Spring is here, hard on the heels of Foodex ’99, the food-and-beverage spectacular I mentioned two weeks ago during its four-day run at Makuhari Messe.

For wine lovers in particular Foodex is a great show, and I hope you’ll red-line the next one, March 8-11, 2000, for your visit. As usual, the last one left me with some memorable aftertastes, both literal and figurative.

The figurative aftertastes include reflections on having met so many old friends, and having made so many new ones. I’m always pleased that so many overseas wine exhibitors I meet at Foodex are reading The Japan Times during the show. My recent Wine Ways column on wine with sushi and sashimi stimulated many wine-world professionals, including Japanese wine-world professionals, to stop me and volunteer their opinions about which wines, in general and specifically, go with these Japanese delicacies. I’ll be sharing some of these with you in the near future, including the wines’ names and their importers here in Japan.

I still remember that during my long residence in New York City until the 1970s even New Yorkers couldn’t believe that I — that anyone! — could eat “raw fish.” How times change.

Never before have winemakers from so many foreign lands been trying to crack the Japanese market. You’re seeing a lot of different wines. I made new wine-world friends from places as far flung as Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan, Bulgaria, Uruguay and Tasmania. All of them make good wine, and some of it goes well with sushi, sashimi and other Japanese dishes.

You may soon be eating sashimi made with Tunisian bluefin tuna, a hit at Foodex — not fatty at all but red and tender and flavorful. With it one might marry a Tunisian dry rose such as Gris Hammamet, an AOC wine exported to France, where it’s popular with couscous, and likely to reach Japan before long. Tunisia, well suited for the grape, has five large winemakers and 20 smaller ones.

If you think sophisticated winemakers are all of one mind on the subject of which wines match which foods, think again. At an excellent food-and-wine session well organized by the German Wine Information Service and attended by many wine professionals, including some outstanding German winemakers, I participated in a matchup of German white wines with various Japanese dishes. All were excellent (wines and dishes alike) and good matchups were many.

What impressed me, though, was the considerable divergence of opinion about what went well with what. I tasted wines from all over the world and will now mention just a few.

Make a note of Cortes de Cima Vinho Tinto ’97, a rich, tannic Portuguese red that won a silver medal in the Wine Magazine International Wine Challenge, 1998. This luscious, mouth-filling wine is made from the Aragonez, Trincadeira and Periguita grapes, all local varieties from Alentejo. It has depth and full fruit flavor. I might have thought it was a hot-country cabernet. Try it alone or with steak. It’s good to remember that a distinctive wine can be made from relatively unknown grapes. Keep an open mind.

How about the world’s only commercially marketed sparkling wines made of 100 percent merlot grapes? Who would even think of it? Nowadays, actually, in the era of widespread wine innovation and “flying winemen” (winemakers who go abroad to teach their techniques) those who think of such things are many.

The merlot bubblies, two of them, happen to be from Australia’s Eden Valley, in the famous Barossa region in the southwest. One of them, called Irvine, won the award for the best merlot in the world at the Academie du Vin competition in Switzerland in 1994.

Another sparkling wine to note, coincidentally a good choice with sushi and sashimi, is the medium dry Adria Bianco, made in Friuli, great wine country in northeastern Italy. Adria Bianco is on the wine list of many major hotels and restaurants in Tokyo. This sparkler is made from the pinot grigio, Italy’s name for the pinot gris, a grape I might not ordinarily associate with sushi and sashimi. In this case, though, it’s light and not too assertive.

In Germany the pinot gris is called the Rulander, and in Germany and elsewhere (Alsace, for example) it can be distinctive, like the reserve Rulander made by Deppisch, of Wurzburg, Germany.

Chilean reds get all the attention among Chilean wines, it seems, but try the likes of Casa Vieja Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ’97, made by Vina Casa Vieja S.A. in the sunny Maule Valley. This elegant single-vineyard wine is marvelous — spicy and full of rich, fresh fruit, with just a touch of oak.

Are you ready for a different sort of nonalcoholic wine? A low-alcohol sparkler? Some new organic wines? You’ll probably be seeing them here before long from PacRim Wines in California. The nonalcoholic wine, Fre, and the 6 percent sparkler, Touchstone, are both made with the remarkable Spinning Cone Column, a device that spins out the alcohol but retains the flavor and character. I found them all pleasant and wish them well. Many people who don’t take to alcohol enjoy the taste of wine. Why deny them?

PacRim also has two fine organic wines, a zinfandel and a cabernet sauvignon, both with soft, satisfying fruit and a good finish.

Wine trivia: Barron’s says that 50 percent of American households do not own a corkscrew (but think of it — 50 percent do!). Between 1990 and 1998, says the Napa Valley Register, per capita spending on wine in the U.S. increased 100 percent. Attributions by the always interesting Shafer Line on Wine, from Shafer Vineyards, Calif.

Cheers! Bon appetit!

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