Picking a wine for the picnic spread

by Felicity Hughes

The smell of freshly mowed lawns and of gunpowder in the air signifies one thing: summer is now in full swing. Whether you’re a peaceful soul who likes to spread out a plastic picnic mat in the local park under the tranquil shade of a decent-size tree, or a matsuri festival maniac heading down to the river to watch the firework displays, it’s time to pack up your pannier and stake your claim.

Choosing a wine to go with your picnic meal can be as much of an ordeal as fighting it out for the best al fresco spot. To take the pain out of selecting a summer vintage, here’s a guide to the best of the whites in stores this season.

Producing fresh wines with a lovely gooseberry bite and flintiness on the palate, Sauvignon Blanc makes an excellent picnic grape. One of the places in the world that brings out the best in this variety is France’s Loire Valley. The valley’s relatively cool climate keeps the flavors fresh, and the sandy limestone soils lend the drink an intriguing mineral finish. It’s worth noting that the wetter and cooler weather of 2007 did not spell disaster for the wines of Loire as it did for Bordeaux — in fact, quite the opposite.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get your hands on Loire wines in Japan, but if you head down to your local Yamaya ( www.yamaya.co.jp ), you can pick up a bottle of Dom Serge Dagueneau et Filles Pouilly-Fume 2006 for ¥2,480. Serge Dagueneau, who runs the estate with his three daughters, produces a lovely example of this variety with nice biting apple acidity and smokiness on the palate.

Australia and New Zealand are also making a name for themselves as producers of very good and very reasonably priced Sauvignon Blanc. TK Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2004 won the Penguin Wine Award (a prestigious Australian prize) for best Sauvignon Blanc and is also available at Yamaya for just ¥2,000. Zesty and light, it’s the perfect complement to fresh seafood.

Whenever I think about picnic wines, my mind inevitably strays to a wonderful summer’s day several years ago when I enjoyed a meal of smoked-salmon sandwiches accompanied by the fleshy, almost sweet taste of a Pinot Grigio with my best friend on the lawns of a stately home. You can never really go wrong with a decent Pinot Grigio, and Posenato Delle Venezie Pinot Grigio, at ¥1,180 from the wine shop Vinos Yamazaki ( www.v-yamazaki.jp ), is a good, basic example of the grape.

But with Italy enjoying a veritable embarrassment of different grape varieties, it’d be a pity not to experiment. The French department store Printemps in Ginza stocks two really wonderful Italian summer wines. Each costs just ¥1,575, and they are part of a range that is available at ¥4,200 for three bottles. Masciarelli Trebbiano 2007 has rich and dark melon aromas, a nice biting acidity and a lovely, full texture in the mouth. Sicilia Terre di Ginenstra 2006 has a voluptuous perfume of sweet fruits and — oddly — pencil erasers with floral fleshy fruit blooming on the palate.

Exotic grape varieties are not only the preserve of Italy. If you want to be really daring, try a Viognier from France’s Rhone Valley. Peacock grocery stores ( www.peacock-japan.co.jp ) stock Yalumba Viognier The Y Series 2006 for ¥1,980. Hints of litchi, coconut and other tropical fruits are typical of this complex and mysterious wine.

If wine has never been your beverage of choice, you might want to try a rose. Chateau Mas Neuf Rose, ¥1,799, is available from imported-food specialist Kaldi Coffee Farm ( www.kaldi.co.jp ) and is one that might appeal to those who have a sweeter tooth with its sweet pink grapefruit flavors, strong alcohols and slight spiciness.

When it comes to choosing a picnic wine, for some, it’s got to be a Chardonnay; and for the traditionalist, nothing beats a bone-dry Chablis from Burgundy. Chablis Antonin Rodet 2004, from Yamaya at ¥2,500, is typical: Steely with faint floral aromas and a lemony fresh edge, it really zings in the mouth. For those who like fuller melon flavors, try an Aussie or Chilean Chardonnay.

The Chilean variety retains its peculiarly original character by an accident of geography. In the 1870s when the philloxera virus wiped out vine stocks in Europe and North America, Chile was undamaged due to being protected on all sides by the natural barriers of the Andes, the Pacific Ocean and a desert. While the rest of the wine world had to graft old vines onto new roots, Chile was able to keep its vines intact.

The Los Vascos vineyard, which produces a nice Chardonnay 2007, is doubly blessed in that, since 1988, it has been owned by Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). The legendary Bordeaux wine house has brought its excellent viticultural skills to bear, and grapes are selected to ensure the wines are of the highest quality. Available from Yamaya for ¥1,380, it’s full of surprising fruit flavors: Pear and banana aromas accompany the usual melon hints.

If you’re partial to a bit of bubbly, you might be thinking of splashing out on a nice bottle of Moet or Veuve Clicquot. But in my opinion, when it comes to sparkling wines, it’s not necessary to burn a hole in your bank account. Prosecco or cava make a great substitute. Printemps stock a lovely, light prosecco: Il Vino dei Poci costs only ¥1,575 and has a nice biscuity edge. Alternatively, if you fancy something a bit off-the-wall, try Green Point Brut Rose, a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sparkler from Peacock at ¥2,180: a light red wine that when served chilled has succulent strawberry flavors and an elegant finish.

Serve chilled, ah, there’s the rub for those who like to dine outdoors. You’ve gone to all the effort of choosing a delicious bottle: Why spoil it by serving it lukewarm?

If you don’t already have one, it makes good sense to invest in a cool jacket for your wine. These can be bought in almost any good wine seller. I recommend the Built “One Bottle Tote” (¥2,310 from Peacock), which can insulate a bottle for up to four hours, so that you can enjoy your chilled wine in the middle of Japanese summertime.

Paris hides in the Tokyo Metro

Cafe de Metro, Omotesando Station

For those who like the idea of dining al fresco but can’t abide uninvited creepy crawlies spoiling their picnic sandwiches and snacks, take an escalator ride into the bowels of Omotesando Station to dine at Cafe de Metro. From its miniature street lamps to its marble tabletops, the cafe is doing its darnedest to re-create the look of an ordinary street in Paris. Of course, it isn’t really able to convincingly, but half the fun comes in hearing the rumble of trains drown out the strains of piped accordion music and in reading the spelling mistakes painted on the mirrors of the faux-French boulangerie .

Perhaps the most authentic Parisian detail is the huge number of people puffing away in the vast smoking section, to which I was relegated after having lost the battle to find a free seat — Cafe de Metro is self-service, so be prepared to fight for a table.

On the positive side, the food and wine on offer is well-above normal transit-cafe standard. A small glass of white or red costs just ¥350 and a large, generous glass comes in at ¥450. At these prices, you’d expect to be served a generic table wine, but, surprisingly, there’s a choice of three wines of different styles for both reds and whites. I recommend the Bilyara Chardonnay for a white or Cordici Nero Niavola for a red.

After ordering yourself a nice aperitif from the bar at the entrance, stroll over to the Pasta Ricotta stand, where a generous-size meal can be had for a bargain ¥600. Then relax beneath the plastic grapes and feel the cool breeze of industrial air-con, as you enjoy your leisurely meal while watching the streams of sweaty commuters pass by through the plate-glass window.

If you enjoy a heavy dose of kitsch to offset a glass of sparkling cava (a steal at ¥650), this is the place to be.