This is about a sakaya shop in a nondescript neighborhood west of the Nishinippori station. Through a visit to this wine shop and a short interview with its owner, I could gauge the interest of the Japanese consumers for natural wine and the growing popularity of these wines in a country where wine in general is a recent adoptee and where beer and sake still hold the lion's share of fermented beverages. The japanese are in high demand for what they call Mutenka wine (無添加 - additive-free wine) or van nature (natural wine) and this sakaya/wine-shop is a convincing example of this trend.
First, a sakaya means sake shop, the sakayas are where the Japanese buy their sake and miso under the form of concentrated paste. Since a few years, you see wines in the sakayas, so they're basically the Japanese equivalent of our local wine shops in the West, just that sake holds a prominent place there. Miso is more of a mystery why it's been sold there but I think that these shops sell miso because miso is like sake the result of a fermentation.
I thought that this particular sakaya would be very interesting to share because although it is located in a regular, almost working-class neigborhood, the owner has for a few years selected his wine portfolio on the criteria of their natural winemaking, and same for many of his other products including miso paste.
What I saw there was indeed far from what I would have expected to see in this anonymous part of Tokyo; remember, we're far from Ginza, Ebisu or Roppongi, where you could credit the wine-portfolio orientation to some trendy fashion or to a well-connected crowd of wine amateurs. I couldn't judge by the sake names but the wines seemed to be mostly natural wines from vintners I know or heard about, people like Olivier Cousin, Puzelat, Noella Morantin, Christian Chaussard and others. Basically, every name I could think of regarding artisan winemaking was here...
What was interesting also for me was to gauge the price difference considering the long route to Japan in temperature-controlled containers : for example a bottle of Pineau d'Aunis La Ténière from Puzelat which costs close to 17 € in France is sold for 3400 Y or 28 € including the shop's margin, which while a comfortable add up isn't outrageous considering the freight charges.
This all contributed to this peak in consumption of wine in 1998 with 4,2 liter per inhabitant, after which it reverted to the more modest 2,5 liter per person, but still after then, the wine uptake kept getting bigger year after year. And part of the picture is that natural wines are getting a fair share of this increasing demand, particularly among knowledgeable amateurs.
France holds the biggest share regarding wine imports as of 2007, with 38,6 % in volume (in front of Italy at 16,9 %) and 66,1 % in retail value (in front of Italy at 11,9 %), a sign that the Japanese consumer still values the expensive and well-known wines from the traditional Chateaus of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Even if natural wines still probably represent a modest percentage of the French wine imports in Japan (I have no data about that), this country is still the first buyer of natural wines world wide. Most of the vintners I met in France during my visits told me that Japan had the biggest export-share of their wines. The reason may be the Japanese love for unprocessed products like I mentioned earlier, but Sato-san says that most of his customers for these wines are women who appreciate the easy drinkability of these wines and their freshness versus other wines which are higher in alcohol and less balanced.
His father began to add wine in the shop's portfolio in the 1990s', and Sato-san began to add natural wines (they say vin nature here in Japan) in 2000. Asked about how did he discover these wines, Sato-san says that it was at a tasting event, he had a wine made by Mark Angeli, La Lune, and it was an awakening to something he had never felt before, it was a shock. I wrote about this cuvée in a story last year (5th pic on this post) and I understand his crush for this magic wine. Then later he discoverd the wines of Eric Pfifferling and it was another wonder, and same for the wines of Puzelat and of Dard & Ribo. After tasting these winers he went to the importer with whom he tasted more such vins nature. And as Japan has begun in the recent years to produce natural wines, he also added many of them in his portfolio. He is not selling exclusively Japanese natural wines but as he prefers the taste of these wines, he promotes them in his shop.
Sato-san stresses the importance of the relationship of trust that he has with the Japanese vintners he sells the wines of, in his shop. He has visited them repeatedly in Yamanashi or elsewhere, which is I think not very common in the trade, but recently he became a father and being short of time he had to stop travelling there.
Asked about the requirements of his customers, regarding SO2 additions in the wine for example, he says that there is a wide demand from the Japanese consumers for sulfur-free wines but he thinks that the buyers are not always informed on the fact that small additions of SO2 still keep the wines very natural and healthy.
Sato-san offered us to taste two wines from Italy, as he had two opened bottles from a tasting event the previous day. That was for me the opportunity to discover the wines of Gianfranco Manca, a vintner from Sardegnia. A sentence on the back label makes me think that I understand Italian better than I thought : SENZA L'UTILIZZO DI ALCUN CORRETTIVO E CONSERVATIVO. I was eager to drink these wines in spite of their sporting 14,5 ° in alcohol.
I loved these wines, they had an earthy feel with a velvety type of tannins that made for a very pleasant swallow. The wine was obviously unfiltered judging by the mouthfeel and it had retained all its life and and grainy texture with a good acidity.
