Tokyo was pretty cold and even rainy on this first sunday of march, and happily rain in this city means good shots of crowds with umbrellas; I know it's been made thousands of times but I can't resist it, and Omotesando was a good change from the compulsory Hachiko-crossing umbrellas at Shibuya. But I needed something extra, exciting enough to get over the damp, cold weather. And Festivin, the wine event which took place in Omotesando, was really the best thing to warm up that day, but it was also an awakening experience to feel how real and vibrant the natural-wine crowd is in Tokyo.
For years along my meeting and discussing with French artisan winemakers I learnt that Japan was the first to respond massively when the first natural wines were produced in the 1990s' and the French market (even in Paris) was still unaware. Many of these early wine farms of the so-called natural-wine movement stayed afloat in these difficult years because Japan was buying all their wine, so there is really a lot of gratitude in France for the consumers and importers of this faraway country who connected immediately to these uncorrected wines.
This scene above was also another surprise for me : imagine, here is Taisuke Iketani of VinsCoeur (one of the Japanese importers of French natural wines) pouring wines from La Bohême (Auvergne, Loire) to Eishi Okamoto, the young winemaker behind Beau Paysage, a small natural-wine farm from Japan whose cult wines are virtually sold out as soon as they're produced. Okamoto-san's obvious interest for Patrick Bouju's wines was for me a symbol of the brotherhood and common passion that fuels these demanding winemakers who live, literally, worlds apart. That's another side of the story : the Japanese are beginning to have now quite a few domestic artisan wineries following the organic/non-interventionist philosophy, and the best of them take part to the yearly natural-wine fair in Tokyo. Fine restaurants in Tokyo (check for example the wine list of Tsu-Shi-Mi) now serve routinely the best Japanese wines as their quality pair with what Europe and other wine regions can offer, and a good number of these fit into what we could call the natural wine category.
While I waited the opening of the event outside under the rain, I could feel already the excitement of the people there, either through the ones who were waiting for the opening, or the ones who were leaving the first session after spending hours tasting wines and having fun. This was the case of Ken Kadowaki, here with his wife and child. Kadowaki-san is managing a restaurant/bar in Tokyo named Abats (means giblets in French) where charcuterie and good wine are in the front seat. The wine list of Abats seems pretty appealing to me, with prices going from 3000 Y (21 € or 29 USD) for Villemade' Sauvignon Blanc (Domaine du Moulin) to 18 000 Y (127 € or 177 USD) for Fred Cossard's Chambolle Musigny 08. Both are nice wines but the latter is even more out of my reach than it is in France.
The woman in green is Junko Nakahama whom I met a couple times in France and Japan, she is a co-organizer of the event and she wrote the first book about natural wine in Japanese, complete with interviews of winegrowers in France.
Unlike in France where the winegrowers bring their bottles for the tasting, here all these bottles were already paid for by the importers and you had also to take into account the transportations and other costs, so there had to be a fee that could cover all the costs, The fee is 6000 Y (42 € or 59 USD), which quite expensive for a Parisian eye as most professional tastings in Paris are either free of charge or cost 5 €, but all the tickets are sold in advance and you better not too much when they are released or you just miss the event because the tickets are limited. There was two sessions in a single day, the first from 12:00 to 16:00 and the second from 16:00 to 20:00.
Katsuyama-san, from what I understood, got the idea to organize such an even in 2010 as he was having a party at his restaurant with friends on january 31st (his birthday) and there were importers, wine-bar owners and this idea of some sort of festive tasting event centered on natural wine came to light. Usually, he says, there's no cooperation between importers, they all work on their side and because of the competition they don"t really share the same table, so he wanted for a change to have all of them work in unison to allow this festive natural-wine event to exist.
For those who are not fully aware of the natural-wine actors in Japan, there are now quite a few importers dealing exclusively with (mostly French) natural wine, to give a few names, they are Oeno-Connexion, VinsCoeur, Cosmojun, Racines and Le Vin Nature (or François Dumas) to name a few. There is now about 30 importers here dealing with natural wine, here is the list. Some of these importers are new players with little background as of yet in the natural-wine world, like Terra Vert which I learned was a subsidiary of the Kikkoman Group, better known for its soy sauce available around the world. I heard some complaints that they were taking over many producers without having done the ground work in the early years and they pushed the prices down (I heard a similar story with a new importer in Denmark).
Most of these importers have close ties with their winegrowers though, having the staff visiting the domaines and buying a large share of what these artisan winemakers produced [I've heard that some of these French domaines sell or have been selling on some years 75 % of their production to japan alone].
