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





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
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)