Cellaring Wine During Japan’s Sultry Summers

Wine in Japan’s humid, sultry summers, don’t sweat it.  Just use some creative thinking!

Akita seaside temple (Photo by-Sandra Shoji)

A common question is what to do with wines during Japan’s torrid summers. Well, if temperatures of 32 C plus have you wilting and sweating, how do you think your wines feel? Luckily, most wines are made for immediate consumption, so if you have some, “Drink up!”

For wines that get better with age, wine cellaring in Japan during sultry summer calls for creativity. When hunting around the house for some place to store your better wines remember the rules of wine storage.
First, wines need a constant temperature of about 13 C with 50 percent to 75 percent humidity to stay alive. Second, exposure to high temperatures dry out corks.  Meanwhile, as the wine heats it expands, and soon wine is dripping out of the bottle. As wine drips out, bacteria creeps in. Third, wine is like a vampire. It likes a dark, quiet place to rest with no disturbing vibrations.
Therefore, the enemies of wine are vibration, heat, sudden changes in temperature, and bright lights.  A lot of people store their wines on their kitchen counter. Yes, often when  you are watching a TV sit-com,  you see the stage set with wines stored in the kitchen next to a hot oven and above a rumbling, steaming dishwasher.  What a great way to murder wine!
If you  are worried about keeping only a few good wines during summer, roll them in newspaper and lay them in your refrigerator’s vegetable bin. Bottles which are closed with a Stelvin closure  can can be stored standing up.  (Stelvins are very expensive and high tech screw caps which are used more and more by whole wine regions.)
Refrigerators used to produce too much vibration to store wine, but Japanese refrigerators are silent and still.  My fridge has separate temp controls for each section or drawer, and even a place in the veggie bin to stand wines with Stelvin closures upright.
If the fridge is full, then place the bottles in big Styrofoam boxes taped shut for good insulation to minimize temperature swings and put them in the coolest part of your home.
Storing wine in wooden cabinets is not recommended, as processed wood made with flame-retardants can interact with wine corks, producing TBA (tribromoanisol), a variety of cork taint that makes wine smell and taste like moldy paper.
And if you are lucky enough to have a friend that lives in the countryside and has a stone storage house with a constant temperature, or a cooled warehouse for storing fruit, you might ask them if you can storage a case of wine. Make sure the wines are either reclining on their sides, or even on their heads, en point!  Your wine would probably appreciate a summer vacation in the quiet countryside.


Mt. Chokai, Akita, near sea, rice fields and fruit orchards. (photo-Hiroshi Shoji)

Storing wine in rental wine cellars is not easy in Japan.  Some importers do store or mature wines for you, but only the wines they sell and at a cost. When you store your wines with a dealer, make sure you get visiting rights. One wine lover was shocked to find his pricy wines sweltering in a wine storage warehouse where the staff forgot to check the thermostat during August vacation.
American sommelier, Yukari Pratt, says electric wine storage units are a must for serious wine lovers in Japan. However, smaller, pricier units sell best in Japan for home use, as most wine lovers don’t have the space for a large unit. The upside is that larger units get discounted at many big box and electrical goods stores in Japan.
However,  before you buy, check your house or apartment’s construction.  A large wine cellar filled with bottles of wine is a hefty load!  Often rental houses and condos in Japan have strict weight limits. (no water beds either)
Different brands of wine cellars have major differences.  Emmanuel Bia, a wine cellar specialist, entered the wine cellar business after he was constantly asked to store the Luxembourg wines which customers bought from him.
Bia says there are basically 3 wine cellar cooling technologies. A compressor type using refrigerant gas is similar to home refrigerators, is easy to service and powerful.
The almost noiseless absorption system uses ammonia gas, yet because it uses ammonia it is difficult to service. The thermoelectric or Peltier, cooling system , while also quiet, has less power, while consuming more electricity.
Bia says when buying a cellar to check that it has sparkling wine bottle storage space, and also humidity and air recycling functions. He prefers the easy to maintain compressor types, for example the Vineacave V-40, holding 40 bottles, either stand alone or built in at about 100.000 yen + tax.
For the temperature obsessed the Vintec V50DG2e, priced between 128.000-150.000 yen + tax, holds 50 bottles and has dual compartments.  One can be set at 12 C for maturing wines, the second can be used for chilling wines.
For those seriously into aging wine, the French-made Artevino will hold 100 to 280 bottles, selling between 420.000 and 520.000 yen + tax.
For DIYers on a budget, the book Cellaring Wine: do-it-yourself solutions by Australian wine man Tyson Stelzer, makes converting an old, working refrigerator to a climate-controlled wine cellar easy. Check out http://www.winepress.com.au/
Or just  drink up and then wait for summer temperatures to cool.  Wine importers  arrange for shipments to arrive in early autumn or mid-spring. This not only keeps their shipping and storage costs lower, but also is easier for their customers who can correctly store the wine. Then you can begin to store your wine in your entry  way, which is often the coolest part of the house or apartment from fall to spring.  Remember to keep the bottles horizontal so the corks don’t dry out.
Copyright 2010:  ( Sandra Shoji-サンドラ ショージ)

Wine tasting needs a library of wine smells.

