutty with some toast and butter notes as well as fresh, direct citrus and pear fruit. Refined and well made, but the oak is currently a little too high in the mix. Lovely acidity and fruit focus. 88/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Soralis Shinshu Komoro Chardonnay Barrel Ageing 2012 Richly aromatic toasty nose showing nuts, apples, spice and some citrus. The palate is very rich and broad with a strong mineral twist and plenty of toasty oak supporting the fruit. Quite old school in style but will delight lovers of rich oaky Chardonnay. 88/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Shinshu Komoro Chardonnay 2017 (barrel sample)
From the old vineyard, small production (5 barrels). One barrel is 500 litre, the rest barriques. Not made every year (for example, there was no 2016). Textured and classy with nice fine spiciness, a bit of bready character and lovely smooth but fresh pear, white peach and citrus fruit. This is superb: it has depth and focus at the same time. 92/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Juventa Rouge 2014
This is a second range of Solaris. This is a ‘young’ cuvée of 100% Merlot. Light, supple and a bit stony/gravelly with a savoury twist to the sweet, supple cherry and plum fruit. This shows elegance, restraint and drinkability, and tastes classically European. 89/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Shinshu Chikumagawa Merlot 2014
This is balanced and restrained with nice density of sweet cherry, plum and blackberry fruit, supported with good structure. There’s a bit of grip and some gravelly character. Nicely structured and poised, and very drinkable. Exemplary balance to this wine, combing sweet fruit and some non-fruit complexity. 92/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Shinshu Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
There’s a supple green edge to the perfumed fresh blackcurrant fruit. Nice weight and structure. Drinkable and digestible with some nice acidity and structure as well as focused fruit. The green notes are really nicely integrated. Has freshness and drinkability. Lovely purity. 91/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Shinshu Komoro Merlot 2015
Juicy, bright and focused with sweet berry fruits. Lively and pure with some tannic grip. Very lively with some grippy raspberry notes. This has a little flesh, but it also has bright, fresh fruit with nice grip. Berryish and delicious. 91/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Shinshu Higashiyama Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
Well drained soils in Ueda, where it is a bit warmer, at 500 m. There’s a brightness to this wine, with focused raspberry and blackcurrant fruit. Good structure provides some grip, countering the vivid, juicy, expressive fruit. Very stylish and with potential for future development. 92/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Kosyu Kousyu 2005 Yamanashi
Made from Koshu, kept for 10 years in tank under nitrogen. Some sweetness here, but also nice purity of citrus and unripe pear, as well as a bit of nuttiness. Good acidity. Some pithy notes on the finish. 84/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Shinano Riesling Dry 2016
This is bright and fresh, with a very pretty citrus character. Juicy and floral with lovely balance. Such a bright, appealing wine with crisp, slightly spicy citrussy fruit and good acid. Smells sweet but is dry. 88/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Shinano Riesling 2016
Made with sussreserve (25% juice added to the dry wine). Clean and focused with nice sweet citrus, table grape and pear fruit. Pretty and pure with nice focus and fruit quality. Pure. 89/100

Manns Wines Komoro Winery Solaris Shinano Riesling Cryoextraction 2017 (tank sample)
This is really good. Concentrated but not too intense, with lovely sweet citrus fruit together with some melon and apricot richness. This has lots of texture and weight and nice sweetness, together with good balancing acidity. Lovely purity here. 92/100

The wines of Te Pā, Marlborough, New Zealand

An aerial view showing the Wairau Bar, home to Te Pã

The MacDonald family were Maori farmers in the Wairau Bar area. Haysley MacDonald began planting grapes here in 2003, and were a major grower selling to large companies. But since 2011 they have been making their own wines, and production has grown as they’ve got more of their vineyard back from contracts.

The Wairau bar is close to the sea in the lower Wairau, and here the soils are fertile. It’s potato country, and ideally suited to making aromatic, high-thiol styles of Sauvignon Blanc, which is what most of the vineyard is planted to.

In addition to the Wairau Bar, which accounts for some 80% of production, they also have a new vineyard on the Alabama Road just out of town, near Lawsons Dry Hills, and a further vineyard in the Awatere (Redwood Hills, near Calrossie, just past the pass as you enter the Awatere). There’s also Thomas Road (a new vineyard) which is also lower Wairau.

Liam McElhinney and Haysley MacDonald

Te Pā operates on a reasonable scale: they now process 5000 tons per year, using three wineries: Pernod Ricard, Wither Hills and Mahi. But plans are to build their own winery. Winemaking is in the hands of Liam McElhinney, who as a childhood friend of Haysley’s and who has been here since the debut vintage in 2011. The wines are consistently good: I particularly liked the 2015 Pinot Noir, and the Oke shows quite a bit of potential.

Te Pā Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
Made at Mahi from the blocks that ripened early: the seaside block and Alabama, with a bit of Awatere. 10% barrel ferment. Highly aromatic and intense with tropical fruit, a touch of fig and some green pepper. Very lively and enticing. Concentrated and zippy on the palate with powerful citrus fruit and a grapefruit pith twist on the finish. High acidity. Really impressive with a big aromatic punch, and lovely considering the vintage. 90/100

Te Pā Oke 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Barrel-fermented Sauvignon, hand picked, whole bunch pressed, full soilds, wild yeast. From the home block. Powerful with nuts, spice and a touch of honey alongside textured citrus and pear fruit. Lovely harmony here, with the toasty, spicy oak meshing with the ripe fruit characters to produce a rich but balanced wine. 89/100

Te Pā Oke 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
This has a nice tight citrus core with subtle herbal hints, and very well integrated oak (moved to 300 litre cigar-shaped barrels away from barriques this vintage). It has good concentration and focus, with nice acidity. Notes of fennel and herb complement the citrus and pear fruit. 91/100

