Autumn brings the brilliant colors of the fall leaves, and the harvest of mushrooms and root vegetables as hearty stews find a home on the dinner table. It also signifies a time to finish the last few bottles of rose you picked up during the heat of the summer. Fall is the time to explore brawny wines that linger long on the palate and stand up to the richer fare.
“Right now I am promoting Bordeaux wines due to the fact that they are better suited to cooler weather temperatures,” concurs Aarin Teich, manager of The American Room, Vineyards and The Cellar at the Tokyo American Club. “I think that people think pinot noir as soon as the leaves change color, what with all the mushrooms and gibier (game) that comes with the season, but almost all food preparations start to take on heavier, more robust flavors, which across the board are more suited for the likes of Bordeaux.”
The red grapes of Bordeaux include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, and petit verdot, with the first three being the major players. Bordeaux wines are often a blend of these grapes, earthy on the nose, with more body than the thin-skinned pinot noir.
To make a red wine, the grapes are crushed and macerated with their skins as the sugars in the grape juice ferment into wine. Cabernet sauvignon grapes are small and therefore the skin-to-juice ratio is high, resulting in stronger tannins than a larger grape such as merlot. Think of cabernet franc as your favorite aunt who always wore nice perfume. This grape is aromatic, and will help to round out a wine.
One way to produce softer tannins without sacrificing the guts of the wine is to look to cooler climates. During the day the grapes get the heat they need to properly ripen, while in the evenings the cool temperatures help them retain a crisp acidity, giving a nice overall balance on the palate. Cool-climate regions include Washington State in the U.S., and one of my favorites is L’Ecole No. 41 merlot (¥5,250 per bottle). The label, a colorful picture of the winery drawn by a child, is unforgettable, as is the wine; juicy, luscious and fruity, with the characteristic cherries one often finds in a merlot.
If you haven’t already, you may find yourself falling for shiraz. These jammy, fruit-forward wines have a hint of spice to them. Enjoy shiraz with some tough, rustic cuts of meat. To explore the wines of Australia, the restaurant Salt, in the Shin-Maru building, Marunouchi, has just been recognized for its wine from down under by Wine Business International magazine. Sommelier Yutaka Ozaki will help you to navigate your way through the well-selected wines.
California zinfandel also packs a bit of a punch to it. Try this with a pepperoni pizza and you will be on your way to understanding how food and wine work well together. Other new-world wines to look for in the winter include malbec from Argentina and carmenere from Chile. These two in particular can often be found at reasonable prices (count on spending ¥1,000-¥2,000) around Tokyo.
I asked Bruce Gutlove, managing director at Coco Farm and Winery in Tochigi Prefecture, for his suggestions for indigenous Japanese red grapes and producers. He suggests Muscat Bailey A (around the ¥1,500 mark), which can be aromatic and juicy, and the richer, more tannic Shokoshi (harder to find, but they are out there). Look for producers such as Chateau Sakaori in Yamanashi, Chateau Takeda in Yamagata, or Coco Farm and Winery in Tochigi.
Remember that with the heat and humidity, Japan is not conducive to storing bottles for any period of time. If you do open up a bottle of red that you forgot about this summer and it smells a bit cooked or has lost some of its verve, do not despair. It may be salvaged, and actually brought back to life, in a classic mulled wine. In a soup pot, add the wine with some sugar to taste and any of the following: cinnamon, star anise, or dried orange peels. Warm up until the sugar dissolves and serve in a coffee mug.
Indulgence abounds at wine festival
On Nov. 17 and 18, Coco Farm and Winery in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture (an hour north of Tokyo), hosts one of the world’s greatest wine harvest festivals. Over these two days, you can indulge in some of the best wine in Japan, food and live music.
In the 1950s, Noboru Kawada, the founder of Coco Farm and Winery, thought that the mentally disabled were better off working in nature than being kept inside institutions. He started a live-in school where the students were kept active and busy outside, planting a vineyard, and started the process of making wine. It is not run as a charity, but it is run as a professional school, giving the students a healthy alternative to being in an institution.
Admission is ¥2,000, which includes a wineglass, corkscrew, and a bottle of wine or sparkling grape juice. Bring along a picnic blanket, pick a spot in the vineyards, and wear comfortable walking shoes — the vineyards are steep!
Coco Farm and Winery, 611 Tajima-Cho, Ashikaga-Shi, Tochigi-ken; tel. (02) 8442-1194; www.coco wine.com. Ashikaga is a 70-min. ride on the Tobu Isesaki Line from Tokyo’s Asakusa Station.