‘Abstinence is bad for you,” trumpeted the press in August, while reporting on a new study published in the journal “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.” The findings showed that during the 20-year study of a group of 1,824 participants between the ages 55 and 65, 69 percent of the abstainers died, compared with just 41 percent of moderate drinkers.
Of course, other factors may have affected the outcome, and there have been many studies that have shown alcohol in a less positive light. But those of us who enjoy a tipple or two can’t help but be cheered by the news. To celebrate before the potentially dire tidings of the next scientific report are in, now might be a good time to recommend some reasonably priced wines suitable for those who favor a moderate drinking routine.
With health benefits in mind, first up is Chilean wine. Long sunny days and shorter nights cooled by air streaming down from the peaks of the Andes give Chilean grapes a ripeness that, combined with high acidity, produces a wine rich in flavonoids. Flavonoids, a polyphenolic compound found in the skin of grapes, have antioxidant properties that are purported to be instrumental in preventing heart disease and cancer, making a glass or two of Chilean wine a potential boost to your system. Red wines are particularly high in flavonoids because grape skin pulp is kept in the juice during the fermentation process, whereas for white wine, it is usually discarded.
Cabernet Sauvignons rule in Chile, and Emiliana Natura Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 from Valle Central (¥1,180 from www.iwine.jp ) has the requisite regal air of the country’s foremost grape. Peppery and brambley on the nose with hints of dark fruit on the tongue, this would make an excellent pairing with fresh game and a creamy sauce. Another Cabernet from the Valle Central is Miguel Torres’ Santa Digna Reserve 2008 (¥1,400 from Kinokuniya International Aoyama, www.super- kinokuniya.jp/store/international ). A spicy scent leads into this wine that has a smooth fruitiness and an excellent structure.
As for whites, try Emiliana Vineyard’s Chardonnay Valle Central 2009 (¥895 from www.iwine.jp ). While its fresh, pink peach flavors might have a slight hint of tartness, it’s still an excellent bargain.
One of the great things about Chilean wine, is its reliability in terms of vintage. Summers are dependably cool and dry in the central regions, so unless you’re buying wine from the southern area of Casablanca, which can have more changeable weather patterns, you need not concern yourself too much with the vintage year. A decent period of a few years aging, however, is of course preferable for Cabernets.
Chile is also home to the Carmenere grape, which makes a great everyday wine to be drunk while young. Less tannic than Cabernet, it’s got a lovely medium-bodied fruity quality that makes it eminently glugable. Miguel Torres Santa Digna Carmenere 2008 (¥1,700 from Nissin World, www.nissinham.co.jp/nwd ) has a lovely warm cherry taste, seasoned with pleasant herbaceous flavors. While this one can be drunk young, a little Cabernet has been blended in, which boosts its aging potential. Enjoy it with a well-seasoned leg of lamb.
Though Chile tends to dominate the South American wine scene, Argentina is definitely on the rise, and the country displays its colors most brilliantly in the rich violet hue of its Malbec grape. I’ve yet to drink a bad bottle of Argentine Malbec, despite the fact that many bottles are ridiculously cheap. I particularly like Espiritu de Argentina 2008 Malbec Mendoza (¥1,080 www.rakuten.co.jp ). Scented with rosemary, black cherries and bilberries, this wine oozes delicious pippy fruit in the mouth and would taste great paired with a nut roast and gravy.
You don’t have to stick with South America in your search for wine bargains. If you’re prepared to roam outside France’s most exclusive regions and lower your gaze to the country’s slightly less elegant wines, you might find a few diamonds (or should I say rubies) in the rough. While it’s often hard to lay your hands on wines from France’s less famed regions, Seiyu and le Petit Tonneau ( www.petitonneau-wine.com ) both have a range of competitively priced wines from Languedoc-Roussillon that are a delight to drink. I like Viognier Vin de Pays d’Oc from Seiyu’s Asda range of wines. At ¥780, you cannot expect much elegance, but its delicate peach and apricot flavors charm the palate well enough. The Merlot is also quite decent for the same price: Cheap and cheerful cherry flavors with a hint of mint.