Te Pā Pinot Gris 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
From Redwood Hills vineyard in the Awatere. Full colour (1 h or so in machine picker bin). Lovely aromatic nose with some tangerine and white peach and grape. The palate has lots of flavour: it’s dry with nice grape and pear fruit, as well as a bit of spice and some acidity. Really captures the varietal character well. 90/100

Te Pā Pinot Gris 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
There was more hand picked fruit here, a bit of barrel fermentation and a bit of wild yeast. Delicate aromatics with lemons and tangerines as well as some smokiness and some grape. Lovely taut, fresh palate with some complexity. Dry with good acidity and notes of pear, grape and citrus. Nice weight, too. 91/100

Te Pā Chardonnay 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
This was from a contracted vineyard in the Brancott Valley. Hand picked, pressed to barrel with full solids, kept on lees until Christmas before it starts doing too much malo and then it’s sulphured and kept on lees. Compact and fresh with a delicious mealy richness. Has a bit of spiciness and texture with some nutty notes and a bright lemony finish. Really harmonious and focused. 91/100

Te Pā Rosé 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Pinot Noir from Omaka, hand picked, whole bunch pressed to tank. Pink with hints of orange. Nice texture here: there’s some sweet red cherry fruit with a bit of citrus and some pithy notes. There’s a bit of spicy warmth on the finish. 87/100

Te Pā Rosé 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
Pinot Noir from Omaka. 50% barrel fermented in old oak, the other half stainless fermented, then all blended to barrel. This has a nice sappy edge to the cherry fruit, with some herbal hints. Nice depth on the palate with a bright, juicy edge. Quite complex. 90/100

Te Pā Pinot Noir 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Made at Mahi, mixture of Omaka and Ben Morven fruit. 20% whole bunch. Sweet, supple and harmonious with attractive red cherry and plum fruit. There’s a nice smoothness to the texture on the palate, with some silkiness, but there’s also some spiciness and hints of earth and decaying leaves. Has nice grip and an appealing savoury twist. 93/100

Te Pā Noble Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
From Redwood Hills in the Awatere. 150 g/l sugar and high pH (3.8) and low TA (9 g/l). 10% alcohol. Slightly mouldy, herby edge to the nose. It’s sweet and a bit syrupy with apricot and honey notes. Finishes with lemon and herb notes. 83/100

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Nagano wine region, Japan (5) - Obusé Winery, Domaine Sogga

This is one of Nagano’s best producers. Domaine Sogga, also known as Obusé Winery, is based in Obusé and is run by Akihiko Soga (just the one ‘g’ in his name, but two in the domaine’s).

Akihiko Soga in one of his vineyards

Akihiko is clearly talented, and also nicely quirky. The winery is an old Japanese sake brewery that was founded in 1842. His father become interested in making cider: this area is famous for its apples. But it was his grandfather who had leanings towards wine. In the 1970s he planted vineyards with table grapes, and then later on, in 1996, he planted some Merlot in Takayima village.

Akihiko wanted to make wine, and graduated in enology and viticulture from the University of Yamanashi. He then went abroad and did a stage at Long Depaquit before returning to Japan in 1988. Since 2006 he’s been working with organics, and now there are 4 hectares certified organic out of the domaine’s 8 hectares.

The winery

Worried about the effects of climate change, Akihiko initially planted lots of different varieties such as sangiovese, petit manseng, kerner, tannat and barbera. Since then he’s given up a few of these and is more focused. He thinks that blends may be the way to go in the future – he doesn’t like adding sugar or acid, and this would be the natural solution, using the different varieties to balance each other out. All the whites are whole-bunch pressed.

These are very clean, well made wines with good density of flavour. The duplicate note are where I tried the wine on separate occasions on the trip.

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Albariño 2017
Very crisp and linear with a lovely stony, mineral edge to the laser-sharp citrus fruit, with some apricot and mandarin richer notes in the background. Lovely precision and keen acidity make this a really fresh wine. Nice purity to this wine. 90/100

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Vigne Sans Chimie Cinq Cépages 2017
Sauvignon, Pinot Blanc, Muscat and Riesling in the mix, although the blend depends on the year. Lovely pure fruit here: grapey and perfumed with nice stony pear and citrus fruit. There’s a slight smoky edge, and a bit of herb, too (mint and thyme). Very nice. 91/100

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Petit Manseng Sec 2016
First release of this was 2011. 2012-14 weren’t dry because of the high sugar levels (28,29 Brix), so this was made as a sweet wine. Herb and green tea edge to the nose. The palate shows wax, straw and nuts with apples, pear and some tea notes, as well as a faint hint of cheese. Really intense and vivid with lively acidity and a long, electric finish. This was harvested at 25 Brix with a TA of 14 g/l, pH 2.9, so malolactic was needed to calm the acidity down and it worked. Lovely stuff. 90/100

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Vins Sans Chimie Cabernet Franc Lieu Dit Murasaki Numéro Trois 2016
13 months in old oak only, whole berry fermentation, wild yeast. There’s a creamy, slightly spicy edge to the sweet berry fruits nose. It’s really polished, supple and textured with some oak showing at the moment alongside the sweet cherry and plum fruit. This is refined, classy and beautifully constructed. Give it a short while for the oak to integrate and it will be amazing. 92/100

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Vin Sans Chimie Cabernet Franc Lieu Dit Murasaki Numero Trois 2016
Lovely rounded sweet cherry and raspberry fruit here: this has texture and depth here. Lovely mouthfeel: there’s a purity of fruit, coupled with nice structure, and it’s really seductive. 92/100

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Vins Sans Chimie Merlot Lieu Dit Murasaki Numéro Quatre 2016
13 months in old oak only, whole berry fermentation, wild yeast. Fresh, fine and supple with bright cherry and raspberry fruit. Quite restrained with juicy acidity and a taut personality, but there’s enough generosity, too. Lively and focused with a citrussy edge. 90/100

