I happen to have attended two unrelated private tasting events in private appartments recently where Japanese sommeliers were letting amateurs/professionals like me and others taste and experience what Japan had to offer in terms of fermented beverage. The coincidence was interesting and I thought it might make a good story.
France is considered as being a bit chauvinistic in terms of wine choice and selection; I'm not sure it's right to say that after all even though I used to believe this myself,
it could be just that the choice here is such and the price range so wide (especially in the mid- and lower price range)
that people need to be really explorative and daring to look elsewhere, especially when the prices of imported wines are higher. They can't even really handle already the variety of all what's in inside their borders, and their lack of interest for foreign wine is a natural consequence.
On other liquid varieties (so to say), the French can be adventurous, like they've proved in the last few year with the Japanese whisky (Nikka in particular) which has made inroads in Europe largely through the French market (and the initiative of La Maison du Whisky). But for both Japanese wine and sake, this is another matter, think of swimming against the tide or fight an uphill battle, the outcome of which is more difficult to predict.
This nice private tasting took place in the Paris appartment of a young British woman, Emma Bentley, who works for La Maison du Whisky (but will soon start her own job as agent for artisan wineries). It's always great to discover Paris through other appartments, and her views over the roofs or the Sacré coeur was terrific. I was tipped about the event by another whisky geek, Nicholas Sikorski who is Mr Japanese-whisky at this company, otherwise the attendance was very international with also a German wine professional and several Japanese women in addition to the master of ceremonies Mr Kei Miyagawa, a Japanese sommelier who lives in France and helps distribute Japanese drinks in high-end Restaurants.
We're not yet a Knights vs Samourai situation but the Japanese wines are serious stuff, at least that's we experienced again.
Kei-san says that many varieties grow now in Japan, but that that day he wanted us to taste wines from two particular varieties, first Koshu, the iconic local wine variety of Japan, and Muscat Bailey A, which is an alien variety for us Europeans, an hybrid which can be found commonly in Japan. Then Kei Miyagawa presented the wines he would have us taste this evening, first the iconic local white variety of Japan, Koshu, and also about an intriguing hybrid that can yield great wines although it's not viewed favorably in the wine circles : Muscat Bailey A.
Kei Miyagawa, our guide on Japanese wines, says that wine began to be made from koshu grapes around 1890 or just before, in the early years of Meiji when Japan opened itself to the outside world and imported different ways and customs. Kei-san says that several countries inspired the Japanese at this time, France for the police system (with the influence of Léon Roches, first French ambassador to Japan), England for the industry and Germany for the state organization, to summarize. And actually I found out after some research that The man who above all created the modern police system in Japan was inspired by a French envoy, Prosper Gambet-Gross who became an adviser for the police directorate (Keishi-cho) in 1976 and was buried in the Aoyama cemetery when he died in 1881. It's strange how things happen throughout history, when you think about it...
Kei-san speaks on the wine on a very entertaining and lively way, because he reminds us about other things that took place in Japan while the wine culture took root, and all this, with a lot of humor...
Wine was beginning being made then too but it was always sugary, it wasn't right compared to the French wines brought now and then by Portuguese merchants. All the while there were some imports from Europe, including Germany and it helped develop the need for better wines. Today, while in the last years the consumption of other fermented beverages tends to lag in Japan, wine keeps growing, Kei-san says. But Japan has a different climate and other terroirs, and he says that there is the issue of yields too where there are big differences with France : while in France yields are commonly 35 to 45 hectoliters/hectare, in Japan it's more like 6 to 70 ho/ha, which brings more diluted aromas and character.
Another almost color-less white. Nice balance, the wine has a nice touch in the mouth too. Other attendees says that the wine is very refined. The domaine vinifies all its terroirs separately, and Isehara is the best terroir for koshu. From what I understand, the cuvée has a total volume of 18 000 bottles. 12 % alcohol.
__ Aruga Branca Distinctamente 2011, Koshu on lees (the label looks much like the bottle above). Suave feel in the mouth, with a nice freshness. The élevage was probably longer, with the time on the lees. An attendee says that he preferred the 1st one, which he found to be more harmonious. Emma looked on the winery website and there's no information on the time on lees, we just learn that it's done in tanks.
The wine has a nice aromatic range, beyond the wood which you can feel too, it's harmonious and the two things are well intertwined. The nose is appealing, the mouth is quite exquisite, the wine goes down pretty well. This is a nice wine, which people should try when they wonder if Japan can compete on the wine scene. An attendee says that you have here aromas of caramel, liquorice, red fruits, black fruits, blueberries, flowers... And the wine hasn't so much color for all these aromas.
