The Holy Grail of Wines-to look for in Tokyo

Holy Grail of Grapes

Wine students often ask me, “What was that movie about Pinot Noir?” Ah, the Oscar-winning movie Sideways, which followed the adventures of Miles, a downwardly mobile middle-aged wine geek. As he accompanied Jack, his soon-to-be wed Neanderthal-like actor friend, on a week long, wild wine road trip through California’s Santa Ynez Valley wine country in search for the Holy Grail of wines, Pinot Noir. Therefore, inspiring wine lovers to search for their own version of the Holy Grail -Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir has been a star in Burgundy since Roman times, and favorites of French royalty and the church. Also, it is one of the three grapes found in most Champagnes. In the New World, winemakers see Pinot Noir as an ultimate test of their winemaking abilities.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grow like weeds worldwide. However, Pinot Noir, the sulky, sensitive noble queen of grapes, is far more demanding. She is very particular about where she puts down roots, preferring cool climates. Her delicate, thin skin demands 24-hour care to protect her from hail, frost and rain.

While the blueberry-size Cabernet Sauvignon grapes produce tough and tannic muscular wines, Pinot Noir’s larger size and higher juice-to-skin ratio produces paler, delicate wines the brilliant ruby color of stained glass cathedral windows.

Often called the heartbreak grape, Pinot Noir can often be disappointing if shipped badly or opened when not ready to drink. Yet Pinot lovers always remember the breathtaking experience of tasting an exquisite bottle of Pinot Noir; silky and sensual, yet with forest fragrances turning into poetry in a glass.

Some of my personal favorites:

D’Arenberg, The Feral Fox Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills, South Australia. Village Cellars,

D’Arenberg’s unique owners, father d’Arry Osborn and son Chester, are living legends. Both are talented winemakers with a gift for telling very tall tales. Every d’Arenberg wine has a quirky urban legend behind the label: The Footbolt Shiraz, The Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier and their high point Parker wine–The Dead Arm Shiraz.

The Feral Fox’s name comes from the sudden influx of wild foxes around the vineyard. With the decline of the animal’s favorite prey, rabbit, the crafty foxes began munching on bunches of tasty Pinot Noir grapes. The Feral Fox’s brooding signature flavors and aromas are as wild as a vineyard fox. Not for the faint of heart, with lots of forest floor, juicy wild strawberries, black truffles, beetroot and spicy wood smoke. Fantastic with pasta or wild rice with mixed mushrooms and demiglace sauce.

Norman Hardie Winery & Vineyard, Pinot Noir, Cuvee ‘L’, 2012, Ontario, Canada. Heavenly Vines, Ebisu, Tokyo.
Yep, Canada makes some of the best wine in the world. “But how do they do it in the Great White North?” Well, if you look at a world map you can see that many parts of Canada, where wine is made, is on the same latitude as France, Washington State and so on. Canadian wines get top ratings from wine pros and sell out fast. Getting the top wineries to part with their wines to send to far off Japan was not easy for Canadian, Jamie Paquin and his wife, Nozomi Mihara. The couple runs an all Canadian wine shop in Ebisu, Tokyo. ( On weekends drop in for some wine and some hockey!)

Norman Hardie, Pinot Noir Cuvee ‘L’ is only made in the best vintages. The 2012 is a 70% blend of Niagara and 30% Country vineyards. The regions are aged separately in French oak, then blended and aged together in neutral oak. The wines are made in small batches and fermented with indigenous yeasts. The best part is that the wine has terrific balance with only 11.8% alcohol. ( Until the late 1990’s, most famous wines were around this level. Recently, sanity has returned and alcohol levels are going back to normal.)

‘L’ is a smoothly rich wine, with balanced acidity and forward strawberries, raspberries and black fruit over an Old World-style bone structure with a hint of beetroot and mushrooms. Pair with grilled mushrooms and lamb kebabs over the BBQ.

August Kesseler Spatburgunder Trocken, Cuvee Max, Rheingau, Germany.

Cuvee Max is only made and bottled when vintages are at their best. I have bought this wine in Japan, and in Wisconsin. Most wine students seem surprised that Germany grows a lot of Pinot Noir, in German called Spatburgunder. Germany’s Rheingau region is mineral rich with steep slate slopes which gives the wine a soft minerality. Located north of Frankfurt, the Rheingau region has been growing Pinot Noir grapes for more than 1,000 years. The region is home to some of Germany’s oldest wine estates, first built by the Romans.

The Kesseler family and team has worked in their vineyards for decades, producing wines on 40- to 80-year-old original clone vines. Keeping yields low, production small and quality high makes wine collectors grab most of his perfect wines–keeping prices high. Kessler’s mantra is “Quality is the best marketing strategy.” August Kesseler has won many awards; ‘Winemaker of the Year’, ‘Producer of the year’, The German Red Wine Prize and more. Cuvee Max is a very sensual wine, heady with aromas of sweet cherries, tea, cinnamon bark and white truffles with a hint of Chanel No. 5. Pair with roasted Cornish game hens stuffed with shiitake mushrooms.

Copyright 2017-Sandra Shoji サンドラ ショージ





Free Premium California Wine Tasting by Hotei Wines at Dive to Wine in Tokyo.

Free anything in Tokyo rarely happens, especially in the world of wine. So it amazing when Bill Campbell, the CEO of Hotei Wines puts on a free premium wine tasting at the hipster wine shop, Dive to Wine. Hotei has been around for quite a while, famous for carrying the California wineries that were at the Judgement of Paris. Famous for carrying top California wines.


Team Hotei will be pouring a dozen of their best-selling wines at eclectic wine shop/wine bar “Dive to Wine” in Jingumae on Tuesday, May 23, from
1:00-8:00pm. ( Hotei’s boss, Bill Campbell will be pouring from 17:00!!)

The tasting selection will run the gauntlet from Bodkin’s Blanc de Sauvignon Blanc. (“America’s first sparkling Sav Blanc”), to great-value offerings from Bench, Seaglass, Castle Rock and Joel Gott. Also, featured will be two most popular recent library releases, the Valentine Vineyards 2004 Merlot and Keller’s 2011 La Cruz Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay.

There is no charge for the tasting, and Dive to Wine will offer free shipping on orders totaling 6,000 yen and up, so this is a great chance to try some good-value wines for the summer and ship in a few bottles for further evaluation!

Hotei in-store tasting
May 23, 13:00-20:00*
Dive to Wine
3-1-21 Jingumae
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Tel 03-6319-1915
*Hotei’s big boss, Bill Campbell will pouring from 17:00

Hotei Wines KK
3-17-5 Shirokanedai
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0071

May 20, 2011 Riesling Ring, Imperial Hotel

The annual Riesling Ring in Tokyo gathers ‘the queen of white’ grapes from the four corners of the wine world.

Riesling Ring Trade Tasting at the Imperial Hotel (photo: Hiroshi Shoji)

A brilliant chance to taste Riesling at its best, in a variety of styles from different terroirs and climates. The levels of alcohol, dryness, ripeness and body will differ. However, the thread that carries through a good Riesling is the development of a petrol nose. Riesling changes from green apple, citrus, minerally youthfulness to a lusciously rich and rounded honeyed baked apples, yet still with a backbone of racy acidity.

Old World & New World Rieslings at the Imperial Hotel.

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)