Summers in Japan are associated with boisterous matsuri filled with men in fundoshi sweating under the great weight of omikoshi portable shrines, and colorful yukata-clad girls clip-clopping in their geta en route to see fireworks-filled skies.
But this time of year also offers the opportunity to explore wines we may usually not look to during the rest of the year. Wines that are best enjoyed are simple, fun, and juicy quaffers. Like the television show “Friends,” they are entertaining and do not take themselves very seriously. Best of all, many are meant to be consumed young and are often a bargain. When exploring wines for the summer, open your mind and you may find yourself justly rewarded.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind. Look for wines that are low in alcohol as they are easy to drink. Imagine a German Riesling at 7 percent alcohol compared to a 15 percent monster New World Chardonnay. Also, a hint of sweetness from residual sugar makes for a great aperitif — it will give you a natural kick-start after a long day at work. Some spritz or effervescence is refreshing and will tickle the palate. Cool-climate wines from areas such as France’s Loire and Alsace regions, and New Zealand offer natural acidity, making them crisp and very food-friendly. Think of how a squirt of lemon brightens up a grilled fish — same concept.
Recently I queried wine colleagues in Tokyo and got a medley of recommendations.
Steely Sauvignon Blanc wines from the Sancerre region in the Loire are known for their crispy, citrusy palate and cool mineral finish. Their bracing acidity helps to rejuvenate and makes for a nice match with salads or with goat cheeses. Pascal Jolivet makes a Sancerre Blanc that is easily found around town retailing for about 2,800 yen.
The general manager of the Four Seasons at Marunouchi, Tracy Mercer, has a penchant for Alsace, particularly Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer. The Alsatian whites are known for being highly aromatic, which many misconstrue for sweetness, but on the palate they are bone-dry. Rieslings are an oral delight with their honeyed, mineral and floral palate. Alsatian Pinot Gris are similar to Italian Pinot Grigios but much more refined than their watery counterparts from the south. Both Rieslings and Pinot Gris go well with sushi, and the spicy/litchi flavor of Gewurtztraminer, which never disappoints, is a natural with spicy Asian foods.
Alsatian wines by law must have the name of the grape on the label, making them easy to shop for. Trimbach , Josmeyer , and Hugel are some brands to seek.
If you like a bit of spritz, try a Spumante — Italian for sparkling wine — such as the aromatic and low-alcohol (5-7 percent) Moscato d’Asti or the slightly dry Prosecco. A curious variation is Lambrusco, a red sparkler from Italy. It is considered to be frizzante, or less bubbly than spumante, but is nonetheless charming. If you’d like to sample some sparklers, or other great Italian wines, with cured meats and Italian cheeses, look no further than the classic enoteca wine bar, implicito near Ebisu.
implicito: Shibuya-ku, Higashi 4-6-3; tel: (03) 5774-4433 www.implicito.com
Kunio Naito, owner of the wine shop Cave de Relax in Toranomon says that his summer recommendation is from South Africa, the Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc (about 1,500 yen). Naito-san says the Sancerre-style wine has good minerals and a touch of bell pepper. If you are curious about Japanese wine, Grace Winery in Yamanashi makes a milky-soft Koshu (about 1,200 yen), with green apple and citrusy aroma. Naito-san suggests that red wine fans look to a red grape that is popular in Japan, Muscat Bailey A from Chateau Sakaori (about 1,300 yen).
He says, “Chill it and you will see it is similar to the Gamay grape of Beaujolais.”
He also notes that in the last five years the quality of Muscat Bailey A in Japan has really improved. All three of these wines are available at his shop. Cave de Relax has a diverse selection of wine, with many under 3,000 yen. The shop will be closed for the latter part of August as he installs a tasting bar. Call before making the excursion.
Cave de Relax Minato-ku, Nishi Shinbashi 1-6-11; tel: (03) 3595-3697 www.re-lax.co.jp
Several friends suggested chilling cheap Rhone reds, mostly Grenache and Syrah, in the fridge to satisfy the red wine urge. It tightens up the wine so it is not as flaccid and flabby on the palate as it would be at warmer temperatures.
In Tokyo, there are two places to go to get your fill of summer wines. Although in the middle of the urban jungle of Roppongi Hills, there is a line of young bamboo trees that cool down the outdoor seating area at the Oak Door. The New World wine list features some juicy delights from the racy Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc (about 2,500 yen) from New Zealand with its signature gooseberry aromas to the lean, lemony and limey Australian Grosset Watervale Riesling (about 3,000 yen), both irresistible in the heat. By the glass, my favorite is the stonefruit and citrusy Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (about 2,800 yen), which will pair nicely with any of the salads on the menu. For any of the grilled meats try the spicy and fruity Californian Ravenswood Zinfandel (about 2,000 yen), a great wine for any barbecue.
Oak Door at the Grand Hyatt Minato-ku, Roppongi 6-10-3; tel: (03) 4333-1234
If you are allergic to heat, and you prefer to dine indoors, then make a beeline to Legato in Shibuya, atop Dogenzaka, where Ned Goodwin, wine director for Global Dining, has established a great wine program. His diverse short list is what you want to ask for; 23 bottles, all at 3,990 yen. Ned says that the staff will open any of those on the list and serve them by the glass. The whimsical descriptions are self-explanatory, but if you need help, or want to explore the full wine list, you are in good hands with the sommelier, Yutaka Ozaki. On a recent evening we did a test-drive through a bone-dry Domaine Puig Paramy Muscat Sec (about 1,500 yen), which did well with the salad. For our pasta and main courses, the Giacomo Conterno Barbera d’Alba (2,500 yen retail) with its fruity, natural acidity and soft tannins was a nice match. Ned also suggests cru Beaujolais — made from the same grape, Gamay, that is used for the Beaujolais Nouveau wine, but properly fermented and from cru-class vineyards. Chill these in the fridge for an hour and enjoy the fruity, chuggable wines.
Legato Shibuya-ku, Maruyama 3-6, E Space Tower 15F; tel: (03) 5784-2121 www.legato-tokyo.jp
The air is heavy and shows no signs of waning any time soon. Even in this sweltering heat, though, it is possible to chill with the help of some new friends.
A rose by any other name . . .
Rose wines sadly do not make it to the table as often as they should. It’s easy to understand. Their reputation as syrupy, sweet concoctions is a hurdle to their enjoyment. However, the quality has improved dramatically and most are made with little residual sugar. The pink color may appear cloying, but on the palate, these are crisp or with a hint of sweetness. Roses are refreshing and charming. Not too complex, the wines have enough mouthfeel to stand up to grilled foods, such as fish and vegetables, or yakitori . One friend religiously pairs them with fried chicken.
Made from red grapes, the skins are left to macerate with the juice for a short time, enough to provide the pink tinge, and to give it body without the harsh tannins. Regions that produce tasty roses include Provence, Tavel, Bandol and Anjou. Availability in Japan is still limited, so pick up whatever you find in your local shop, as long as it is young. Rose is not meant to be aged.
Recently rose wines have become hip, and for good reason. They are exceptionally food-friendly, reasonably priced, and will help the summer pass quickly. At Legato in Shibuya, we found a charming aperitif rose, Les Terres du Sud, from the Rhone. A classic Mediterranean rose from a melange of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault, with aromas of stawberry and red cherry and hints of rosemary and black pepper, it can be found for about 1,800 yen retail.