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Vins Sans Chimie Cabernet Sauvignon Lieu Dit Murasaki Numéro Sept 2016
13 months in old oak only, whole berry fermentation, wild yeast. Harvested end of October/beginning of November. Juicy and berryish with nice freshness and a lovely blackcurrant core. Nicely integrated greenness here. Vivid and focused with some structure. Nice grip on the finish. Lovely wine. 92/100

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Vins Sans Chimie Merlot et Tannat Lieu Dit Murasaki Numéro Cinq 2016
He likes Tannat because of its low pH. 13 months in old oak only, whole berry fermentation, wild yeast. Co-planted in the same block and co-fermented, approximately 70% Merlot. Concentrated and dense with lovely black fruits. Good structure and weight here with lots of tannic structure. This has such freshness and structure: a really impressive wine with potential for development. 93/100

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Vin Sans Chimie Merlot et Tannat Lieu Dit Murasaki Numéro Cinq 2016
Concentrated and structured with dense black fruits and nice spiciness. Robust and tannic with a really appealing rich but fresh personality. Lovely wine. Good acid. 92/100

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Vins Sans Chimie Barbera Lieu Dit Murasaki Numéro Quatre 2016
Another variety with good sugar levels at low pH. Fresh and quite elegant with a subtle green hint to the fresh raspberry and cherry fruit. This has a fine herby twist and it’s really harmonious, with good acidity but also a smooth mid-palate. Very expressive. 92/100

Obusé Winery Domaine Sogga Vins Sans Chimie Petit Verdot 2015
Whole berry fermentation for 10 days without any punching down. Has some green hints here with a touch of herb and tar, as well as some sweet black fruits. Lovely fresh raspberry fruit on thbe finish with good structure. A little closed at the moment. Needs time to open out. 90/100

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Zephyr Wines, Marlborough, New Zealand

Ben Glover

I remember meeting Ben Glover years ago (in 2006), when he was working for Brent Marris at Wither Hills. This is where he established his reputation, and later he developed this as winemaker for Mud House. He left fairly recently and is now busy developing his family business, Zephyr.

The Glover family come from the Marlborough region. They were dairy farmers, but sold the business and quite a bit of land in 1985. They then planted the first vines on their Dillons Point property in 1988, just as Marlborough was beginning to take off. This Dillons Point property is now the basis of Zephyr. It’s a 27 hectare vineyard on some of the most expensive vineyard land in the region, in the lower Wairau, where it’s possible to get 20 tons/hectare of pretty good quality Sauvignon Blanc (hence the high land prices). The family also have another block, the Alice Mills block, in Rapaura. This is a 28 hectare vineyard and the Zephyr Pinot Gris comes from here. Zephyr also purchase some Pinot Noir from the Rawhiri vineyard, which is on the southern clays and is better suited to Pinot than the fertile lower Wairau.

Zephyr is owned by Ben and his brother Jack. They have bought half the vineyard from their parents, and they are converting it to organics: most is already managed organically. The portfolio here is what you might expect from a Marlborough winery, but there’s some geek interest with the MKIII (a reference to the Mark 3 Ford Zephyr that the winery is named after), which is an alternative style of Sauvignon Blanc. The Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir are also pretty interesting.

Zephyr Pinot Gris 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
First vintage was 2016. This has lovely texture with just a hint of sweetness and nice pear and spice notes. There’s a touch of tangerine with a delicate spicy complexity and some real Pinot Gris personality. Nice weight. 89/100

Zephyr Riesling 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
Lovely purity here: zippy and bright with direct citrussy fruit. Really nice acidity here with just a bit of sweetness (11 g/litre) balancing out the high acid. Linear and refreshing with lovely weight. Some pithiness on the finish. Distinctive. 89/100

Zephyr Gewurztraminer 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Didn’t do this in 2017: it never got off the vine. 2-3% add back of skin ferment down to 8 brix. Lovely texture here with a nice spiciness and some grape, rose petal and Turkish delight. Has a bit of grip under the smooth fruit. Really compelling with some sweetness on the finish. 91/100

Massey Dacta Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
A separate brand, meant to be more fun and frivolous. Very fruity and expressive with sweet melon and citrus fruit, with a juicy, vibrant personality. Some appealing greenness. Quite exotic, with lots of appeal, 88/100

Zephyr Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
Fresh and showing some nice restraint, with well integrated green notes and a mineral streak. There’s a lovely citrus core to this wine, and it has a savoury dimension. It’s not looking to be an exotic, tropical style, and it’s all the better for it. Very nice balance here. 90/100

Zephyr Chardonnay 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
15% new oak, puncheons, hand-picked. Juicy, lively and focused with a nice spiciness and some grapefruit and white peach. Very fresh with nice supporting spiciness from the well integrated oak. Lovely and very drinkable, with some brininess on the finish. 90/100

Zephyr MKIII 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
Alternative style of Sauvignon: hand picked from east/west rows, just the golden fruit on the northern side, with a view to losing the methoxypyrazine. Whole bunch pressed straight to barrel. Two barrels. Lovely intensity here with a slightly salty edge and some complex notes of nut and wax. There’s a lovely core of citrus fruit with real finesse and a lovely acid structure. There’s some fennel and straw, too. 93/100

Zephyr MKIII 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Three barrels. Concentrated and briney with lovely acidity. There’s a waxy, fennel complexity and a juicy lemony finish. Very expressive with a tangy finish. Give this a little time to settle down, and this should age really well. 92/100

Zephyr MKIII 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
Five barrels. Delicate and fine with lovely citrus core and some nettle, fennel detail. It’s pure and linear, more about the texture than the fruit. Grown-up Sauvignon blanc with a nice salty, slightly mineral finish. Lovely balance. 92/100

Zephyr Pinot Noir 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Rawhiri vineyard. Some whole bunch. Juicy and lively with nice spicy framing. Has a lovely sour cherry edge and some savoury chalkiness, as well as supple berry fruits. Vibrant with some nice structure and well integrated greenness. Supple and balanced with elegance and drinkability, but also a bit of grunt. 92/100

Mr Glover Pinot Noir 2015 Central Otago, New Zealand
From Bendigo. Juicy and lively with a slightly savoury twist to the sweet but balanced cherry fruit, with some warmth, nice texture, and a grainy, savoury edge. There’s a richness to this, but it avoids being heavy or too dense: it’s still very drinkable. Supple and juicy. 92/100

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Nagano wine region, Japan (4) - Kusunoki Winery

Shigeyuki Kusunoki

Shigeyuki Kusunoki started his vineyard in 2004, and then built his winery in 2011. This is a second career for Shigeyuki, who was a salary man for 20 years working in aircraft leasing. But he got bitten by the wine bug and decided to move back to his home town to make wine. The winery is nicely situated, surrounded by mountains in Suzuka City.