In the early 1990s' there were just a few Japanese importers specialized on French natural wine, basically Mrs Goda of Racines, Mrs Junko Arai of Cosmojun, Mr Ito (Oeno Connexion) and François Dumas (many others have opened shop since then, including some that I didn't name). At that early time Katsuyama-san was a buyer for National Azabu, a supermarket (now closed) that also as a wholesaler supplied restaurants with a good selection of wine. As a wine buyer he got some wine expertise then, there were a few organic wines distributed through the store but not yet natural wines. In 1993 he decided to open Shonzui, his first wine restaurant which would soon serve only French natural wines as they were beginning to show up in Japan. He had encountered the first generation of natural wines as early as 1989 or 1990, like the ones of Marcel Lapierre and Domaine Gramenon. Actually before opening Shonzui he had also set up a small importing business through which he brought Marcel Lapierre's wines here.
Special thanks to Junko Nakahama who helped me with her translation for this interview
__ Beau Paysage Tsugane La Montagne 2009 Merlot 100 %. The color of this wine seems almost past, like if the red had gone. There's a high acidity allied with a delicateness and aromas of flower petals. Very nice wine.
__ Beau Paysage Tsugane La Montagne 2010, an other vintage. Same frshness that you feel even with the nose, vivid an appealing. Same faded color, turbid too. In the mouth : What a pleasure, exquisite balance and velvety wine basking in acidity, a treat.
Too bad that I came too late (the bottles of the other cuvées were empty).
Okamato-san was surrounded by a crowd of young admirers who wanted to know about his winemaking and as you can see (I had heard it long time ago but experienced it first hand here) women play a large role in the success of natural wines in Japan, possibly because of the easy-drinking and healthiness of these wines.
Here is a story (in Japanese) found on a blog about a visit at the Domaine.
__ Before these 2 wines, my first wine that day was Sans Soufre 2013 by the Takeda winery, a sparkling white from the Yamagata region and made with the Delaware grape variety. This is a very turbid sparkling with lemon aromas on the nose and bubbles so thin and discreet that they were almost imperceptible (speaks good to me).
You can see on the picture that there were many staffers, all volunteers for this event, this is Japan and typically the organization side is impressive especially when you see all these individuials doing their best to advance the whole thing.
This march event was, again, a Festivin in minor mode because the organizers hadn't found a building large enough to house all the guests and trade professionals like in the previous years. To give a few figures, the first event in november 2010 had 1000 visitors, the 2nd a year later in 2011 had 1400 visitors and the 3rd in 2012 had 2200 visitors. This one had only maybe 750 visitors because there was not enough room in this gallery to allow more, but given the sharp increase of the previous years we should see large crowds again when the regular full-size event reinstates its former premises in Ebisu next november.
I listened later to Claude Courtois in another wing of the tasting as he was speaking of complantation and varieties vinified together. He said that the best ciders he tasted in his life were made with 60 varieties of apples, the cider reaches another dimension in these conditions. He says that it's like people who sit around a table, they can exchange between them and find a solution to whatever they discuss, at least they'll have more chance to succeed that a single man. there's a complementarity at work when several actors work together, he recalls when he was forking the hay in in his youth, each worker would do his part according to his skills, and like his grandfather used to say "à deux, on va 3 fois plus vite" or two people work three times faster...
Claude says that On his cuvée Racines Rouge which has the most varieties (12 or 13, some of which are undisclosed to avoid trouble with the wine administration), the grapes ferment together, (not separately with a later blending). Having them all ferment together is what brings a plus, otherwise you loose the "coperation" beyween the different grapes and their bioligical characters.
The video above begins with a shot on François Dumas (one of the early importers of natural wine in Japan) and Anna, whom I met first in Paris. She is a wine specialist and she has been living for some time in Singapore before moving to Tokyo recently. I was surprised to see that she was already very well connected with the Tokyo wine world.
This crowd is a mix of all sort of people, some came alone, others came in group, there were obviously professionals like wine-bar or restaurant owners, there were also a few Western expats, some being possibly also in the restaurant trade.
you chat here and there at the tables, I mean, when you're fluent in Japanese which is not my case but you still manage to speak in English or French here and there, you meet other attendees and make acquaintances and so on. I understand why some of the visitors bought tickets to attend the two sessions consecutively, but 6000 Y was already a big sum for me to spend on a tasting, I wouldn't even think of 12 000...
