Of barrels and impressive Japanese wines

On March 15th I went to a tasting organized by Sapporo at the Hankyu International Hotel of Osaka. I was there particularly for the seminar by Juan Munoz Oca of Columbia Crest about the different uses of oak in wine and the different resulting flavour profiles.

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It has been a very interesting seminar, quite unique: I had the chance to taste four wine made from exactly the same grape (Chardonnay), all four of them 100% MLF, but fermented in different containers, stainless steel, French oak, American Oak and 2-3 years old oak.

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The two other wines to the right were the Grand Estates Chardonnay and the H3 Chardonnay.

The difference was very clear: American oak flavour is much more towards toasted coconut, vanilla, burnt sugar, while French oak is more delicate, with more cinnamon, white flowers, spice and a lighter vanilla tone. The neutral oak differed from the unoaked sample especially in the texture (smoother and richer) while the aromas were less bright, but not really “oaky”.

Of course there are many reason why wines fermented or aged in different barrels may taste different: the size of the container, its age, the age of the tree from which it was made, the degree of toasting, the type of oak. Even the way the staves are bend (by using fire, steam or hot water) has an impact.

But why a French oak would be different from and American oak? The fact is that American oak (Quercus Alba) grows faster than French oak (be it Quercus Robur or Quercus Petraea) and this means that its grains are larger. When used to make barrel larger grained wood will imply an higher oxygen transfer rate to the liquid it contains, resulting in different flavours compared to tighter grained French oak.

After the seminar I joined the Sapporo wine tasting on the same floor.

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Between the others I could taste the 2014 Grande Polaire Pinot Noir from Yoichi, Hokkaido and I must say I finally remained impressed by a Japanese red wine. Compared to the rest of Japan, Hokkaido has a relatively low humidity, an average annual temperature of 8.1℃ and virtually no tsuyu (the rainy season between June and July). Typhoons may struck the island, but being far to the north their strength is often moderate, as they unleash their power before arriving there. The biggest problem may be in finding sufficiently exposed spots because much of it is flat and the cold temperatures require careful screening of the mesoclimate. The present vintage is made with the fruit from a contractor grower, Hirotsu Vineyard, managed by the Hirotsu family. My note on cellartracker:

Actually this is a surprisingly good wine, the best Japanese red I have had so far and worth its 4,000 yen (around 40 dollars).

Pinot Noir 100% from Hokkaido, aged for 12 months in oak (50%). Style is clearly New World, with bright fruit, crushed red berries and vanilla from the oak. Intense both on the nose and in the mouth, it also shows soft tannins and solid body, but it does not lack acidity (after all Hokkaido is not really a warm place).

It is the first time I find such concentration in a Japanese wine (the same applies to the Merlot from the same producer, though Pinot Noir is slightly more balanced). Finally something I can really recommend.

The merlot from the same series, this one from Azuminoikeda vineyard in Yamanashi, was equally good, although slightly less balanced. On the other hand the Sauvignon Blanc did not seemed to justify its price.

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Stocks are low, especially for the Pinot Noir, but if you have the chance this is one that should be tried.

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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.

 

The battle for supremacy in the Japanese wine market.

Very interesting article (at least for me, considering that I work in the industry in Japan) on how New World wines are gaining more and more share in this market.

The April 11th issue of Shuhan News (number 1875) reports datas from the Statistics Center of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, giving a very detailed picture of the wine maket in the first two months of 2015.

Concerning still wines in container smaller than 2L, in February France has made a comeback, gaining an upper hand with 3.367.872L of wine imported, with Chile second at 3.287.340L. Italy, alas is just third (2.382.493L), followed by Spain (1.986.506L), USA(547.142L), Australia (429.242L), Germany and other minor players. However Chile is still on the top if we consider the total of the first two months, with 7.651.588L against France 6.913.416L.

