Nagano region, Japan, day 1

I’ve returned to the Nagano wine region, which I visited last March. It’s in the middle of Japan, which is quite a long, thin country stretching from 26 degrees south (Okinawa) to 44 degrees north (Nayoro). Nagano is at 36 degrees south, but its big advantage is altitude: 80% of its farm land is above 500 m in altitude. The challenge here is the same that faces many of Japan’s wine growing regions: too much rain at the wrong time – in the growing season and at harvest. But Nagano has less of this than the other regions.

Japan makes 22 million bottles of wine a year, which by my calculations means it crushes around 25 000 tons of grapes in a vintage. This isn’t a lot, but the number of wineries is currently growing. There are now 322 wineries, and Nagano has 47. In terms of volume, Yamanashi, home of Koshu, is the biggest (7.3 million bottles), while Nagano is second with 5 million. Hokkaido is third (3.3 million).

There are a series of wine valleys in Nagano: Chikumagawa, Tenruugawa, Kikyogahara and Nihon Alps. I’ll be exploring them over the next few days.

Onsen at Nakadanaso, Komura, Nagano

My trip began last night. I arrived in Tokyo, took three trains, and ended up in Komoro in Nagano Prefecture. I stayed at Nakadanaso, which is a historical riyokan (traditional inn) with a famous onsen (thermal bath). I was here last year, and it is one of my favourite places. There are two parts to the thermal bath, indoors and outdoors. The indoor one has apples floating in it, which are a tribute to famous poet Toson Shimazaki who stayed here frequently, and wrote a well known poem called First Love, which is think is the connection with the apples.

We dined well and tried three wines from the region. The Tomioka family who own Nakadanaso also own the Gio Hills winery, and Hayato Tomioka, son of the owner, is winemaker. They have just opened a new winery: previously the wines were made at teaching winery Arc-en-Vin by Hayato

The dinner was a beautiful multi course event.

Boiled Japanese parsley with small white fish and Yuzu powder

Yellowtail sashimi

Pot dish with grated radish, including chicken, Chinese cabbage and enoki mushrooms

Grilled Spanish mackerel with Fuki-miso

Fried sea bream and vegetables marinated in spicy vinegar sauce

Deep fried fish

Steamed local beef

Shinshugu beef: cows fed on apple to make the beef more tender, and then we finished with boiled rice with green peas

The wines:

Terre de Ciel Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Komoro, Nagano
This is a Sauvignon from very high altitude (930 m), made by Takeda Ikeo. It’s really impressive. Very aromatic with a crisp nose of elderflower, passion fruit and citrus. The palate is dry and linear with a stony character and high acidity. A precise style that’s bone dry with lovely fruit. 90/100

Gio Hills Pinot Noir 2017 Komoro, Nagano
From the Mimakigahara lieu dit at 830 m. Gio Hills started to grow vines in 2000, and until then Masaki Tomioka had been growing potatoes. At that time Manns winery were experimenting with Chardonnay at high altitude, but Masaki decided to go 200 m higher. ‘I like a challenge,’ he says. Now they have 2 hectares planted, but so far just 0.5 hectares in production. They have just completed a new winery. This Pinot Noir is from 9 year old vines and it is fermented with wild yeasts. It’s subtle and sappy with fine red cherry fruit and a bit of plum. There’s also just a hint of undergrowth. The palate shows soft tannins and good acidity with lovely fruit and great precision and finesse. A light style but with some substance, this is drinking very well now. 92/100

Coteau des Chevrettes Tateshina Rouge Garçon 2017 Nagano
A blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from Takahisha Izawa. This is a really nice wine that isn’t trying hard to be anything other than what it is. It’s a cool-climate Bordeaux blend with a Loire-like personality, showing fresh cherries and blackcurrants with some spice. Light and fragrant with some attractive green notes. Nice purity. 90/100

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