Wines from the Motherland
While studying for both the Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine credentials, a
clear delineation between Old World and New World wines was highlighted with Old World
wines highlighting specific or unique soils or terroir with less of an emphasis of fruit and
concentration while New World wines highlighted the reverse. Is this wine fruit forward? (New
World) Or do you first perceive stone, mineral and earth? (Old World). The Old World wines of
France, Italy and Spain were considered the prototypical forefathers while the New World wines
of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were considered the avant garde sire.
Well, what about Japan? We all know Japan only makes rice wine or sake right?
Chateau Mercian which is part of the Kirin Company first planted grapes in the Nagano region
as far back as 1970 and in 1976 bottled their first Nagano Merlot. In 1984 they also started
propagating Cabernet Sauvignon followed by Chardonnay and the indigenous Japanese grape,
koshu. Production methods slowly improved to the point that their 1985 Shinshu Kikyogahara
Merlot won a gold medal in an international wine competition followed by the 1990 Jyonohira
Cabernet Sauvignon taking gold, also in an international wine competition.
Currently Chateau Mercian produces six series of wines including the Private Reserve Series of
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Koshu as well as Merlot and Chardonnay based
eau-de-vie, the Mariko Vineyard Series of a red Bordeaux blend, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and
Sauvignon Blanc, the District Series which includes several red blends, Chardonnay, Koshu,
Riesling and Koshu blends, the Standard Series with Koshu and Muscat, the Japan’s Bubble Series
with five different sparkling wines and finally the Land of Japan Wine Series with several
different sweeter wines.
When our local Marukai Wholesale Mart advertised three different grape based wines produced in
Japan, you know I had to secure a supply just to see what the Motherland was capable of
2013 Nagano Merlot ($45.99)
Ruby red color with a 1 to 2mm water line. Immediate earth on the nose followed by black and
green pepper. Moderate semi-dried red fruit on the palate with a medium body and good acid.
The mid-palate does drop a little ending with a medium finish. If I didn’t know any better, I
would have thought this wine was a Cabernet Franc wine from Bourgeuil in the Loire region in
2014 Nagano Chardonnay ($34.99)
Very pale straw color with immediate river rock on the nose followed by lemon zest and a touch
of thyme. Light stone fruit with very nice balance and a seamless flow over the palate but also
with nice concentration and a medium long finish.
2014 Ensemble ($13.99)
Mostly chardonnay with some koshu, it also was a light straw color with crushed rock then
pineapple and poha berry with a hint of dried herbs (marjoram?). Medium full on the palate
with a glycerin-like richness and good acid. However the finish is dominated by the acids.
I was surprised that all three wines came across as Old World primarily because the nose gave an
initial hit of earth, stones or pebbles and the fruit qualities weren’t very pronounced. They also
contained quite a bit of acid (cold climate) which made all three wines very food friendly
Motherland Inspired Wines
While the following wines aren’t produced in Japan, they were inspired by Japanese cuisine,
namely sushi. And though it might seem relatively easy to create a wine to pair with raw
seafood, it isn’t only the delicate seafood flavors you have to consider but a wine that also
balances the richest, fatty otoro to the earthiness of shoyu to the bite of wasabi to the delicate
flavors of hirame. It’s not that easy when you consider all of the components of a sushi based
Oroya was created by Japanese winemaker Yoko Sato in partnership with the Spanish wine
making house Freixenet and it was a white wine containing 60% Airen with natural fruitiness to
balance the bold flavors of shoyu and wasabi, 30% Macabeo to provide clean acid to cleanse the
palate between bites of sushi and 10% Muscat with just enough perfume and sweet fruit to
balance the fiery wasabi. Local Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya liked the balance so much that
it had a permanent place on the Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas wine list… that is, until about a year
ago when the partnership dissolved and Oroya became just a wine memory.
Domaine Mittnacht Frères Cuvée Gyotaku
The inspiration for Alsatian winemaker Christophe Mittnacht to create a wine specifically for
sushi and sashimi was simply his Japanese chef wife Yuka whose father ran a restaurant in Tokyo.
The blend of 40% Pinot Blanc, 30% Riesling, 10% Muscat, 10% Pinot Gris, and 10%
Gewurztraminer is aromatic and floral enough but also dry enough to balance flavors of shoyu
and wasabi. Thankfully, this sushi and sashimi inspired wine is still available in the US if you
look hard enough...
The Complete Reversal
The final wine isn’t just inspired by the Motherland, it’s the national symbol for fermented
beverages, sake. And not just sake but seasonal Daiginjo sake. So why did sake brewed in Japan
make it to this column? It’s because sake inspired an Oxford educated Englishman to become
the only foreign toji or master sake brewer. After graduating from Oxford, Philip Harper moved
to Japan to teach English and living in Japan eventually inspired his love of sake enough that he
started studying all things sake and in 2001 passed the Nanbu Brewer’s Guild exam to become
the first and only foreign toji. He currently crafts sake for the Kinoshita Brewery in Kyoto
Prefecture. I’ve sampled several of their sake and couldn’t tell you that an Englishman created it,
it simply tastes like any well made sake.