In the “heavyweight category” (wine stored in containers holding between 2 and 150L), Chile, Spain and USA are having a thrilling head to head: the first reached the top in February (286.089L against 279.864L and 253.104L), but the second and third are still ahead if we include January results, with 584.422L for Spain and 539.953L for the US (Chile is not that far though, at 532.593L). Italy and France follow, but their share it’s just a fraction.

Up to this point Chile seems to be just one of the main players, but it’s in the bulk segment (wine inside containers bigger than 150L) that its supremacy becomes evident, with a total of 3.517.961L imported since January 1st, well ahead USA 782.289L. South Africa shows a mildly surprising performance here, being third at 399.015.

Fortified wines category is of course limited to a few countries: Spain or Portugal? I would have said Spain, but the answer is Portugal and for a good margin (32.931L in February, 53.210L in the first two months, against 15.731L and 26.508L). However the declining trend of portuguese wines should not be taken lightly, as the volume is down to 70.8 when compared to last year performance in the same period (Spain is down too, but stopped at 96.3%). There is not much behind, apart from France, Italy and a bit of Greece.

Finally let’s turn to sparkling wines: here, as you can imagine, France sits on the top of the ladder (February: 833.040L, Jan-Feb: 1.720.093L), increasing its share by 6.4% relative to the first two months of 2015. Very good performance also for our runner-up, Spain, quite below France, but improving, while second runner-up Italy’s market shrank by 25% compared to January and February 2014. Fourth place for Chile, followed by Australia, Argentina, Germany, South Africa and, quite surprisingly, Mexico.

I would like to add just a personal note: Chile wine is very popular in Japan, and its rise seems unstoppable. At present it is still quite novel, consistent and affordable, all very important qualities in a country facing inflation like Japan. One day however Chile wine industry will need to rethink its role in this market: for now it is just the good value wine which you’ll choose if you are tight on budget, reliable, but not as fashionable as french, italian or even american wines (spanish wine image is a bit more mixed). When this country market will reach maturity towards Chile wine, producers and exporters will have to persuade consumers that they are not just the honest cheap bulk wine of old, but that they can offer also premium quality and a smart image, to appeal new high-income drinkers. Up to that day beware of Chile!

Once upon a wine

Wine as we bottle it today is a fairly modern beverage, but wine as the product of fermented grapes is, as you know, very ancient. Legends about its invention or about mythical wines abound and sometimes modern wines too have stories to tell, think about Schloss Johannisberg Spatlese or the italian Lachrima Christi.
In this post I will present you three tales on the origin of three modern wines, I hope you enjoy them.

Teroldego Rotaliano, blood of a dragon
Teroldego is a red wine from Trentino, in north Italy. Deep in colour and intense in flavour, it offers sharp acidity and strong tannins, needing careful vinication. The best example shows aromas of black cherry, blackberry, coffee and bitter chocolate, with ripe tannins and mouth-watering acidity. It can hold oak ageing.
Its name is said to derive from Tiroler Gold, being Tirol the area around Bolzano, Italy’s border with Austria. The grape is first mentioned in a sale contract from 1480.
A Trentino native variety or an import from Austria? Legends tell us a different story.

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Once upon a time the peaceful town of Mezzocorona was in trouble: a terrifying dragon had settled on a nearby mountain and was ravaging the region, devouring cows, burning farms and treatening the life of the valley. The people were desperate, but luckily in the town there was a galliant and young knight, Count Firmian. Firmian would not let the dragon devastate his land: one day he took his spear, he sheated his sword and began climbing the mountain, to the caves where the beast lurked. He knew that he could not win in a normal fight, so he made a plan and brought with him a bucket full of milk and a mirror. He put the milk and the mirror at the entrance of the lair and hid, waiting. The dragon was very fond of milk and its smell lured him out of the cave. There he saw his own image reflected in the mirror and, first amazed then pleased, for he liked its own image, he stood watching himself. The valliant count took the chance, lept out of its hiding place and slew the dragon.
Peace was finally restored in the valley. The joyous townsmen carried the knight in triumph and brought the dragon down the mountain to their village, but when they started to move his dead body his blood dripped on the ground and lo! where the drops fell a grape vine was born and then another and another. Those were the first Teroldego vines. The people began growing them and, drinking the wine they made from it, they lived happily ever after.