Asked about the base price for a bottle of natural wine here, be it Japanese or French/italian, Sion winery (pronounced also Chion), the labels he says that the first price is 1365 Y (11,3 €), a bottle of white with a screw cap which is made by the of which being colorful paintings of flowers. This wine sells well, first because it is good, then the buyers know that the cuvée is not big, so the wine sells well.
The bottles above/left aren't exactly natural wines but the winery is doing a very good job in that direction. The Takeda winery has a long history in the trade and it is managed today by the heir of the family, Mrs Noriko Kishidaira, who studied enology in Burgundy, France (Macon Davaillé). They don't put fertilizers and chemicals in the vineyard and they use the biodynamic method. Browse through Takeda Winery's website, it is very well made and informative, with many pictures too. I can't but praise the transparency displayed by Noriko-san who has a webpage (link on the main page) with the transcripts of the most recent radioactivity checks of the wines produced by the winery, and the results appear, in my non-expert understanding at least, as perfectly safe. The wine above right is a Sans Soufre (en Français dans le texte), a sulfur-free wine with a crown-cap closure.
Sato-san grabs another bottle of Japanese wine, a Yoichi Nobori, Nakai Blanc 2011, Kerner, which is made by Takahiko Soga in Hokkaido, and costs 2625 Y a bottle, or 21,7 €. A Google translation from the vintner's webpage lets me think that the man is resolutely engaged in an artisan philosophy with the aim to respect nature. Sato-san tels me that this grower has only Pinot Noir planted on his farm, but from what I understand he does some négoce too, buying other varieties to make other wines. This particular wine for example was made from grapes purchased to Nakai-san, another grower. Takahiko Soga worked at the Coco Farm Winery, by the way.
We learn through this Japan Times article that Akihiko Soga's wines won awards and were selected for the wine list of a major Japanese airline. He says that the Japanese in their 30s' can be credited for having changed the way domestic wines are made, because they travelled abroad thanks to the high value of the Yen and were exposed to lots of quality wines.
This cuvée was by the way one of the two bottles that I brought as a gift to the staff of the Coco Farm Winery. As I was telling my enjoyment about this wine, Sato-san showed me the magnum of Patapon with the autograph and drawing of Christian Chaussard that he kept as a precious remembrance from the late vintner from the Loire. Christian Chaussard and his wife nathalie had visited Japan and, yes, Nodaya, 3 months before he passed away in a tractor accident. On the wall (pictures above and right) you can see these precious moments where Christian draws on the bottle, plus another shot where you can see Sato-san with his wife and children posing alongside with Christian and Natalie, and presumably Sato-san's father. They were of course very shocked when they heard about the accident just a few months later, and this story shows how the relations between the vignerons and distributors/shops can be close in spite of the enormous distance between them.
They're selling the 2011 vintage here, the last Patapon cuvée vinified by Christian, and I'm happy to have a few bottles of it in the Loire. You can see on the left the bottle on the shelves, between Arianna Occhipinti's Il Frappato and Benoit Courault's Les Tabenaux.
They're made respectively (from left to right) by Chateau Lumière (Yamanashi), Domaine Soleil (not sure but this French word appears on the label), Chanter Y. G. (from Yamagata), Sakai winery (Yamagata), Fermier Winery and Oku-Izumo Vineyard.
Here is an Utmost interesting blog (in both English and Japanese) made by a Suzuka (Nagano Prefecture) grower and winemaker . The Kusukoni winery is only about 4 years old. There's lots of informative pictures (too small sized alas) in the blog, especially about the vineyard work, pruning and different seasons (lots of snow in winter). The page takes time to load (lots of entries, that's why) but it's worth a browse. The guy obviously has a penchant for artisanship and careful vineyard management.
On the lower end of the page (entry dated 2009/01/28) you can see and read about a strange machine that they use over there to inject pressured air with a big needle into the hard ground so as to allow a better breathing and feeding of the vine roots. When the upper layer is tight and hard, this machine breaks the surface structure and allows a better exchange. I just wonder if it doesn't increase the already big volumes of rain water that the roots get in the monsoon season. This winery is unrelated to the shop, I don't know if Sato-san sells his wine, I just stumbled on this blog while doing some research.
I regret to offer little information on the sake side of Nodaya's portfolio, as the nihonshu selection must be pretty good too. Just reading the Google translation of Nodaya's sake list makes me salivate even though I don't know these breweries (except Daishichi) the Next time, I'll go straight to Nodaya just to buy a couple of these big bottles of Sake.
Sato-san sells also miso soup paste, and I bought a big pack of miso for B. who stayed in Paris. It comes from a farm/company named Kawakei (Miyagi) and it is made without additives or preservatives, says the back label.
Sato-san organizes tasting events on a regular basis, and these events feature natural wines of course.