Japan, a timeless country

 Welcome to the land of the Rising Sun.

Let yourself be guided by the energy and the unique atmosphere which surrounds you. Thank you for removing your shoes and leaving them at the entrance. At homes – as in many restaurants – it is customary to wear slippers (Geta Kiri) or socks, it is a sign of respect guided by tradition.

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Tokyo, a unique megalopolis in the world

Japan is full of traditions, and of contrasts too! Tokyo is the ultimate example of this. Welcome to another world, another time, far away from all established codes, very much at odds with our daily Western lives.
Take a guided tour, visit neighborhood by neighborhood. During the day, enjoy the beauty of the imperial park at Kokyoo, walk around the Shinto shrines in Meiji Jingu Shinto, stop in front of the Sensoji temple in Asakusa, then get lost in the maze of streets of the traditional district of Jimbocho. You will feel a Zen atmosphere, calm, soothing, where tranquility reigns supreme.

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When night falls, the scenery change. The curtain falls. The offices empty. The accumulated stress from work must be removed – because in Japan you spend your live at work and conversely work guides your life. So people tend to loosen their ties after hours and go to party with friends, drinking in the Japanese bars of the Golden Gai in Shinjuku, slum it in Roppongi’s bars, sharing a drink in good company in the maid café of Akihabara, « remaking » the world admiring the lights of Shibuya..

It is said here that if you’re not born Japanese, you’ll never be considered truly integrated in the Japanese culture – even after an expatriate life spent in the country, even when fluent in the language.  Because only a Japanese person can  really understand  Japan… from the inside.
I could write pages (and pages) here about the beauty of this country of contrasts. We have fallen deeply in love with Japan.

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But let’s talk wine ! Because even if the country is known worldwide for its Nihonshu (the real name of Japanese Sake), as well as for whiskey – Japan is the n°1 whiskey producer worldwide… yes, yes! – it’s for the wine that we are here, we are the Wine Explorers after all! And as far as that is concerned, it is all good, vines grow almost everywhere in Japan, from Hokkaido in the North – where you can find nice Pinot noir, to Kyoto and Kobe in the South.

Yamanashi, Japan’s main region of production

At the feet of Mount Fuji, less than two hours travel by train going southwest of Tokyo, in the Yamanashi Prefecture, you will find the main wine producing area of Japan. An initial improvised excursion allowed us to visit some wineries and to taste their wines : Château Katsunuma, Chânmoris, or Château Mercian.

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We learned that the cultivars Koshu and Muscat Bailey A are respectively white and red traditional Japanese varietals. These two hybrids are more resistant than traditional varieties to moisture, rain and summer typhoons. Koshu is usually a very light white grape, with floral notes.  Muscat Bailey A is easily recognizable in a blind tasting: regardless of how the wine was made, it always has a delicate nose of crushed strawberries.
We also learned that in Japan most of the vines are planted using pergola trellissing: it expands the leaf surface height and thus increases plant density (number of vines per hectare) to protect the soil against erosion –  which can be extremely threatening on hillsides – as well as against vine diseases.

Pergola vines

Pergola vines


Then came the time of invitations: at Suntory Winery where they produce great wines, especially a delicious sweet white wine similar to a Sauternes (and where we had the chance to try young fried vine shoots during lunch time…delicious !). At Katsunuma Jozo Winery, where we tasted the most amazing and finest Koshu, and finally at Coco Farm & Winery, a unique place where the vineyard workers are people with disabilities. Japan is indeed a wine country !

Zoom on Coco Farm & Winery, a model of humanism

North of Tokyo, in the Ashikaga area, is the Coco Farm & Winery estate, a true example of oenotourism and the integration of disabled workers. 5 hectares of vines were planted in 1984 by Mr Noboru Kawata, the founder of the winery, on volcanic soils dating as far back as the Jurassic era. In total there are more than 15O disabled workers, divided between the vineyard and the farm, who live here in harmony, everyone moving at its own pace.