Currently he has 5 hectares and is expanding; this year it will be up to 6 hecatres. Around 40 tons go through the winery each vintage, resulting in an annual production of around 30 000 bottles.

Shigeyuki decided that he’d benefit from some study, so he did a winemaking degree at Adelaide University. He’s not from a farming family so had to start by renting land. ‘This area is very famous for table grapes and apples,’ he says, ‘so at first it was difficult to get land to plant vines. So I have 30 plots and each vineyard is very small, spread all over Suzuka city. At first it was very difficult to remember where they all were!’

His vineyards are a mixture of Smart Dyson trellising (he doesn’t like VSP), and some pergola too. ‘I try to get more sunlight on the leaves,’ he says.

I really like the wines, but Shigeyuki isn’t yet totally satisfied. ‘For whites the quality of the grapes are getting better every year, and each wine shows the varietal character,’ he says. ‘But for red wines, they show the grape character, but the colour is still light and the Cabernet Sauvignon lacks the strength it should have. For Pinot Noir the result is different every year.’

He likes soft, elegant wines so tries to avoid green characters in his reds. He keeps the grapes on the vines longer than usual, so the grapes can reach flavour ripeness. ‘It’s kind of a gamble: the longer I keep the grapes on the vines, the less acidity they have,’ he says. ‘The pH goes up and this is risky.’

Kusunoki Semillon 2017
10% alcohol. Delicate citrus fruit aromatics here. Taut and bright with high acidity and a lovely lemony precision. This is really lean with high acidity, but it has a delicacy and really attractive citrus fruits. Great precision here with some textural depth and fine green herbal hints. 90/100

Kusunoki Riesling 2017
12% alcohol. Lively aromatic limey nose. The palate has great intensity with keen acidity and lovely crisp lemon and lime fruit, together with some minty hints. Juicy, dry and vital with a slight nervousness around the edges. Lovely wine. 91/100

Kusunoki Kisho Sparkling Wine NV
Chardonnay, blend of 2013 and 2014. Matured on lees for at least 25 months (disgorged in batches). Rich, toasty, peachy nose with lively citrus and spice. On the palate this is bold and focused with nice citrus but also some richer apple, nut and spice characters. Lots of flavour here, but it isn’t heavy at all. Unusual and delicious. 89/100

Kusunoki Hitakihara Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2016
80% Sauvignon, designed to go well with Japanese food. Aromatic and textural with a rounded, slightly nutty edge to the tangerine and pear fruit. Has a smooth mid-palate. Midweight and mellow, this is very appealing. 89/100

Kusunoki Chardonnay 2015
This is rounded, smooth and textural with subtle mealy, vanilla notes from the barrel meshing well with soft white peach and lemon notes on the palate. Quite broad but still fine with nice delicacy. Really refined with a sense of harmony, but the oak needs to settle down. 92/100

Kusunoki Chardonnay 2014
This is pretty stylish with subtle nut and meal characters as well as pear and peach fruit. Really harmonious and appealing with good acidity. It’s a restrained, harmonious wine with a subtle personality. Lovely balance here. 93/100

Kusunoki Cuvée Speciale Chardonnay 2014
This was one barrel (twice used already) that was very different. This is very fine. It’s fresh and vivid with bright citrus and pear fruit, and also well integrated spicy oak characters, too, although they are very much in the background. Very fine and quite mineral with a lovely mouthfeel. Fresh but harmonious. Such a beautifully poised wine with lovely acid structure. 94/100

Kusunoki Pinot Noir 2014
Pale cherry red with some orange in the colour. Sweetly aromatic nose bringing together sweet cherry fruit with warm spices, herbs and a touch of undergrowth. The palate is sappy and quite savoury with a smoky, cedary, herby edge to the subtle, smooth cherry and berry fruits. Savoury and quite developed, but very nicely balanced and quite appealing, albeit in a distinctive style. Just ignore the colour. 91/100

Kusunoki Pinot Noir 2011
As yet unreleased because at the beginning it had too much tannin and oak from new barrels. Pale red with some orange/brick red. Has a very pretty, slightly malty, sweet cherry fruit nose. Quite developed. Structured and savoury with a grippy edge to the spicy cherry fruit on the palate. This has good acidity and weight, and it’s drinking well in this mature phase of its life. 90/100

Kusunoki Cuvée Speciale Cabernet Franc 2012
12% alcohol. Pale in colour. Fresh, supple and very elegant with some leafy/sappy notes alongside raspberry and red cherry fruit, together with some savoury spiciness. Juicy and supple with a slight sanguine character. This has fine delicacy, and is very attractive as a fresh, pretty expression of Cabernet Franc. Real finesse here. 92/100

Kusunoki Merlot 2015
Lively, assertive sweet berry fruit nose with a nice, bold fruity character. Has a slight herby, ashy twist with some herbal characters and a touch of earth. Sweet open, spicy berry fruits to the fore. Very open fruit here and lovely weight, but the palate doesn’t seem totally pure. 86/100

Kusunoki Merlot Cuvée Masako 2015
The vineyard here was planted on abandoned rice paddy. This means that it has a layer of clay, which can give a special character to the wines. This is beautifully fresh, fine, sappy and elegant with pure red cherry and blackberry fruit with a green edge, but with the green characters really nicely integrated. Harmonious and elegant with finely grained structure and good acidity. Delicate and expressive with lovely weight and freshness. 93/100

Kusunoki Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
This has supple red berries and blackcurrant on the nose, with hints of cedar and wax. It’s a lighter style, combining fruit and non-fruit characters, and nice green notes. Warm, rounded and spicy with lovely balance. Mellow and elegant. 91/100

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Nagano wine region, Japan (3) - Hyashi Nouen

Hayashi Nouen is one of the big players in the Nagano region. Founded in 1911, they have 45 hectares of vines of their own and contract a further 30. In total, the production is 800 000 bottles. Their brand name is Goichi.

