Japan: the land of the rising sun3rd July, 2014 by Jean-Baptiste Ancelot
Japan is full of traditions, and of contrasts too! Tokyo is the ultimate example of this. Welcome to another world, another time, far away from all established codes, very much at odds with our daily Western lives.
Tokyo: a unique megalopolis in the world
Take a guided tour, visit neighborhood by neighborhood. During the day, enjoy the beauty of the imperial park at Kokyoo, walk around the Shinto shrines in Meiji Jingu Shinto, stop in front of the Sensoji temple in Asakusa, then get lost in the maze of streets of the traditional district of Jimbocho. You will feel a Zen atmosphere, calm, soothing, where tranquility reigns supreme.
When night falls, the scenery changes. The curtain falls, the offices empty. The accumulated stress from work must be removed – because in Japan you spend your life at work and conversely work guides your life. So people tend to loosen their ties after hours and go to party with friends, drinking in the Japanese bars of the Golden Gai in Shinjuku, slum it in Roppongi’s bars, sharing a drink in good company in the maid café of Akihabara or admiring the lights of Shibuya.
It is said here that if you’re not born Japanese, you’ll never be considered truly integrated in the Japanese culture – even after an expatriate life spent in the country, or when fluent in the language. Because only a Japanese person can really understand Japan… from the inside. I could write pages (and pages) here about the beauty of this country of contrasts. We have fallen deeply in love with Japan.
But let’s talk wine! Because even if the country is known worldwide for its Nihonshu (the real name of Japanese Sake), as well as for whiskey – Japan is the No.1 whiskey producer worldwide – it’s for the wine that we are here, we are the Wine Explorers after all! And as far as that is concerned, it is all good, vines grow almost everywhere in Japan, from Hokkaido in the North – where you can find nice Pinot Noir, to Kyoto and Kobe in the South.
Yamanashi, Japan’s main region of production
At the foot of Mount Fuji, less than two hours travel by train going southwest of Tokyo, in the Yamanashi Prefecture, you will find the main wine producing area of Japan. An initial improvised excursion allowed us to visit some wineries and to taste their wines: Château Katsunuma, Chânmoris and Château Mercian.
We learned that Koshu and Muscat Bailey are respectively white and red traditional Japanese varietals. These two hybrids are more resistant than traditional varieties to moisture, rain and summer typhoons. Koshu is usually a very light white grape, with floral notes. Muscat Bailey is easily recognisable in a blind tasting, regardless of how the wine was made, it always has a delicate nose of crushed strawberries.
We also learned that in Japan most of the vines are planted using pergola trellising: it expands the leaf surface height and thus increases plant density (number of vines per hectare) to protect the soil against erosion, which can be extremely threatening on hillsides as well as against vine diseases.
We visited three wineries during our time in Japan. At Suntory Winery they produce great wines, especially a delicious sweet white wine similar to a Sauternes (and where we had the chance to try young fried vine shoots during lunch time…delicious!). At Katsunuma Jozo Winery we tasted the most amazing and finest Koshu, and finally at Coco Farm & Winery, a unique place where the vineyard workers are people with disabilities. Japan is indeed a wine country!
Zoom on Coco Farm & Winery, a model of humanism
North of Tokyo, in the Ashikaga area, is the Coco Farm & Winery estate, a true example of oenotourism and the integration of disabled workers. Five hectares of vines were planted in 1984 by Mr Noboru Kawata, the founder of the winery, on volcanic soils dating as far back as the Jurassic era. In total there are more than 150 disabled workers, divided between the vineyard and the farm, who live here in harmony, everyone moving at its own pace.
The winery offers twenty different wines for tasting and sale, including a delicious sparkling brut, 100% Riesling Lion (a hybrid of Riesling and Koshu St Jacques). Everything here is stamped with the colours of the winery: cutlery, tablecloths, napkins and aprons, wine accessories, wooden boxes, basket; carefully designed to satisfy the customer. Even the wine is pampered, lulled by Mozart. These sound waves seemed to have had beneficial effects on the wine!
The restaurant is full. The atmosphere is warm. Tourists flock from all over Japan and even far beyond. Life is good at the Coco Farm & Winery.
Some wines which we particularly enjoyed during our stay
The climatic conditions in Japan are challenging for viticulture. However, there are some very nice wines. Proof:
*Aruga Branca Pipa Koshu 2010 from Katsunuma Jozo Winery
What delicacy to be found in this 100% Koshu white wine! A pure delight. Aged for seven months in French oak barrels, the wine developed notes of honey, apricot and acacia. A delicate mouthfeel, lively and very long. A beautiful bold finish. This is Koshu.
*Tsuki o matsu 2012 (“Here comes the moon“) from Coco Farm & Winery
A surprising white wine, 100% Kerner, with a nose of rhubarb and kiwi. Lively and fresh on the palate. Very nice tension. Perfect to start a dinner with friends; or in good company.