Heirloom Tomatoes at a Farmers' Market, Fleurieu Pennisula, South Australia (photo by Hiroshi Shoji)

Do you smell?  If someone blindfolded you and then put 5 objects in front of your nose, could you identify them by smell alone?  Could you describe a smell to someone who may have never smelled it before?

Wine tasting is mostly wine smelling.  Wine makers put a lot of work into making their wines smell heavenly.  Yet, at the same time, wine lovers panic when asked what a specific wine smells or tastes like. “Well, it smells…like wine”, is often the safe reply.
Our ancestors used their sense of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell to survive.  However, recently most people seem to have lost their sense of smell.
Yet, one whiff of freshly cut grass, a car with real leather seats, or a musty school book and we suddenly are snapped back in time to our childhood.  What is it about smells?  Most of the time we can’t remember them, but we can’t forget the ones that meant most to us either.
When taste wine and even food, most of what we taste is what we smell.  Think of when you have a cold, and everything seems to lack flavor. To become a star at wine tasting you need to start developing a library of smells as you can only smell in wine, something you have experienced smelling before.
Japanese wine drinkers often smell soy sauce in Bordeaux’s red wines.  Wine consumers in Britain describe red Bordeaux wines as smelling like black currents and pencil shavings. While most British have smelled and tasted soy sauce, few Japanese have experienced black currents. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc’s classic description is smelling like cats’ pee on a gooseberry bush. If you grew up both cat-less and gooseberry-less, you might be clueless as to was that smell might be like.
Step one to building your library is to smell everything. Go to the local supermarket, or even better, farmers’ market.  Many farmers markets sell heirloom fruits and vegetables which should have more intense smells and flavors. Smell the different varieties of locally grown tomatoes, melons and peaches. Smell the differences between ripe and unripe pineapples. Grow some herbs in your kitchen window. Can you tell the difference between the smell of oregano and rosemary?
In the autumn find as many kinds of apples you can and memorize the nuances of their  particular smells.  Start hanging around gardens smelling flowers. Visit a lumber yard and smell the various types of wood.  Pop in at an Indian spice shop and inhale the magical herbs and spices. Tea and coffee stores are catalogued like libraries and their odors waft into your nose.
Spices, beans and more in Adelaide Market (photo by Hiroshi Shoji)
Step two is to relate those smells to wine. There are supposed to be around 500 chemical compounds in wine. Many of these share the same volatile components as fruits and vegetables. Not surprisingly as wine is made from grapes, a fruit. Other wine smells come fermentation and maturation. Pyrazines give a green pepper aroma to Cabernet Sauvignon. Ethyl caprylate gives Chardonnay a pineapple aroma.  American oak is said to give the wines matured in it a coconut nuance.  Secondary malolatic fermentation gives Chardonnays a buttery smell.
Discover which grapes give wines special smells. Gewurztraminer, no matter where it is made– smells like lychees, roses and ginger.  Grapes affected by botytis, or noble rot, a good kind of mold, which raisinates grapes to produce lusciously rich wines like Sauternes or late harvest Chenin Blancs,  smells like honey.  Champagne has a fresh baked bread nose that comes from the extra yeast in the bottle. Champagne and other fine traditionally made sparkling wines often have a whiff of sherry if they has been maturing for a long time in chalky caves.
Step three is to take an aromatherapy class. Learn to distinguish layers of scents, in terms of base notes, middle notes and high notes, as well as how to create a blend.  Learning the subtleties of scents facilitates building up the tiny corners of your olfactory library to increase the recognition of wine smells. It also reminds you which smells most people love, and are increasingly found in wine.
At a recent sumo tournament a friend said to me as a sumo wrestler passed, “I love how they smell. One whiff!  Vanilla and coconut.”  Vanilla and coconut are scents people love. Vanilla is associated with home baked cookies, breads and cakes.  Coconut is the dreamy smell of hot sunny days and turquoise clear seas at the beach, and long tropical drinks at night. With the rise of Starbucks and espresso machines, coffee is another comfort smell.  The queen of comfort smells must be chocolate, a smell which is increasingly found in rich, red wines.

Portuguese egg tarts with coconut--the smell of N.World Chardonnay

Wine aged in an American oak barrel with a heavy toast (heavily charred by fire) gives wine coffee and chocolate smells.  A lighter toast and we can smell vanilla and coconut. Wine makers know what smells push our buttons, and we keep finding more in our wines.  A whole fruit basket of fruit is in our glass recently, because we like intense smells and flavors.
Yet, even the difference between the smell of fresh fruit and dried fruit is to be noted. The younger the wine, the more it is like a teenager, with shirttails hanging out, fresh fruit personality all over the place. A few more years of maturation and experiences, and the wine mellows into a smoother, less bumpy ride of subtle dried fruits and nuts.
An elderly wine enthusiast remarked during a wine class in England, that a wine smelled like ‘ a maid’s bedroom’.  His wife looked startled, and asked how he would know!  The scent of the maturing Pinot Noir was the scent of lavender, face powder, roses, well-polished leather shoes and polished furniture. Exactly like an English maid’s bedroom when he was a small child.
So if you can’t identify a smell that you have never smelled before, then it is never too late to start your smell library.
(Copyright 2010 by Sandra Shoji at Tokyo Wine Matters- サンドラ ショージ)

Wine parties share the cost and fun in Japan.