This 60-year old Merlot vine is the oldest Merlot in Japan

One of the varieties they work with is Ryugan, which is a Chinese variety that looks similar to Koshu, with big, pale pink berries and huge bunches. It has higher acidity and sugar than Koshu, and so Hayashi would like to increase the plantings of Ryugan, but the farmers growing it aren’t keen.

Takashi Kikuchi

We tasted with chief winemaker Takashi Kikuchi. The wines here are consistently good, and one – a new Merlot from a high-altitude site – is exceptional.

Hyashi Estate Goichi Sauvignon Blanc 2016
All estate fruit. Crisp, clean and brightly aromatic with nice grassy pear fruit with some passionfruit lift. The palate is bright, a bit nettly and fruit-driven with a slightly smoky twist. Light and a little dilute and short on the finish, but nice enough. 85/100

Hyashi Estate Goichi Chardonnay 2015
Some contract fruit in this. Barrel-aged for eight months. Citrus with some pineapple, and good acidity. Quite pure and clean with nice fruitiness. Fruit forward style with a slightly bitter finish. Solid stuff. 86/100

Hyashi Estate Goichi Ryugan 2016
Chinese grape variety with a greyish pink skin, and huge clusters. Mineral and spicy with some smoky notes. Bright with good acidity and some pear and table grape fruity notes. Crisp and lively with a stony, mineral core: it’s not all about the fruit. 87/100

Hyashi Estate Goichi Merlot 2015
Estate and contract grown fruit, barrel aged for 14 months. Supple and bright with a juicy personality to the cherry and berry fruits. Supple and fresh with bright juicy cherry and berry fruit. Has a slightly grainy, grippy edge to it. Very drinkable and friendly. 88/100

Hyashi Kikyougahara Merlot Private Reserve 2014
100% estate grapes aged for 18 months in new oak. There’s a savoury, spicy, cedary edge to this wine with notes of gravel and tar, as well as dense, fresh raspberry and blackcurrant fruit. Good structure and brisk acidity keep this fresh and focused. Has some well integrated green notes. Juicy finish. 90/100

Hyashi Kakizawa Vineyard Merlot 2015
This is an as-yet unnamed wine. It is Merlot on VSP trellising from a cooler site at 800 m. First vintage is 2014, this is the second vintage, not released yet. Deeply coloured. Concentrated and fresh with subtle green notes and a lovely core of blackcurrant and cherry fruit. Very refined and structured with lovely weight and balance. 93/100

Marlborough, where big can be good: Villa Maria

Villa Maria describe themselves as New Zealand’s most awarded winery. They became this through the clever strategy of making lots of small production high-end wines and then entering all the competitions. Back in 1962 founder George Fistonich entered a couple of his reds in the Royal Easter Show and won second and third prize, so it’s not surprising he developed a taste for competition success. It’s a strategy that has worked for them, but as a big company (around the sixth largest in New Zealand) it’s probably more significant that they are doing a good job with their high-volume wines. I visited the Marlborough winery to do a range tasting with senior winemaker Helen Morrison.

We tasted most of the whites from the Riedel Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc glass, which I really like (and it would also be great for Champagne). Helen was involved in the development process of this glass, which involved trying 16 different designs, some of which were ridiculous. ‘If you didn’t know it was the same wine in the 16 glasses you wouldn’t believe it,’ she says. ‘The flavour and texture were so different. They did the exercise twice, a year apart, narrowing the shape down. They got it down to two glasses, this and their Grand Champagne glass. The room was split in the end so Riedel decided.

One of the main jobs for the Marlborough winery is preparing the volume equivalent of 300 000 bottles of Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc a week, which is sent up to the Villa Maria Auckland winery by tanker for bottling. The cold stabilization is done in Auckland because electricity is cheaper there. Throughout the year, the Sauvignon is kept in tank at 8 C in Marlborough to help maintain its aromatic character.

Helen explained how the contracts with growers are managed. They are given a target Brix level which they are expected to meet, otherwise payments are renegotiated. If Villa think it is a good time to harvest but the Brix level is lower than the contract, then they’ll still give the grower full payment. If the wine turns out to be really good despite it not meeting Brix requirements, they will do a top-up payment for the grower. And if a wine is upgraded (all the reserve level wines are selected on the basis of assessment in the winery), then the grower will get a top up payment as an incentive to keep doing good work.

The wines here are consistently very good and sometimes exciting. It’s a very strong performance from such a large winery.