Here I could see all these cuvées of Philippe Jambon plus a few ones from Dard & Ribo, and all along these tables I had the vague feeling that some of the cuvées found in this tasting even were exclusive deliveries for Japan, I'd almost grow some (maybe unfounded) jealousy against this country who grabs most of the production of these wines, and possibly sometimes whole cuvées....
Junko sells also her book directly to wine bars and wine shops, and her work will help wine lovers who caught the virus with these wines get more understanding about why these wines are different and who are the artisans behind them. The book's goal, Junko says, is to tell the story behind the wine bottles. She visited about 20 domaines and she also exchanged mails with winegrowers to learn their path.
Here is the summary in Japanese found on the Amazon page for Junko's book, not a SEO trick to lure Japanese wine lovers on this website (OK, I admit this may be part of the motive...) :
ワインバーやレストランでジワジワ人気が上がっているヴァン・ナチュール(ナチュラル・ワイン)。日本語に訳せば“自然に造ったワイン"という意味だが、実は厳密な定義はないという。それならば実際に造っている人を訪ねて、生産者の言葉で語ってもらおうと企画されたのが本書。 ヨーロッパを中心にのべ1年にわたる取材の末に見えてきたのは、十人十色のワイン造りがあること。そんななかで共通するのは、自然に敬意を払って葡萄を育て、そのすべてをワインに詰め込むべく、できる限り「何も足さない」「何も引かない」醸造方法に真剣に取り組む生産者たちの姿。栽培では化学合成された肥料、除草剤、殺虫剤、醸造では培養酵母、酵素、SO2(二酸化硫黄)などのケミカルなものに極力頼らないワイン造りは、微生物汚染や酸化の危険と隣り合わせの綱渡りではあるけれど、努力を惜しまず造りあげたワインには、単なる飲み物にとどまらない、心踊る個性がある。従来型のワインに、大量生産の工業製品のようなものが多いなか、ヴァン・ナチュールは手仕事のクラフツといえるかもしれない。ワイン造りを通して自らの人生を語ってくれたのは、ヨーロッパを中心に74人の生産者。 さらに2010年から恒例となった、ヴァン・ナチュールのお祭りFESTIVIN(フェスティヴァン。代表・勝山晋作・ワインバー<祥瑞><楽記>店主)・スタッフによる座談会、<チーム・フェスティヴァン>としてこのイベントに料理を提供するレストラン、ワインバーからのメッセージ、ヴァン・ナチュールが買える店、飲める店も多数収録している。
In case you wonder how natural wine pairs with Japanese or asian food, don't miss the next Festivin (november 2014 if I'm right) because you'll have at hand hundreds of different wines at the ready while you eat this or that dish with chopsticks, I'm not sure this sort of pairing experience is available anywhere in Europe...
Here Rebekah presented me Teruhiko Saito who is the owner of Ahiru Store, a cult natural-wine bar/restaurant making its own bread and which is located in the back streets of Shibuya, some sort of sister venue of Le Verre Volé-Tokyo where natural wines are served with selected organic food. Teruhiko-san grew up near Osaka, went to the Chiba univesity studying architecture but ended up working in the restaurant field. He opened Ahiru (means duck) Store in 2008 which soon became a reference venue for natural wine. Like many other wine professionals Teruhiko Saito was spending the day at Festivin and without Rebekah's help I wouldn't have know about him. Teruhiko Saito is holding a copy of Bio Talk, a book about natural wine in Japanese (Amazon page) which he co-authored with Makoto Konno.
This book reviews the 100 best producers of natural wine, it should also sell well considering the demand for these wines here. The editor of this book is Sachi Yokoyama (pictured on right) who works at Magazine House Co. Ltd. I wouldn't have expected to meet so many well-connected people on a tasting run.
Here are a few words in Japanese about the content of this book :
ファッション誌「GINZA」の大好評連載ページが1冊の書籍に。 “自然派"と聞くと、どこかほっこりしたものをイメージするが、“自然派ワイン"に関しては、むしろ真逆な場合が多い。 GINZAの連載は、自然派ワインを扱う三軒茶屋uguisu/西荻窪organ店主・紺野真氏と、渋谷アヒルストア店主・齊藤輝彦氏が、 毎回、自然派ワインとその周辺の人々が持つ、ロックでパンクな精神を訪ねて、自論を展開する対談形式。 その連載の抜粋に加え、巻末に収められた「この生産者のワインを飲め! 」100本リストも必見です。
I realize that I must tell a bit about the wines I had (too few considering the choice, but there was so much to do and see).