Gascony also came up trumps in a recent tasting I attended. Alain Brumont Gascogne Blanc 2009 (¥1,400 from www.nissinham.co.jp/nwd ) was extremely impressive. It has a wonderful, opulent bouquet of roses with a delicate flavor of elderflowers and cucumber, making for a refreshing wine with a nice balanced sweetness. Brumont is a name to look out for: The winemaker has considerably improved the reputation of the Madiran appellation by reducing yields there and thereby increasing the quality of his product while still selling at a reasonable price.
Though it’s still nice to quaff a chilled glass of white on warmer days, autumn is when we start to move our allegiances over to reds. I find that Pinot Noir is the perfect grape for the season, but when you’re going for value, it’s well-nigh impossible to find anything remotely drinkable. The delicate nature of the grape does not respond well to the rigors of mass production, which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I tried Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir California 2008 (¥2,100 from www.nissinham.co. jp/nwd ). Extremely smooth, Cycles Gladiator has a light cherry color and an accompanying cherry bouquet on the nose. In the mouth, the cherry has a further flourish of red licorice and a twist of mint. While the flavor fades a little too fast, it’s still an exceptional bargain for this difficult wine style, especially considering the fact that Californian wine does not often come cheap in Japan.
So much more could be said on the arduous yet satisfying task of sniffing out decent wines in a lower price range. But the above recommendations should point you in the right direction on where to find an interesting bottle that you can bring to the dinner table without breaking the bank. At these prices, enjoying a glass of wine need not be something saved for a special occasion, and if you’re a bit worried about the long-term effects of a moderate drinking habit, just think of the flavonoids doing their thing.
In Japan, “cheap wine bar” used to be thought of as a contradiction in terms, but the increasing popularity of tachinomi, or standing wine bars, where you can enjoy a decent glass of wine for under ¥500 and without a table charge, is turning this notion on its head. Here’s a look at a few such bars located in Tokyo.
Cafe Moscow actually has some seats upstairs, on the roof no less, so if you’re lucky you’ll also be able to sit down and enjoy fabulous views of the Kichijoji skyline. If not, you can stand and enjoy the friendly atmosphere of the bar downstairs. Untrue to its name, Cafe Moscow specializes in Spanish wine and food. I’ve had a lovely glass of Tempranillo for the extremely reasonable price of ¥500 here, and its substantial menu, which includes roast chicken, tapas and pasta, means that the food will sustain you a little better than the fare on offer at your typical tachinomi.
Cafe Moscow, Harmonica Alley, Kichijoji, Musashino City; (04) 2223-5865; g.pia.co.jp/shop/94328.
Lean your weary bones against the gleaming counter of Awa bar and watch the hustle and bustle of east Tokyo flow by. Though extremely friendly, don’t expect the bar staff to know much about the wines on offer. Rest assured, however, that the owner takes great pride in picking out some decent bottles to serve by the glass, and prices start from only ¥380. Pick your wine from a printout list on the counter or the chalkboard outside. There are usually at least two reds, two whites and a sparkling white available. Also reasonably priced are nibbles of nuts, olives and cheese. This is a popular watering hole for office workers on their way back to the suburbs as well as for local arty types. Go alone and be prepared for some interesting conversation. The last time I went, I met a guy who told me all about the time he met the Dalai Lama.
Awa Bar, 5-55-3 Nakano, Nakano Ward;(03) 5942-9255.
Fujiya Honten Wine Bar
If you’re after a wider selection of wine, Fujiya offers five types of white and six reds by the glass, all priced very reasonably between ¥400 and ¥600. There’s also a massive range by the bottle, with prices starting at only ¥1,600. The decor is stripped down and simple, allowing patrons to give their full attention to the food and drink. The food list changes according to the season, so you’ll have to check the chalkboards or ask the staff.
Fujiya Wine Bar Daikanyama, Tokyo Huzi Commercial Building 1F, 2-3 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3461-2128.