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2017
A split of Awatere and Wairau, looking for more fruit concentration and pungent flavours. Putting this blend together looking to get the characteristics of the two valleys. In 2017 put a bit into old oak. Really aromatic with delicate, fine grassy, tomato leaf green notes and also some lovely tropical/passionfruit notes. A little light on the palate but really fresh and expressive. Pure and well balanced with a crisp lemony finish. 90/100

Villa Maria Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Looking for riper flavours with some thiol character from the Wairau, but not wanting it to get too sweaty. Includes some lower Wairau heavy silt soils, and some clay. Harvested at night, some skin contact (for 6-8 h). This has a distinctive green pepper note on the nose with some melon and a hint of sweat. The palate is fresh and juicy with nice weight and well integrated green notes. Nice weight in the mouth. 89/100

Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Awatere 2017
From Taylor Pass and Black Birch, both on northern bank of the Awatere. Black Birch is much further in on the slopes, and provides c 1000 tons of Sauvignon Blanc for Villa each year. This has nice focus with lovely green pepper, lemongrass and tomato leaf, with some nice pear and citrus on the palate. Softly textured and expressive with a delicacy to it. 90/100

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Albariño 2016 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
George Fistonich has always been excited about trying new things. He introduced Arneis, but this struggled to capture the interest of the consumers. However, there seems to be a lot more potential with Albariño. This is quite different with some pear and citrus, as well as some herb and nut notes, a twist of wax, and some briny hints. It’s a bit unusual, but attractive and refreshing. Savoury. 88/100

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris 2017 Marlborough
A really unusual grape variety to work with: it tastes like Sauvignon Blanc in the vineyard but has pink/grey skins, and can be pushed ripe. 20% in barrel. Fourth year of this. Very rich and fruity with some pear and tangerine notes, some lemony brightness, but also a soft, almost creamy texture. Broad but fresh, this is really successful. A generous, fruity wine. 90/100

Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnay 2007 Marlborough
Broad, rich, quite toasty and bold with some sweet melon and pear characters. There’s some nuttiness here with a bit of peachy richness. Harmonious with nice development, and a nice mealy, bready finish. 91/100

Villa Maria Taylors Pass Chardonnay 2015 Marlborough
Hand harvested and whole-bunch pressed to barrel, some wild ferment. Planted on the stoniest, boniest part of the vineyard. Delicate and expressive with some lemon and stonefruit, supported by subtle nutty, spicy oak. Real finesse here with good acidity and expressive fruit. Linear and composed with a bright future ahead of it. 93/100

Villa Maria Keltern Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 Hawke’s Bay
Around 30% new oak, hand harvested and whole-bunch pressed. Nice depth here with good structure. There’s quite a bit of spicy oak, but this meshes well with the complex fig, peach and pear fruit, as well as some brioche character. Good acidity too. A bold, expressive wine. 92/100

Villa Maria The Attorney Pinot Noir Rosé 2017 Marlborough
Made one 600 litre tank of this: it’s an organic rosé that sells for $30 from cellar door (it sold out quickly). An unusual Pinot clone nicknamed Jack, from cuttings smuggled in by Steve Smith. It has never made good red Pinot Noir, but has dark skins. This was hand-harvested and whole-bunch pressed, mostly free run. Dense and textural with some creamy notes as well as spice and a touch of herbiness. The acidity is really good and makes it quite refreshing, even though it has lots of flavour. Very nice. 89/100

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2016 Marlborough
Around 10 000 cases. Combination of machine and hand harvested parcels from Wairau (dense tannic structures from the clays) and Awatere (more florals and crushed herbs). Supple and juicy with nice floral, silky red cherry fruit. This is quite delicate and elegant with lovely purity. Very pretty fruit here. Has more red than black fruit with a nice stony edge to the palate. Perfect for drinking young: there’s not much to gain from cellaring this. 90/100

Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 Marlborough
Around 1000 cases. Mixture of the valleys. In the Wairau 20 year old vineyard of John Rutherford’s in the Wairau, at the end of Paynters Road on the way to Auntsfield, with dense tannins and black fruit from the tight clay soil. From the Awatere, Seddon, Taylor’s Pass and Ballochdale. Hand harvested and chilled overnight, processed cold. Open top fermenters. Each fermenter is pressed, then homogenized, then goes straight to barrel without settling. Lovely density here with red cherry and plum, as well as some black cherry. There’s a nice spicy, tannic bite here. Lovely combination of silkiness, floral lift, and some structural grunt. 94/100

Villa Maria Single Vineyard Seddon Pinot Noir 2012 Marlborough
Seddon is the most delicate of the single vineyard Pinots. A cold vintage, but a nice autumn, so this was picked late. Supple, fine and quite linear with some sappy green hints meshing beautifully with the floral red cherry fruit, as well as a bit of raspberry. Really elegant and supple with lovely purity. Developing into a really expressive, pure wine, in a light, fragrant style. 94/100

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Grenache 2016 Hawke’s Bay
93% Grenache and 7% Tempranillo, very late ripening. Distinctive peppery nose with some lovely floral red cherry and raspberry fruit. The palate is packed with sweet, crunchy, juicy red fruits, framed with white pepper and a hint of ginger. Very appealing and textural, and fun and serious at the same time. 92/100

Villa Maria Reserve Organic Braided Gravels Merlot 2013 Hawke’s Bay
Fresh and vivid with nice grippy, gravelly structure. Sweet blackcurrant and blackberry fruit with some prettiness, but also some grippy structure. Has a lot of tannin to counter the sweet, soft fruit. So pretty but also with a bit of seriousness. 91/100

Villa Maria The Gravels Ngakirikiri Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Hawke’s Bay
This is fabulous. There’s a great combination of sweet, ripe blackcurrant fruit with a silky, refined texture, and also some good structure and acidity. There’s great concentration, and a backbone of firm but refined tannic structure. The balance is impeccable: it’s quite European in style with regard to texture, but has new world fruit purity yet without any sweetness or spoof. I love that the ripeness hasn’t been pushed here: there’s still a really attractive green hint that is typical of good Cabernet Sauvignon. A lovely wine that should age very well. 95/100

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Nagano wine region, Japan (2) - Domaine Nakajima

Yutaka Nakajima was studying at chef school when he came across wine. He’s a big fan of natural wine, and also has a strong affection for Alsace. He has experience working in the Loire and Baden (Germany), and in 2011 he decided to plant a vineyard in Tomi, Nagano. The small winery followed in 2014.

Yutaka Nakajima

The first plantings were Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, and Yuataka also tried Gamay but it wasn’t successful here. His more recent plantings are Pinot Gris, and soon he will plant some Savagnin, Ploussard and Trousseau on new land that he has acquired.

