Is Japanese wine overpriced?

Making wine in Japan is not easy: land costs much, labour is not cheap (with the immigration still limited and the cost of life at First World levels) and the weather is unforgiving. The rain falls at the worst moments of the year for grapegrowing: in June, during flowering, and from the first half of September, just at harvest time. And we are not talking about some light rain, but days after days of typhoons leaving a fierce humidity, oscillating between 75 and 90% for most of the Summer. Grapes (and humans) suffer this weather: much care must be employed to avoid fungal diseases and the frequent cloud cover during the last week of August and all September is not beneficial for ripening.

These are some of the reason why you will never find japanese wine in Japan as cheap as, for example, french wine in France or italian wine in Italy. Full bottles under 1000 yen (around 8 euros) are very likely made from imported must fermented inside the Country.

However even an expensive wine could it be acceptable if the quality is good. So is Japanese wine worth its price? This is what I will try to find in a series of posts where I’ll compare two wines, one from Japan and one from a different Country. The wines will have more or less the same price, they will be of the same colour and possibly they won’t be too different in style. They will be tasted “semi-blind”, i.e. I will know the wines, but not in which glass they are poured.

For the first comparison I chose the following wines:

  • Château Mercian Ensemble Moegi 2015 (Chardonnay and Koshu blend)
  • Kaltern Alto Adige Chardonnay 2015

Both are sold at a retail price of 1800 yen (w/o tax) for both (around 16 american dollars or 15 euros).

Notice that I didn’t know anything about these wines except their price, cépage and the information you can get by reading the front label (producer, vintage, region).

The tasting notes:

  1. The first wine is pale lemon in colour, with aromas of medium intensity. The nose is fresh and reminds lemon, lime, fresh stone fruits, with hints of herbs and flowers (chamomile).
    Dry in the mouth, with crispy persistent acidity and an overall medium intensity and weight.
  2. The second wine is pale lemon as well, but distinctly riper. Aroma is more intense than the first with ripe scents of ripe stone fruit (peach) and crunchy yellow apple with nutty, vanilla aromas probably from oak ageing and hints of cheese and yogurt from MLF.
    The palate is dry, still with good acidity, though not as fresh as the first. The ripe fruit and savoury oak derived flavours mirrors the aromatic profile. Good length, but light bitterness from the oak in the aftertaste.

In the end they were similar, but the different winemaking processes resulted in different flavour profiles. They were both good, but if I have to take into account intensity and complexity, wine number two was slightly better, even with the aftertaste bitterness from the oak. A decent oaked-but-not-too-oaky wine for a relatively low price. To be honest it reminded me of Trentino Chardonnay from Bollini (including the bitterness) and thus I presumed the first wine to be the Japanese one and the second to be the Chardonnay from Kaltarn.

I was wrong: to my surprise the wine I scored slightly better (number two) was the Château Mercian. It seems that Moegi undergoes fermentation and ageing partly in stainless steel and partly in oak, though the producer site does not specify how much of the wood is new.

Now we could question terroir expressiveness: does Moegi show a specificity, a peculiarity linking it to the place where it has been made? The answer is no. The grapes are fetched from three different prefectures (Nagano, Yamanashi and Fukushima -yup, that one-) far apart, thus it may be treated like a Southeastern Australia GI. This choice makes much sense: as quality grape growing is difficult in Japan, blending grapes from various areas is a smart way of improving final quality. But we cannot really identify a terroir here.

The Alto Adige Kaltarn is still not very descriptive of its origin, but at least it matches with the cool climate image of this region and offers a (very broad) reference.

Conclusion

The first experiment ended with an interesting discovery, as oak aged wines cheaper than 2000 yen are not that easy to find in this market (Chile being an important exception). While it does feel a bit “manufactured” (= made by blending grapes from different area to meet the expectations of the consumers at a reasonable price), it nonetheless does its honest job. Since not everyone is interested in terroir, I can imagine it to be served by the glass in a casual setting.

Of course I cannot say if Japanese wine is overpriced or not with this simple experiment, but what I can say about Château Mercian Moegi is that at least no more overpriced than a similarly priced Kaltarn Chardonnay from Alto Adige.

 

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