In the dead of winter, what’s a wine lover to do? I’m almost tempted to say “Bring back the hot, spicy wine,” the body-warming concoction quaffed at stalls in town center squares all over Europe toward year’s end. It’s a splendid custom, but actually what I had in mind is winery visits in California. Reasonable air fares make the trip even more attractive.
If you’ll remember, during the usually business-slack month of February in Japan, the 11th day is a national holiday and this year it falls on a Friday that flows temptingly into a weekend. What a perfect time to add a day or two onto that and hop a plane to sunny California for a winery visit. While you’re at it, think ahead to late March, or to April (aiming for a day or two jump on Golden Week).
In wine-world terms March is a particularly interesting time to consider travel to such Southern Hemisphere havens as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina, great winelands all, where March marks the onset of both autumn and the new grape harvest. Think carefully about this one, since wine producers are severely busy at harvest time anywhere in the world. An ideal time to visit Southern Hemisphere wineries would be in April, even well before Golden Week begins.
An ideal time to visit Northern Hemisphere wineries is normally from rather late September, at the earliest, through October and on into November, a period when Japan has a number of national holidays. Consider how far north you’d like to go, as the harvest tends to be later as latitudes become more northerly. This region, too, deserves your Golden Week consideration, but you’ll have much higher fares and crowds to contend with. I’d like to get you around that so you can enjoy your wine without stress.
And where is the world’s most northerly winery? Fruit-wine makers excluded, I’ve a notion that it’s a little family-run winery in Wroxeter, England, not far from Birmingham, that I dropped into after enjoying an extraordinary Roman centurion reenactment conducted by the English Heritage Society at some fascinating Roman ruins nearby. I’m almost certain that the world’s northernmost fruit wine producer is one I’ve been reading about in Scotland, but who knows?
The question isn’t rhetorical, for I’ve learned that despite their deep day-to-day involvement with wine, or because of it, people closely involved in various aspects of the whole winemaking process often are unaware of wine-world data and developments beyond their own locale or region.
At all events, you’re likely to find any time in April to be an ideal time to visit wineries in the Southern Hemisphere countries I’ve referred to, and less heeded places as well. Australia’s siren call to such places as Sydney and the Gold Coast is well known, but note that some excellent wine is also produced in Uruguay. For this we can thank not least the enterprising efforts of so-called “flying winemen” from Australia and England who sojourn in far-flung wine regions of promise to upgrade their wines for world markets.
Now, as winter nips at my nose in friendly Leuven, Belgium, I sometimes reflect wistfully on warmer climes, but I hasten to add that Belgium, despite its fame for chocolate, beer and diamonds, is a wine-lover’s paradise that should rank high on your list of wine-travel destinations. Belgium does indeed have wineries — over 20 of them.
More importantly, it’s the best place to enjoy imported wine for little money. Typically, Belgian supermarkets sell imported wines for 20 to 25 percent of the price in Japan for the same wines or others of comparable or even lesser quality. Just after the Beaujolais came to market in Japan last November I noticed in some supermarkets around Tokyo that at 980 yen per 750-ml bottle the new Beaujolais Nouveau was nearly quadruple what it cost in my nearby supermarkets. The Beaujolais villages was nearly quintuple. This price relationship holds for all kinds of imported wines.
Imagine, during a visit to Belgium, catching a breather in your hotel room while sampling a few excellent imported wines you bought at a supermarket for just a fifth, say, of what you’d pay for them in Japan. In Belgian restaurants the wine markup tends to be three times the retail price or a bit more. The house wine is usually the Belgian franc equivalent of 1,000 yen to 1,200 yen per 750-ml bottle, and in a cafe it can cost even less.
For double the house wine price one can have a wine that would cost several thousand yen or more in a Japanese restaurant. February, by the way, is a festival-filled month in Belgium and elsewhere throughout the always fascinating European continent, and usually wine is part of the festive scene, typically sold at stalls and in pubs abuzz with merriment along the route of the parades and the processions. Getting back to California, next month I’ll discuss a few more outstanding wineries I visited in the Bay Area and the Sierra foothills. I’ll also report on some great wineries in Luxembourg, Alsace and Germany. Meantime, enjoy some Santa Rita Sauvignon Blanc ’99, fresh, dry and fruity, and Baden Pinos Gris ’98 from Badischer Winzerkeller EG, dry, fruity and full flavored — both very well made and reasonably priced. Cheers!