Koshu stands out as sip of summer

Parker, Dubourdieu tastings lavish praise upon Japanese vintage, 2005 Bordeaux

by Felicity Hughes

Last month, Tokyo’s wine community was given a rare treat: Two of the most famous names in the wine world descended to hold forth on subjects including the bright future of Japan’s Koshu grape and Bordeaux’s stellar 2005 vintage.

The events also gave us a chance to taste some impressive and affordable new wines under the benevolent guidance of French wine consultant Denis Dubourdieu and world-famous wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr.

The occasion was historic because this is the first year that a Japanese wine has been accepted for sale in Europe, and both Parker and Dubourdieu had a big role to play in this groundbreaking development.

The wine is Koshu Shizen and its consultant oenologist is Dubourdieu. Parker brought global attention to the project by tasting the first vintage Dubourdieu produced, back in 2004, and giving the wine a score of 88 points (out of a possible 100), declaring that it had great potential for improvement over the years.

When I went to see Dubourdieu speak at Hotel Seiyo in Ginza on May 16, the 2007 Koshu vintage was first up in the tasting. Dubourdieu, who is clearly not afraid of a little hyperbole, declared of the wine: “Like someone discovering the sea for the first time. This is a legendary wine that was sleeping, and I woke it up.”

I’m not sure whether my first tasting of Koshu was such an earth-shattering revelation, but if you’re looking for the perfect summer wine, I can heartily recommend it. White, fresh, light and easy-drinking with low alcohols, the wine’s most alluring feature is its unusual and delicate perfume of mints and crushed violets.

Despite being kings of the fine wine world, both Parker and Dubourdieu preached a democratic creed when it came to the question of wine prices.

“Most of the most expensive wines in the world reflect the fact that they are very limited in production and very sought after. Today it’s almost impossible for anyone who is not megawealthy to afford those very classic famous wines,” said Parker.

But when it comes to region, Parker’s vision is definitely skewed in favor of French wines. “I make no secret that 95 percent of the wine I consume at home is French, but it doesn’t mean I don’t like other kinds of wine,” he said. “It’s just that we tend to prefer French wine with the kind of food we eat.”

Dubourdieu, on the other hand, despite being native to France and specializing in French wines, had a more global message. Out of the nine Dubourdieu- crafted wines presented, two were overseas projects. “The problem in the world is that the styles of wine are not very varied,” he said. “I want to make lots of wine and lots of styles, wine that has the characteristics of the region and can travel.”

Dubourdieu’s two greatest passions seem to be wine and women, and in his job he gets to combine the two. His talk was peppered with anecdotes about the people who run the wineries he consults for: the brave old widow overlooking an enormous old property on her own, and the vibrant young woman who learns viticulture at his own property while he consults on hers. In true lovable-rogue style, he equates wines with the fairer sex, describing Chateau La Lagune as “an elegant young woman, not an old lady with a mustache.”

During the tasting, he swirled the wine around in his glass while his eyes danced mischievously over his audience, checking faces for a reaction to his magical potions. “Tasting is personal,” he said. “Each aroma or flavor takes us on a sentimental journey through our memories.”

While Dubourdieu presented a number of different grapes, styles and vintages, Parker’s tasting at the ANA Hotel in Akasaka on May 19 focused on the famous 2005 Bordeaux vintage. He enthused that although he’d been writing about wines for 30 years, this vintage was the best he’d ever tasted.

“The curiosity of 2005 is that it was both a very dry and sunny year, but it wasn’t an especially hot year,” he mused. “And because there weren’t these extreme heat spells, many believe that this has given the wines that freshness and the aromatic complexity that these young wines already posses.”

In contrast with Dubourdieu, Parker doesn’t embellish his descriptions with flowery metaphors. His tasting notes are precise and to the point; this man has one of sharpest and most accurate noses in the business. And when it comes to getting advice on which wines to buy, you can’t get better than this.

“The most important thing if you want to be a wine critic is the wine in the glass,” he said. “You’ve got to ignore the person who made it, the price and the history. There are many people who are friendly and very nice who don’t make good wine, and others who are extremely difficult — unpleasant, even — who make fantastic wine.”

The tasting presented affordable Bordeaux from the 2005 vintage that represent real value for money rather than prestigious name wines.

“As a wine critic, it often gives me more pleasure to tell you about wines like this than to tell you about Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1989,” said Parker.

These two respected men represent such different outlooks on wines. The most revealing comments came when they philosophized about the meaning of life in relation with their favorite beverage.

Parker’s attitude is rather conservative: “What you try to sense in wine is what we try to sense in life. A sense of harmony; of equilibrium.”

Dubourdieu, however, is more revolutionary: “As in life, with originality and complexity comes difficulty. If we don’t encounter difficulties in our youth, we become boring people.”

For me, which side you take really depends on your temperament. Those who embrace innovation and diversity will probably plump for Dubourdieu’s view and those who prefer classicism will join Parker’s camp. The sheer number of people attending Parker’s talk attest to the fact that Japan, unsurprisingly, remains rather conservative when it comes to wine.

Put the experts’ taste to the test

Dubourdieu’s picks

2007 Koshu: Silver white with a delicate aroma of mints and crushed violets. Fresh and light, with weak alcohols. An easy-drinking summer wine. (¥2,100)

2004 Chateau Grillet: Typically for Dubourdieu, Grillet is made from an unusual grape — in this case 100 percent Viognier. This white wine is a deep midsummer-sunshine yellow, with a slightly sharp floral bouquet, a warm sweetness and acidity balanced on the palate. Limited availability. (¥13,650)

2001 Chateau Haut Bailly: Seventy percent Cabernet Sauvignon. A real treat: velvety and rich in the mouth with a long, elegant finish; scents of wet earth and truffles rise up in the glass to transport you to dark ancient forests of the wine’s native Graves region. Limited availability. (¥8,000)

2001 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Vigneto Antica Chiusina: Made with the Sangiovese grape in an idyllic spot in the south of Tuscany that Dubourdieu described as “360 degrees of beauty.” Floral aromas with a distinguished whiff of top-class cigars and lovely licorice hints in the mouth. (¥7,000)

Parker’s 2005 Bordeaux picks

Chateau D’Escurac Medoc: More affordable, D’Escurac is a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend with strong tannins and fresh acidity that balances well. It also has a nice spicy palate and lovely wild scents of bramble and hawthorn. (¥3,865)

Chateau Fougas Maldoror, Cotes-de-Bourg: This one has mocha and black cherry chocolate hints due to a higher percentage of Merlot. Velvety on the palate, with a good earthiness. (¥5,250)

Chateau Pipeau, St. Emilion: “Full bodied with exuberant fruit,” said Parker of this rich wine. Powerful tannins mean that this is one to let open out fully. (¥5,565)

Chateau Grand-Ormeau, Lalande-de-Pomerol: One hundred percent Merlot, as Parker comments: “You see a beautiful sweetness and silkiness to this wine, with licorice on the palate.” Though he said most of the wines presented might need about two or three years in the bottle to develop fully, he declared that this particular wine was ready to drink. (¥5,880)