Kei-san says that the bottle costs about 3000 Y on the Japanese market (1000 Y make about 7,1 € today), which is not expensive considering the quality and the propensity of boutique Japanese wines to cost a lot.
The label tells interestingly the nalme of the growers : Yokouchi Masahiko & Yokouchi Toshihito. God work. This also helps understand that hybrids can make very good wines. Muscat Bailey A is usually a cheap wine in Japan, says Kei Miyagawa, but here the wine is very different. He says that he travelled to Japan in 2008 with sommeliers Olivier Poussier, Didier Bureau and a couple other people, and Poussier was also surprised at what this hybrid could yield.
__ Diamond Winery, Muscat Bailey A 2009, same wine from the previous vintage. We're told that 2009 is a good vintage in Japan. The mouth is more powerful here. There something more, like more minerality, and length. The empty glass will deliver beautiful meat-juice aromas. All the people are very excited about these two wines, this is really a discovery, two red wines we'll not forget.
__ Merlitsch Ex Vero I 2009, Steirerland Österreich (Ewald & Brigitte Tscheppe) aus biodynamischem Anbau. Chardonnay with sauvignon blanc. Very light wine, almost watery (seems to me). The nose hints of its sauvignon part. Got only 15 mg of SO2 at bottling.
The Weingut Merlitsch makes wine from a mostly 25-year old vineyard planted on limestone/marl soils. The work in the vineyard is central for the owners.
__ Strohmeier Weiss 4 Trauben, Liebe & Zeit 2010-2011, Ohne Zugabe von Schwefel, ohne jegliche Zusatzstoffe, unfiltriert (without SO2 addind, without additives, unfiltered). Very nice mouth, aliveness feel, nice touch on the palate and richness, you ask for another glass here, it goes down by itself, no spitting. The wine is lightly turbid. Pinot Blanc & Chardonnay, aus biologischer Landwirtschaft (I know you guys need German lessons...), 12,5 % alc. The back lablel says that this is the harvest 201-2011, interesting, I don't know more about that. The Weingut Strohmeier is also in styria. Nice work.
Paris, 3rd arrondissement
This other unrelated tasting event also took place in a private appartment in Paris. It was the initiative of Yuko Kuwahara (picture above, right), who visited from Japan and works for the non-profit Association of Pure Sake Promoters of Japan. This group is dedicated to promote sake made without dilution or alcohol and other additions, like it was the norm before WW2. She was helped by Gael Segear, her partner and passionate sake Amateur. Both met in 2013 and he embarked on this pure sake crusade for the revival of nihonshu.
Mrs Kuwahara begins with explaining how sake changed during the 20th century from a traditional fermented beverage made from rice to a drink with lots of additions, original nihonshu making a 3rd of the volume of a bottle and the rest being addition of alcohol or non-rice component. This all started in WW2 as rice had become a rare commodity because of the war needs and constraints on agriculture, the missing rice and its related fermented liquid were replaced by other products and alcohol, and after the war was over, these new, alternative sake-making recipes remained because I guess it was cheaper and convenient for the commercial breweries. But Yoko-san says that the Japanese were beginning to be tired of this sake, they didn't like the way it tasted and were longing for a revival of the true sake, the one made with only rice and water, which is called Junmai-shu in Japan. This story mirrors strangely what has been going on in wine-producing countries and particularly France, even though the additives here were of different nature, the thing is that amateurs on both sides of the beverage world were tired from what technology has concocted and were longing for the real thing.
The sake that she offered us to taste while eating that evening are very traditional, Yuko says, they are all Junmai-shu but each of them is different. In the midst of the dining experience, I didn't really taste individually each of these sakes, so I will just post a picture of what we had that evening.
The Pure Sake group has 8 members, all of course sake breweries that make Junmai-shu sake, that is sake made of rice and water and no other addition, but we would taste only one brewery that evening, Shinkame Shuzo, which was the initiator of this pure-sake movement in 1987 by switching to a 100 % production of pure sake in its facility. From what I understand many of these sake have a minimum of two years maturation time at room temperature, giving them a character of their own.
We were maybe a dozen people that evening and we had the opportunity to taste these sakes with all sort of dishes, some authenticly Japanese (Yuko had prepared a terrific Nabe) and others very French and charcuterie oriented, there was even foie gras, a dish that paired perfectly with the Junmai Dai-Ginjo. There was also a very atypical sake, which was 30 years old (last pic), with almost Jura aromatic notes.