Adelaide Hills, Tasting Australia 2007-photo Hiroshi Shoji

Japan’s summers are a good time to stay indoors and chill out by inviting some friends over for a wine party.  As long as you have a refrigerator, air conditioning, a little floor space with floor cushions and some friends the party is good to go! Plus wine parties share the cost and fun!

In order to avoid a bad wine party, set some limitations so no one is dropping off at the corner store for a dusty bottle of ¥498 wine.  First, pick a theme and price range. Unusual wine regions and countries encourages friends to get out of their comfortably boring wine ruts. Tastings arranged by theme of grape, region or vintages are called ‘flights’, and can really hone your taste buds and wine memory bank.
At one wine tasting party in Tokyo we were to bring wine from regions that no one knew made wine.  We had wines from Luxembourg, Thailand, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Slovenia and more.  Ask some friends to bring sparkling, while others bring red, white or dessert wines to make a balanced, and definitely un-boring challenge.
Other themes might be unusual grapes, wines made by women winemakers, wines with wacky labels or even biodynamic wines.
Wine is heavy.  So email friends a list of good wine shops, supermarkets or department stores in your neighborhood. Or send a list of friendly wine importers who deliver by the bottle or mixed case. Japan is the center of the home delivery service, and many shops and importers will ship wine in summer by cool delivery.
Glasses don’t have to be expensive.  From Japan’s ¥100 yen shops, it is easy to have a shop order you a couple of boxes of balloon glasses. (Some hosts give them away after the party, when storage is a problem.)  If a guest is really picky about their brand, have them haul their own to your abode.
Many people drink wine with their eyes, so at any wine tasting, the wines should be blind. That means wine bottles (labels) should be covered with paper bags, long plastic bags, decorative covers or even as some wine pro friends do, use clean and colorful socks.
Tasting mystery reds at The Japan Wine Challenge (photo-Sandra Shoji)
Most wines need some chilling in summer. ( The French even like their fruity reds a bit cool on hot days.) So make some space in your fridge. Whites can go in for an hour, reds about 20 minutes, and light dessert wines can go in the refrigerator door.  Sparkling, because of the pressure equal to a London bus tire, inside the bottle, needs to be very chilled. I put mine in the fridge for an hour, then into a bucket with an ice cube, water and salt mix to keep the temps down.  While the wines are chilling hand around a walk-in wine, and some crackers, olives, bread and nuts. If you don’t have enough seating space, throw cushions on the floor, and let people relax.
You will need a counter or table covered with a white table cloth or white paper.  A wine’s color is judged against white. Also, lots of napkins for soaking up spills. People who know enough to spit when tasting, will need large paper beer cups, and then a large bucket to  pour them into later. Line the bucket with paper towels or sawdust to avoid ‘splash-back’.  Wine stains are inevitable. If you catch them fast, do what fine London hotels do and use white wine to sopping up a red wine stain. The stain supposedly isn’t removed, but the white wine changes the color of the red pigment to clear.
When opening the wines you need a foil cutter and Screwpull corkscrew, which magically opens about every bottle with a cork. For more delicate operations try a sommelier’s corkscrew with a serrated blade. Corkscrews are not something to save money on, and the cheaper ones can be downright dangerous.  If someone gave you a Rabbit opener for Christmas, this is a time to use it. Many fine wines from New and Old World countries are closed with a metal Stelvin capsule. Some take a lot of effort to open, but the key is to grasp the closure, and twist the bottle end of the bottle.

Comparative tasting of matured Austrian White Wines. (photo-Sandra Shoji)

Once the wines are ready to be opened, open them in the kitchen with a trusted friend.  Arrange them by color and style. Place a numbered card around the neck of each wine. Hand out everyone a pencil and sheet with the same numbers as the wines for making notes.  When tasting, a wine glass should be filled one-third full.  However, if the glass is the size of a fishbowl, then only a small portion is needed. Have fun teaching novices to swirl, sniff, sip and spit.
Nearby put a large bowl filled with marbles.   Every time someone really likes a wine, they put a marble in front of the covered bottle. By the time all the wines have been tasted and discussed, count the marbles, then unveil the wines!  Winning wines are often shockers. Will it be the most expensive wine or the cheapest?  Will it be dry as a bone, or have sweet saucy smile? Award the winning wine’s owner with a corny prize. Once the tasting part is over, then serve food to soak up the remaining wine. A variety of polentas, paellas, cheeses, some brownies and a chilled dessert will keep your friends smiling and satisfied.
(Copyright 2010: Sandra Shoji  at Tokyo Wine Matters-サンドラ ショージ)