Cellar price: 3,000 ¥ (around 21.5 euros)
*Kaze no rouge 2011 from Coco Farm & Winery
A red wine with 75% of Zweigelt (one of my favourite Austrian grape varieties) and 25% Merlot. Notes of spices (white pepper) and black fruit on the nose. Fresh mouth with crispy fruit.
Cellar price : 2,700 ¥ (around 20 euros)
*Japan Premium Shiojiri Muscat Bailey A 2011 from Suntory Winery
100% Muscat Bailey A. Fermentation in stainless steel tanks was followed by barrel ageing for a year. Here they have chosen to leave some stalks during the fermentation. Nose of crushed strawberry, raspberry (more discreet). Mouth with a touch of caramel and red fruits (strawberry). Slightly sweet.
Cellar price : 2,600 ¥ (around 19 euros)
*Tomi Noble d’Or 1997 from Suntory Winery
A surprise: a botrytis wine in Japan, 100% Riesling, aged five years in tank, with flavours similar to Sauternes. Nose of candied fruit, gingerbread and honey. The balance in mouth is beautiful, with candied dried fruit (apricot, citrus). Fresh final with a nice sugar/acidity balance that gives complexity. Small production : less than 1,000 bottles.
Cellar price : 57,000 ¥ (around 392 euros…still)
An a bonus…*Aruga Branca Doce Icewine 2009 from Katsunuma Jozo Winery
The winery excels in the art of Koshu vinification and shows it here once again with this beautiful ice wine. Floral nose (rose, hibiscus). High acidity which refreshes the mouth. Final on apricots. A true dessert wine.
You might have noticed that the price of Japanese wines is high. There are two explanations for this: the production conditions are very difficult and in most cases yields are very low, below 5,000 bottles (or even less !).
Kyoto: Japan of yesteryear
We hoped to have the chance to have a short visit to Kyoto. And then something extraordinary happened, we were welcomed for four days in Kyoto by Romaric, a listener of Le Mouv’ (a French radio station), who had heard of Wine Explorers during one of their broadcasts: Allo la Planète!
Kyoto, in contrast to Tokyo, is a city of absolute zen. Better preserved during the various wars in the country, the city is home to many temples and traditional neighbourhoods like Miyagawacho, Gion Higashi or Gion Kobu. And if you’re lucky – very lucky, like Ludo – you might see, in the corner of an alley, a geisha. It is rather rare to meet one on the street. Geishas are usually only to be found in prestigious ocha-ya (“tea houses”), where they sing, dance and play traditional instruments.
Do not hesitate to visit the city by bike: it is the best kind of transportation in Kyoto. In fact nothing could be easier than renting a bike in Kyoto: we were not even asked for any identification or for a security deposit. We simply paid when we returned the bikes. And it worked wonderfully! It makes one dreamy…
2 essential wine bars: JIP and Le Terroir
In Tokyo you will find the largest concentration of three Michelin starred restaurants (16 three-star restaurants, compared to the 10 in Paris). But you will also find amazing wine bars. Two essentials: JIP and Le Terroir.
JIP is a classic wine bar, sober and clean, where we enjoyed tapas in a relaxed atmosphere. It is also – and most importantly – the place where you will find the most comprehensive collection of Japanese wines: almost all Japanese wineries are presented here. However, do not search for foreign wines: there are none here.
Le Terroir, our favourite, remains “the place” to go in Tokyo for any wine lover, people are linked to terroirs, especially those of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Be prepared: you will find more than 500 wines here… all served by the glass! What logistical and technical prowess ! “Our customers trust us, allowing us to open bottles and giving us the opportunity to present it to several people during the same evening”, said Yves Ringler, the man of the house. There is very little loss in this way.
No doubt because Yves is so passionate! He is a wine lover, a man close to nature and passionated by Languedoc-Roussillon. When this epicurean decided to leave France a few years ago, it was to realise his dream to open his own wine bar. “I daily discover new amazing areas in this Languedoc-Roussillon. This is a real treasure in terms of diversity”. Here, only wines from small producers are sold, rare products from all prices ranges. Plus a superb collection of spirits and eaux-de-vie. And the icing on the cake, the food is creative. It is refined and dinner is a great experience. Go for it!
Japan gave us stars in our eyes. So before continuing our journey around the globe, lets end this part of our adventure with the inevitable, the Tsukiji market : the largest fish market in the world. Such a unique atmosphere and a place where you can attend the auction of red tuna.
And we touched the sky : a breakfast at 5:00am, enjoying a bowl of rice with freshly cut red tuna sashimi. Do not pour more, our cup is full.
For more information:-
- Chânmoris: www.wine.or.jp/chanmoris/
- Château Mercian: www.mercian.co.jp
- Suntory: www.suntory.com/
- Katsunuma Jozo: www.katsunuma-winery.com/english/index.html
- Coco Farm & Winery: cocowine.com
*Arigatōgozaimashita to Romaric, Christelle and Yann for being our guides in Japan, and to Sumie Horikawa for your great support.