These are young vines, growing individually on stakes, and protected against winter cold by straw

The vineyards are beautifully situated on a south-facing hillside, at altitude. We spent some time walking through them. His pruning is quite alternative: the vines have spur pruning on multiple heads, like a bush vine, but they are mostly trellised. Some are on single stakes.

Home made destemmer and crusher

Winemaking here is natural: there are no sulfites added until bottling when there is a 15 ppm addition at bottling (in 2015 it was 25, but he reduced it in 2016).

Domaine Nakajima Pet Nat Rosé 2017
This is made from the table grape variety Kyoho, which has huge berries. So they are dried for two weeks and then when fermentation is finished, the wine is bottled with some fresh juice. The result is gently fizzy and delicious, pale pink in colour with linear citrus and red cherry fruit. This is not disgorged and so is a little cloudy, and it is subtle and refreshing. 89/100

Domaine Nakajima Chenin Blanc Sauvignon Blanc 2016
77% Chenin Blanc and 23% Sauvignon Blanc. Barrel aged with no racking for one year. Really supple and beautiful with lovely acidity and a tangy bite. Notes of herbs and straw with hints of cheese in the background, as well as the lemon fruit. There’s a bit of spicy bite on the finish, and it tastes natural but not in a faulty way. Lovely layers of complexity. This has a wonderful mouthfeel and texture. This was picked earlier than normal because of the difficult vintage, and it’s such an expressive, well defined wine. 93/100

Domaine Nakajima Cabernet Franc 2016
Very pale coloured cherry red. Light, focused and supple on the palate with red cherries and fine herby hints, and a bit of blood. Has a slight touch of damson and spice on the finish. Very refreshing and elegant with lovely red fruits and some spicy non-fruit complexity. Nervous and beautifully defined. Such a delicate, fine wine, and really natural. 93/100

Domaine Nakajima Merlot 2016
Very pale cherry red in colour. Elegant, fine and sappy with a little volatile lift, but lovely fine detail with red cherry and leafy notes, and subtle spiciness. A lovely elegant lighter-style red wine. 93/100

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Nagano wine region, Japan (1) - Kido Winery

Akihito Kida, Kida Wines

This was a good start to my visits in Nagano prefecture, Japan. Akihito Kido was born in Aichi prefecture, and he studied winemaking and viticulture at the University of Yamanashi. He went there because he wanted to make wine, but hadn’t decided at that stage whether or not he’d establish his own winery. But in 2001 he began growing his own vines, starting with just 0.3 hectares.

Pergola-trained vineyard

Since then the vineyard has grown to 1.9 hectares. The vineyard is located in Shiojiri, in Nagano, and it’s at an altitude of 740 metres, which helps maintain the acidity in the grapes. Vines are grown on the traditional pergola system, but also some are grown with a vertically shoot positioned (VSP) canopy. Kido’s winery started in 2004, and with his high quality wines he’s widely thought to be one of the people who has stimulated the current momentum in proper Japanese wine.

In the cellar, stainless steel barrels are used for some of the whites: these allow lees contact but not oxygen

60% of Kido’s needs are supplied from his own vineyard, but he also buys in some grapes. Production is now at 25 000 bottles. Since 2006 he’s been fermenting some of the wines with wild yeast, and he now ferments all his red wines with wild yeasts.

The Kido winery

This region is typically associated with red wine, but Kido thinks there is a lot of potential for white grapes here, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.

Kido Autumn Colors 2017 Nagano, Japan
53% Merlot, 47% Muscat Bailey A. 5 months in barrel with 30% new. Merlot is fermented with wild yeast, Muscat Bailey A with cultured yeast. Fresh, pure and vital with lovely bright raspberry and cherry fruit. There’s a nice rounded character to the fruit here, and lovely acidity. A bit sappy with lovely juiciness and just a hint of meatiness (cured meat) under the fruit. I really like the freshness and the fruit-forward nature of this wine. Delicious stuff showing good purity. 88/100

Kido Private Reserve Chardonnay 2015 Nagano, Japan
This is a full yellow colour. 85% wild yeast, 15% cultured yeast, barrel fermented with 50% new oak. Very linear and correct with attractive citrus and pear fruit, with some pineapple richness. There’s some cedary spice here and fine toast from the barrel fermentation. Lovely acidity here with a hint of grapefruit spice and a slight nutty warmth on the finish. Lovely wine, and when it sheds the barrel character with a year or two more in bottle it will be great. I really like the acidity here. 91/100

Kido Private Reserve Pinot Gris 2016 Nagano, Japan
First vintage of this was 2009. In 2008 he pressed strongly and the colour turned red. This is a golden colour. Stainless steel barrel fermentation. Really distinctive nose with lanolin and apricot, some lemons and a bit of toast. So aromatic and expressive, showing some botrytis character. The palate is powerful with apricot, lemon and a hint of cabbage, as well as some fine spiciness. Such a delicious, textured, full-flavoured wine. 92/100

Kido Private Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 Nagano, Japan
He’s almost given up on Pinot Noir twice, but the years he was going to pull the vines up it turned out well. Until 2014 he used no whole cluster, but since then he has used 33% whole cluster (2014) and 40% (2015). Fermented separately, so the whole cluster was all whole cluster. Pale cherry red with some fading at the rim. Sweetly aromatic nose with some herb and undergrowth notes alongside the red cherry fruit. Beguiling and pretty with a strongly savoury edge. The palate is supple and tending to elegance with a slight earthy, spicy twist and sweet strawberry and red cherry fruit. Fresh with good acidity and a bit of grippy structure. This is a really delicious, drinkable wine with a hint of seriousness, too. Has a slight cured meat edge. There’s a lot to like about this wine. 92/100