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The winery offers twenty different wines for tasting and sale, including a delicious sparkling brut, 100% Riesling Lion (a hybrid of Riesling and Koshu St Jacques). Everything here is stamped with the colours of the winery : cutlery, tablecloths, napkins and aprons, wine accessories, wooden boxes, baskets…; carefully designed to satisfy the customer. Even the wine is pampered : the winery is lulled by Mozart. These sound waves seemed to have had beneficial effects on the wine !

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The restaurant is full. The atmosphere is warm. Tourists flock from all over Japan and even far beyond. Life is good at the Coco Farm & Winery.

Some wines which we particularly enjoyed during our stay

The climatic conditions in Japan are challenging for viticulture. However… There are some very nice wines. Proof :

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*Aruga Branca Pipa Koshu 2010 from Katsunuma Jozo Winery
What delicacy to be found in this 100% Koshu white wine! A pure delight. Aged for 7 months in French oak barrels, the wine developed notes of honey, apricot and acacia. A delicate mouthfeel, lively and very long. A beautiful bold finish. This is Koshu.
*Tsuki o matsu 2012 (“Here comes the moon“) from Coco Farm & Winery
A surprising white wine, 100% Kerner, with a nose of rhubarb and kiwi. Lively and fresh on the palate. Very nice tension. Perfect to start a dinner with friends; or in good company.
Cellar price: 3,000 ¥ (around 21.5 euros)
*Kaze no rouge 2011 from Coco Farm & Winery
A red wine with 75% of Zweigelt (one of my favorite Austrian grape varieties) and 25% Merlot. Notes of spices (white pepper) and black fruit on the nose. Fresh mouth with crispy fruit.
Cellar price : 2,700 ¥ (around 20 euros)
*Japan Premium Shiojiri Muscat Bailey A 2011 from Suntory Winery
100% Muscat Bailey A. Fermentation in stainless steel tanks was followed by  barrel aging for a year. Here they have chosen to leave some stalks during the fermentation. Nose of crushed strawberry, raspberry (more discreet). Mouth with a touch of caramel and red fruits (strawberry). Slightly sweet.
Cellar price : 2,600 ¥ (around 19 euros)
*Tomi Noble d’Or 1997 from Suntory Winery
A surprise: a botrytis wine in Japan, 100% Riesling, aged 5 years in tank, with flavours similar to Sauternes. Nose of candied fruit, gingerbread and honey. The balance in mouth is beautiful, with candied dried fruit (apricot, citrus). Fresh final with a nice sugar/acidity balance that gives complexity. Small production : less than 1,000 bottles.
Cellar price : 57,000 ¥ (around 392 euros…still)

An a bonus…*Aruga Branca Doce Icewine 2009 from Katsunuma Jozo Winery
The winery excels in the art of Koshu vinification and shows it here once again with this beautiful ice wine. Floral nose (rose, hibiscus). High acidity which refreshes the mouth. Final on apricots. A true dessert wine.

You might have noticed that the price of Japanese wines is high. There are two explanations for this: the production conditions are very difficult and in most cases yields are very low, below 5,000 bottles (or even less !).

Kyoto, Japan of yesteryear

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We hoped to have the chance to have a short visit to Kyoto. And then something extraordinary happened, we were welcomed for 4 days in Kyoto by Romaric, a listener of Le Mouv’ (a French radio station), who had heard of Wine Explorers during one of their broadcasts : Allo la Planète !

Kyoto, in contrast to Tokyo, is a city of absolute zen. Better preserved during the various wars in the country, the city is home to many temples and traditional neighborhoods like Miyagawacho, Gion Higashi or Gion Kobu. And if you’re lucky – very lucky, like Ludo – you might see, in the corner of an alley, a geisha… It is rather rare to meet one on the street. Geishas are usually only to be found in prestigious ocha-ya (“tea houses”), where they sing, dance and play traditional instruments.