Erbaluce di Caluso, the fairy wine
Erbaluce is a relatively unknown white grape from Piedmont. It is used in some DOCs around Novara, but the most famous is Erbaluce di Caluso, where it makes dry, sparkling and passito wines. Some of them can be really good, but they are not easy to find, especially outside Italy. To italian hears Erbaluce sounds like “herb of light”, but the it probably derives from the latin “Alba Lux”, light of the dawn, for the berries gleam when they are ripe. Let’s see what the tales of old tell us.

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Once upon a time, in the golden age, gnomes and fairies walked the earth, as we do today. The Sun, the Moon and the Stars were worshipped by man and nymph inhabited the woods. The beautiful Dawn (Alba) was one of them, she lived between the Night and the Day and she enjoyed her eternal life. One clouded day she got a glimpse of the Sun, whom normally he could not meet; the Sun saw her too and instantly they fell in love. However, they were destined to be apart: he was the Sun and she was the Dawn, when one was in the sky the other was gone. They wept and wept and the Earth and Stars wept with them. But the Moon, sister of the Sun, had an idea: one day, at the end of the Night, she decided not to leave the sky, placing herself on the path usually walked by the Sun. This way the Sun could hide behind her and, unnoticed, he climbed down to meet his beloved Dawn, on a mountain near Caluso. From their love the nymph Albaluce (Dawnlight) was born: her eyes were blue as the sky, her hairs golden as the light of his father the Sun. She was so beautiful that the people worshipped her as a goddess, offering her the wild game they hunted, the fruits they harvested, the fishes they caught. They were so fond of her that they kept bringing their offerings even when the food started running low. The people then, led by their queen Ippa, began working to change the course of a nearby lake, to gain new land fit for cultivation. But nature does not like to be forced and the water won’t be bridled: a flood hit the valley, causing much damage and death. When Dawnlight heard the tragic news she shed many tears, but that was the cry of a fairy: where the tears dropped a vine was born. It was Erbaluce. The people of the valley could not have back their beloved ones dead in the flood, but at least the wine from the grape would lift for a moment the grief in their hearts.

Koshu
Koshu is a japanese pink skinned varied grown both for table consumption and white wine making. In ideal conditions it reach full maturity in the first half of October, making it a late harvest variety. Naturally it has a neutral Muscadet-like character and that’s why many producers try fleshing it out by barrel-fermentation or lees aging (sur lie). Personally the best example I tasted was a gray wine, where the juice had been left macerating with the skins longer than usual.

In 2010 it was grown over 496ha, which is not much especially if you consider that less than 180ha were intended for wine making production. There are some hectares planted in German too. The story of wine in Japan is modern, but the discovery of koshu seems to date back to more than 1000 years ago.

In the second year of the Yōrō era (AD 781), the buddhist monk Gyōki came from the west to Katsunuma, in the land of Kai, which is today called Kōshū. He was near Kashio, in the valley where the Shirakawa flows between Katsunuma and Iwasaki. He was tired for the long walk, so he sat on a big rock looking over the river.

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He started meditating and at the 21th day he had a vision of Yakushi Buddha. He was shining in a golden light, holding an amulet in his left hand and a bunch of grapes in the right one. He vanished a moment after, but Gyōki had a sudden inspiration: he took a piece of wood and began carving the shape of Buddha. He decided that to build a temple there and started cutting trees and clearing the area. While working he found a bunch of wild grapes just like the ones the Buddha was holding in his hand: it was kōshū. They were delicious. In the following years he used the grapes to sustain himself and when he discovered their medical properties he taught them to the people of a nearby village. From those days the cultivation of Kōshū spread all over the area, making Yamanashi today’s premium area for grape growing and wine making in Japan.