__ Gamay Sand Tra-Lala 2012, Domaine de la Garrelière. An incredibly saline gamay, quite powerful too, surprising for a gamay; the tannins are tight and thin.
__ Beaujolais Blanc Lapin 2011 (chardonnay I guess), Domaine Nicolas Testard. these Lapin wine are more easy to find in Japan than in France, it seems too me. Nice turbidity. Light and short but goes down well.
__ Beaujolais Blanc Lapin 2012, with élevage in oak casks.
__ Tain Tain et Mildiou, Vin de France 2012, Domaine Nicolas Testard. A white. Turbid wine with a lemon-type color. Astringency in the mouth, softened with a generous richness. Aromas of liquorice.
__ Opération Tonneau, Vin de France 2011 (red), a magnum. the acidity is qquite interesting here, considering you like [natural] acidity in a wine, which is my case.
__ Bodegas Cauzon, Iradei (the wrath of God) 2010 (recommended by Anna), a Spanish red made from mostly ungrafted vines, tempranillo, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and grenache (more on this file). The winemaker was running a restaurant in his previous life and he dropped everything to plant vines and make wine. Very nice tannic touch in the mouth.
the other musicians at Festivin were the Black Velvets and Mamadou Doumbia (I recognize here François' touch and deep knowledge of African musicians dating from the time when he was organizing music tours in Japan).
Watch this video of mine where you can see both the crowd of wine lovers and Sandii in one of her songs and performance. You can distinctly hear her at one point saying a few words in English about these wonderful natural wines...
Here are more wines that I had that day :
__ Fruits Sauvages, Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2012 by Julien Sunier. A gamay with quite a high acidity, nicely wrapped in red-fruits aromas.
__ On S'En Bat Les Couilles - Vin de Bagnole (pictured above) by Pascal Simonutti, the iconic Loire table wine. A deliciously acidic and vivid wine yielding an intense feel in the mouth. Clafoutis aromas (morello cherry cake). There's an evolved side or lightly oxidative side here. You drink this wine so easily, like we say in French, ça se boit comme du petit lait...
__ Dard & Ribo Les Rouges des Baties, Crozes-Hermitage 2007. A slight sugar feel, nice structure.
__ Philippe Jambon, Dense avec une Tranche 2011, no added SO2. A very mineral, saline wine, quite exceptional. The tight and matured tannins coat beautifully the sides of the mouth.
__ Damien Bureau La Poivrote, Vin de France 2011. The color of the wine shines by itself, and the result in the mouth is in line : what a fruit, and such a candy style. This wine makes 9 % in alcohol only, and Damien Bureau's vineyards make one hectare only. You must try this wine when you can, it's a treat of freshness and refinement.
A few minutes before this picture was shot, I had inadvertedly watched as Beau-Paysage's Eishi Okamoto (who was going around the tables to taste the wines like it happens in these sort of tastings) was poured a couple of wines by Patrick Bouju (la Bohême). He seemed very interested by two wines, Le Blanc and Lulu, and even if I don't understand Japanese, I felt thet Okamoto-san had felt some common ground in these Auvergne wines made on the eastern-most wing of the Loire region. I'm sure Patrick will be happy to read that one of these days.
Taisuke-san speaks rather good French, he probably spent a good time in France including for regular visits to the domaines. He says that he started VinsCoeur in 2005 (almost 10 years ago). Before that, he spent time as a trainee at Junko Arai's Domaine Les Bois Lucas in 2002 and 2003, and he worked with Pascal Potaire not far from there, Pascal making natural sparklings. When he set up VinsCoeur the only other importers operating at the time were Mr Ito's Oeno-Conexion, Mrs Yasuko Goda's Racines and Junko Arai's Cosmojun. Today he still travels twice a year to France to visit the wine farms, he says that these growers in the Loire are his friends and that he feels home there, but he adds that he works with growers in all the wine regions, except Champagne...
Taisuke-san says also a few words about Noëlla Morantin's new Sauvignon vineyards, which she purchased from Junko Arai in 2012; he says that he knows these vineyards pretty well because he did the vineyard work as a trainee 12 years ago, he knows the wines that come from these parcels veery well because he help them come alive from A to Z, and he says that they are on excellent terroirs indeed, yielding very different wine characters compared to other Sauvignon terroirs nearby.
The tasting event ended very gently, with the staff taking care to gather all the empty bottles for recycling. The last hour had a very joyous atmosphere (see video), proving that these wines make you happy and light-hearted.