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Do not hesitate to visit the City by bike: it is the best kind of transportation in Kyoto. In fact nothing could be easier than renting a bike in Kyoto: we were not even asked for any identification or for a security deposit… We simply paid when we returned the bikes. And it worked wonderfully! It makes one dreamy…

2 essential wine bars : JIP and Le Terroir

In Tokyo you will find the largest concentration of 3 Michelin stars restaurants (16 3-star restaurants, compared to the 10 in Paris). But you will also find amazing wine bars. Two essentials: JIP and Le Terroir.

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JIP is a classic wine bar, sober and clean, where we enjoyed tapas in a relaxed atmosphere. It is also – and most importantly – the place where you will find the most comprehensive collection of Japanese wines: almost all Japanese wineries are presented here.  However, do not search for foreign wines : there are none here.

Le Terroir, our favourite, remains “the place” to go in Tokyo for any wine lover, people are linked to terroirs, especially those of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Be prepared: you will find more than 500 wines here… all served by the glass! What logistical and technical prowess ! “Our customers trust us, allowing us to open bottles and giving us the opportunity to present it to several people during the same evening”, said Yves Ringler, the man of the house. There is very little loss in this way.

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No doubt because Yves is so passionate ! He is a wine lover, a man close to nature and passionated by Languedoc-Roussillon. When this epicurean decided to leave France a few years ago, it was to realize his dream to open his own wine bar. “I daily discover new amazing areas in this Languedoc-Roussillon. This is a real treasure in terms of diversity”. Here, only wines from small producers are sold, rare products from all prices ranges. Plus a superb collection of spirits and eaux-de-vie. And the icing on the cake, the food is creative. It is refined and dinner is a great experience. Go for it !

Japan gave us stars in our eyes. So before continuing our journey around the globe, lets end this part of our adventure with the inevitable, the Tsukiji market : the largest fish market in the world. Such a unique atmosphere and a place where you can attend the auction of red tuna.

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And we touched the sky : a breakfast at 5:00am, enjoying a bowl of rice with freshly cut red tuna sashimi.
Do not pour more, our cup is full.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA


For more information,
– Chânmoris : http://www.wine.or.jp/chanmoris/
– Château Mercian : http://www.mercian.co.jp
– Suntory : http://www.suntory.com/
– Katsunuma Jozo : http://www.katsunuma-winery.com/english/index.html
– Coco Farm & Winery : http://cocowine.com

 *Arigatōgozaimashita to Romaric, Christelle and Yann for being our guides in Japan, and to Sumie Horikawa for your great support. 

 

 

 

Egypt – the vineyards behind pyramids

Egypt, a beautiful stranger… A country of a thousand secrets. Land of sphinxes, pyramids, pharaohs and hieroglyphs. You who made ​​us dream since our childhood. How did you become this way ?  Where in lies your greatness and your soul ?

Cheops facing Cairo

Cheops facing Cairo


We landed in Cairo and we fell from the clouds. The capital came cleaving to Gizeh pyramids : Khéphren, Mykérinos and Cheops – the only one of the seven wonders of the world to have survived from Antiquity. The aridity of the desert is felt in every street of the city. Walls barely hold stand. The atmosphere is heavy.
Nevertheless Cairo kept a modest beauty, discreet, almost embarrassed.
Egypt, as a country which has long had wine, only has a few hectares of vines, which is located halfway between Cairo and Alexandria. A beautiful postcard.

Egyptian viticulture, one of the world’s oldest

Be aware : vines have been cultivated in Egypt since 3,000 years before our era – over 2,000 years before the appearance of wine growing in France !

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Far from the splendor of the Greco-Roman times, viticulture was revived in 1882, under the leadership of
Nestor Gianaclis, a Greek businessman. He created Gianaclis Wines, which reached its peak between 1930 and 1945 – during the Golden Age of Egypt – before being nationalized by Nasser in 1966 and privatized in 1999.  Since 2002 Gianaclis Wines, with 120 hectares of vineyards, belongs to Al-Ahram Beverages Company (Heineken group).
And it’s great, we have an appointment at Gianaclis for a winery tour. Let’s go !