Kido Private Reserve Cabernet Franc 2014 Nagano, Japan
Whole berry fermentation (destemmed but not crushed). No preferment maceration. Wild yeasts. Sweetly aromatic on the nose with some green herby hints as well as supple blackberry fruit. Sweet and alluring. The palate is rounded and mouthfilling with subtle chalk and green herb notes sitting under the warm, sweet, quite lush black fruits. It’s smooth and a bit autumnal with a lovely fruity core. Nice weight on the midpalate. Lovely purity. 90/100

Kido Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Nagano, Japan
In a good vintage Cabernet Sauvignon does well, but in rainy years it gets hammered. It’s different to Merlot. 2012 was a very good year (along with 2003 and 2009) and this wine is lean but delicious. 10 months in barrel, 70% new. Beautifully aromatic nose with a savoury, gravelly twist to the cool blackcurrant fruit. The palate is really fresh and elegant with lovely spicy blackcurrant fruit and a slightly earthy, savoury, gravelly undercurrent. Lovely stuff with freshness and focus. The green notes are well integrated here. A delicious cool-climate Cabernet. 93/100

Kido Private Reserve Cuvée Akari 2014 Nagano, Japan
This is made in years when Project K, the top wine, isn’t made. A Bordeaux-style blend with 58% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Cabernet Franc. 10 months in barrel, with quite a bit of new oak. Beautifully aromatic with a fine green note sitting amid sweet berry fruits. There’s some blackcurrant, too. The palate is supple and balanced with hints of chalk and mint as well as focused, slightly grippy blackberry, cherry and blackcurrant fruit. Youthful and beautifully focused, this should age well. On the one hand it is sweet and seductive, and on the other it is more serious and structured. Juicy edge to the finish. 92/100

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Japan: an overview of Japanese wine, and why we should be interested

A tribute to local wine at Shiojiri station in the Nagano region

I’m in Japan. The purpose of this trip is to explore Nagano, which is one of the three main Japanese wine regions. Some perspective on the Japanese wine scene. Winegrowing started here 140 years ago under the strategy of the Meiji government (the Meiji era began in 1868). They wanted to encourage new industry, and wine was targeted. Things began in the Yamanashi prefecture in 1874, and to this day, with its Koshu wine, it’s the best known of Japan’s wine regions internationally. But there are two other regions that are emerging with perhaps more potential: Nagano and Hokkaido.

Wine here is quite a new industry, and in recent years there has been a drastic change, with a move towards making more wines from Japanese-grown grapes as opposed to imported concentrate. For many years Japan relied on foreign grapes sources for its wineries. Even now only 20% of domestic production is proper Japanese wine, making wine from Japan-grown grapes.

Since 2000 there has been a rapid increase in the number of wineries wineries and there’s been increasing interest on trying to make authentic wines. There have been more than 100 new wineries, with Nagano and Hokkaido growing the fastest. Many of these producers are operating on a tiny scale. The largest winery (making only Japanese wine) is Hokkaido Wine, with 2.6 million bottles per year, but they are unusual: this is a country where many things are done on a precision scale.

Pergola: this way of growing grapes is still dominant in Japan

Initially, most of the new wineries were focusing on Chardonnay and Merlot, the two most popular vinifera varieties. But this is changing, and people are looking to discover the varieties best suited to their places. I have even heard of some producers who are working with Trousseau. There is also a lot of interest in natural wine, although this can be a polarizing topic.


One of the serious problems is the quality and availability of planting material. There are around 20 nurseries supplying grape vines, but they also sell other plant materials and aren’t specialists. There is only one nursery where you can order by clone, and the virus-checking system hasn’t been developed enough.


Production of proper Japanese wine:

22 million bottles per year

  • 7 million from Yamanashi (33%)
  • 4.9 million from Nagano (22%)
  • 3.3 million from Hokkaido (15%)
  • 1.6 million from Yamagata (7%)
  • 0.8 million from Iwate (4%)
  • 0.6 million from Nigata (3%)

There are 82 wineries in Yamanashi, 36 in Nagano, 34 in Hokkaido, 13 in Yamagata, 10 in Iwate, and 10 in Nigata. In total, as of 2016 there were 280 wineries, but this is growing. Nagano itself has three large wineries – Alps Wines, Hayashi and Izutsu – and then the rest are small.

Japan has a fairly restricted set of grape varieties at the moment. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Kerner are the main vinifera white varieties, while reds are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. In addition to the vinifera varieties, there are the hybrids and labruscas that have been popular because they are relatively disease resistant.

Muscat Bailey A, with hats to protect from rain

The most famous, the pink-skinned big-berried Koshu, is a hybrid, although the Yamanashi growers prefer it to be described as vinifera – it is one quarter is Vitis davidi, which is a wild grape from southern China. The most common red hybrid is also big berried, and it is Muscat Bailey A. It can make some really nice wines if handled well.

Then we have the Labrusca varieties – Campbell Early, Niagara and Delaware.

The most widely vinified grapes

  1. Koshu (16.1%)
  2.  Muscat Bailey A (14.2%)
  3.  Niagara
  4.  Concord
  5.  Delaware
  6.  Merlot (6.2%, increasing)
  7.  Chardonnay (5.6%, increasing)

The climate varies quite a bit, but one common feature is regular rainfall during the growing season, which can be a problem. There is a 23 degree difference in latitude between Okinawa and Hokkaido, whereas France spans just 6 degrees. There are also differences in altitude too, with vineyards from 26 m up to 1000 m.

So, why should I be interested in Japanese wine? This is a small industry, and it’s unlikely that many of the wines will be exported. And don’t we already have enough diversity in the world of wine?

I care, because this is just the sort of wine scene that interests me. It is in its early stages, it is dynamic, and it is growing. And it is being driven by people who care about wine and want to make something interesting. As a journalist, this sort of scene is golden! Lots to explore, and the path is relatively untrodden. The quality so far is variable, but it is improving, and I’m very excited to explore and discover. And in a small way, I want to help the good producers get the attention and rewards they deserve.

Today is day two on the ground here, and I’m looking forward to some new discoveries.