Drought, a plague for wine in Egypt

To grow grapes in Egypt is a real challenge. Average temperatures are around 38 -40°C and it is not uncommon to reach 48°C during the day. This has the effect of blocking the phenolic ripening of the grapes*, preventing them of ripening properly.
In addition, the country lacks fresh water and reserves are very rare due to a very low average  annual rainfall of 80 – 120 mm  per year, compared to 600 – 800mm for a country like France.  Therefore they have to keep drilling deeper and deeper to find groundwater.

Salt on the surface

Salt on the surface


But the only water to be found today in the lower basement layers is fossil water, which has a very high salt content. “On the long term using this water for irrigation is detrimental for the quality of top soils”, explained Sebastian Boudry, the winemaker at Gianaclis. But rest assured, the vineyards are beautiful and the grapes are good ! Egyptians take care of their vines attentively, they use palm trees to protect it from the wind and spray only in cases of extreme necessity.
Ironically – or by a nod of nature – we began our walk in the vineyard under a rain shower. A deluge fell on us! We had to return early the next day to take some pictures…but what an improbable and magical moment.

Gianaclis , the expertise of a strong Group

Photos taken, we set off the next day for the winery, located 2 hours driving from the vineyard.  Here we were at the production site of Al-Ahram Beverages Company, a place at the forefront of technology, where a centrifuge – helping to clarify musts – is standing near three presses outdoors. This was the first centrifuge we encountered on our African trip.
Besides the 60,000 HL of wine produced every year, they also distill neutral alcohol for vodka on a large-scale. Sebastian Boudry, who welcomed us, told us that the grapes, which are manually harvested from late June (for the first whites) until the end of August, are transported to the winery in refrigerated trucks; a necessity due to the heat !

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And when the full tanks are rapidly cooled with chilled water in closed loop systems to reduce the temperature of the grapes – it creates a cellar straight out of the mist that shows us its beauty.
The cellar is wonderful and a tour lead to an invitation to taste the wines. But before serious work commenced, we shared  a delicious meal with our hosts. Vegetables, spicy rice, chickpeas cream, marinated beef… perfect to gain strength before tasting the wines.

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Tasting of Gianaclis Wines’ range

In addition to the Domaine de Gianaclis wines, the winery also produce wines from imported grapes from South Africa, France and Lebanon.**
We focused our tasting on wines “made in Egypt.”

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Valmont Rosé NM a sparkling wine made from Tempranillo and Sangiovese. Fresh and pleasant on the palate with aromas of strawberry and redcurrant.
Domaine de Gianaclis, Ayam blanc 2012, a white blend of Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Nose of exotic fruit, dominated by notes of white fruit. Egyptian premium white wine.
Domaine de Gianaclis, Ayam rouge 2011, a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carignan. Nose a bit closed. Nice spices on the nose with a touch of earth. Round mouth with elegant tannins and blackcurrant flavours.
Omar Kayyam rouge 2013, 100% Bobal (red grape variety widely used in Spain), with a nose of plum and cherry, soft tannins on the palate and a nice freshness.

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Tourism, the engine in the sale of wine

Close to the Red Sea, El Gouna is the area where we found the second Egyptian winery, EgyBev Wadi. 75 hectares of vineyards owned by a passionate André Hadji-Thomas, with its lovely organic cuvée, Les Jardins du Nil. It represents about 15% of the country’s production.
Tourism – with the lure of foreign currencies – remains the bulk of Egyptian wine sales and proclamations of principle on the prohibition of wine does not overshadow the production thereof, although alcohol remains a sensitive subject in Egypt.

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So here are a few Explorer’s suggestions : go for a walk in the souk in Cairo, breathe leather, spices and shisha smells. Sip a coffee at El-Fishawy, one of the oldest cafes in the city and probably the most famous in the Arab world. Lose yourself in the desert, in the middle of the pyramids. Egypt is an inviting country for traveling and will always be one of the most brilliant civilizations in History.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

  

* The phenolics components in wine, especially anthocyanins and tannins, originates from the solid parts of the grape (seeds and skins). They have many properties : anthocyanins are responsible for wine color and tannins are responsible for taste properties that give wine its characteristic astringency.
** For more information: http://gianacliswines.com