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, wine@village-cellars.co.jp

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

 

 

 

Beaux Freres’ Michael Etzel makes divine Oregon Pinot Noir wines.

Michael Etzel of Beaux Freres in Tokyo

On February 4, 2001, Michael Etzel, co- owner, wine maker and vineyard manager of Oregon’s Beaux Freres was in Tokyo giving at tasting at the Diamond Club for Nakagawa Wine Company.

Michael Etzel has a down home, folksy way about him, looking more like a country western singer than a city-slicker wine maker for one of the world’s top wineries.  Spinning his wine tale, he describes how a young and married country boy from Colorado Springs, Colorado while vacationing in Oregon had a life changing experience which led him to buy an 88 acre pig farm in Oregon and begin growing wine grapes.
Etzel says pretty soon he began a partnership with his sister’s husband. And who is his sister’s husband, but none other than the world’s most renowned and influential wine critic , Robert Parker, J.!   They called their winery Beaux Freres, the brothers-in-laws.
In 1991 a third partner, Robert Roy,  became one of the Beaux Freres.
Etzel says he is the wine maker and does all the work in the vineyard.  A look at his tanned face and tough workmen’s hands, it is very believable. “When the grapes come in we just let it ferment. We don’t add sugar, or tartaric acid or any acid.”
He added, “We do a traditional Burgundy fermentation style with open top vats, 2 tonnes, jacketed like this cup.” (holding up a tall paper beer cup). “It lets the heat and oxygen blow off,” Etzel say, “ Also we can pigeage with feet or with a big ladle.”
The grapes are picked at a 24 Brix, and are cold soaked, then heated with a glycol jacket, and the natural fermentation begins. Etzel doesn’t add supplements or nutrients. The fermentation temperature begins to climb as sugars eat the yeast so the temperatures climbs to 25c.“ As the wine ferments the Brix drops down to 10 Brix,  fermentation dried out to negative Brix.
He says that next, a high percentage goes into new French oak without settling. “All the gross lees and much go in the barrel,” says Etzel. “However, not the skins as they are removed during pressing.”
He notes that most winemakers let wine settle 24 hours and only fresh wine goes in, but at Beaux Freres they don’t rack or move the wine until bottling.
“Our So2 is the lowest of any commercial winery. Because we don’t move the wine around or filter it is has higher Co2.”
Because of this Etzel recommends decanting the wine, “The wine has 300 parts per million of Co2.  Winemaking universities recommend 250.”  Etzel chuckled “I was never a good student.”
Beaux Freres Label says it all.
Viticulture.
Beaux Freres is biodynamic with very low yields, and one bunch of grapes on one cane on vertical trellises, the same as a Grand Cru in Burgundy.
“At harvest time we taste and look at the seed, not really the sugar. But at 23 Brix the seed cannot be florescent green.  A ripe seed looks like a ripe banana, with the dark spots.”
The vineyard is marine sediment soil, unlike Burgundy ,which has high limestone content.  Etzel notes the slope is south and southeast with an elevation of 365 feet with 5,500 plants per hectare while Burgundy has 10,000.

The Importance of Trellising High

“In Burgundy the first fruiting wires are one foot off the ground, but my wires are two feet off the ground,” Etzel says standing up and demonstrating how the bunches at a higher level get more even sunshine all day.
“Have to be careful of the height of the trellis. If they are too close or too low there is too much shading on the grapes.”

The Costly Clones.

In the vineyard he uses Pommard/Vaud Swiss #2 clones, as Swiss clones have lots of red fruit character, “This clone is very challenging as it demands a specific sight.”
The Upper Terrace is Beaux Freres’ ‘pampered child vineyard’.  Etzel says, “Not the favorite child, but the most spoiled with care.” The vineyard was purchased in 1999 as a 40 acre forest, which was then planted with 10 acre vineyard one year after the purchase.
The vineyard is planted 5 different Pinot Noir Dijon clones on two different rootstocks to be Phylloxera resistant.  The difference between the regular Beaux Freres and Upper Terrace is the vines age and the clones.
The Upper Terrace is a very young vineyard, so the 2008 vintage was from vines that were only 8 years old.
“I believe a vineyard needs 15 years at least to express its terroir,” notes Etzel. “Recently, Oregon was allowed to create 5 new AVAs, and Beaux Freres is on Ribbon Ridge AVA.”

Oak Barrels-only the best with a medium toast.

Beaux Freres orders oak barrels as staves and let sthem air dry for another year. This gives the wood a much softer on its impact on the wine.  France has about 15 different forests for their wood used for barrels and Etzer says, “My  particular favorites are Voges,  Nevers and Allier.
He prefers a medium toast level. “Early years we used a heavier toast, but it was too smoky, too much of a barbeque flavor.  As the market has become more sophisticated, the market is moving away from a heavy toast.”
Seriously hand-selected corks

The reason for starting to be Biodynamic

“In the original Beaux Freres vineyard we had Phylloxera, “ and Etzel was told it could co-exist if he farmed it biodynamically.  Farming biodynamically slowed the growth of Phylloxera down. In 1988 Phylloxera was not an issue in Oregon, but 2-3 years later Phylloxera was discovered in Oregon and Etzel had already planted the first vineyards.
“In the old days we would buy rootstock for 35 cents each. Now they are $4.00 a piece, so to get 5,5000 plants to the hectare, plus trellising, wire posts is expensive.”
In the old days when rootstock was 35 cents each, you’d plant them directly into the ground. Now you buy cuttings from dormant plants, so I let a nursery grow them.
Etzel said he went to Burgundy to learn wine making,  modeling Beaux Freres after that they were doing, using the same fermenters, the same trellising, “Yes, I copied them. Now after 20 years of tweeking , it is to make Beaux Freres into Beaux Freres.”
The wines are ready for tasting

Vintages do matter when you are making wine naturally.

2007
This was a challenging harvest the winery began picking at 23 Brix, and then it was down to 21 Brix when they finished.  There was some delusion from rain so Etzel treated the wine like it was a white wine. “We didn’t want to extract bitterness from the seeds so we fermented at a lower white wine temperature. “
Etzel was gentle with pigeage (punching down) and put the wine into used oak barrels at a cool 23C fermentation. “Most fermentations are in the low 30s,” according to Etzel, “However, the danger of low temperatures is that you don’t get good color extraction.”
2008
2008 was the vintage of the century. “It seems we have a vintage of the century every 10 years,” laughed Etzel.  “We had little rain, but at the right time and not excessive hear. If it is 40 degrees Celsius it is hard on the vine and burns the skin.”
They did a barrel fermentation with no reduction and no sulfite products as 2008’s vintage’s must had all the nutrition.  Etzel says there was no reductive stink from not enough nutrients and here was 1% more alcohol than the previous vintage for Beaux Freres.
Every year Beaux Freres divides the vineyards into about 13 fermenters divided by clone or by when it is fermented. “There are 25 or more Pinot Noir clones,” Etzel jokes that clones are a plot by nurseries to make vineyard owns buy more.
Etzel says they take their corks  from Portugal seriously, using a super hand selecton so that only 1% of the corks have TCA.
The Flight of the Day

The Tasting Flight

Beaux Freres Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, 2007-Y10,000.
A medium pale garnet with an orange rim.  The nose is very full and rich with Burgundy style. Damson plums, forest floor, a hint of violets and mushrooms.  The flavors are similar to the nose. Very elegant and gracefully balanced with a silky, plum finish with hint of Asian spice.

Beaux Freres Pinot Noir, The Beaux Freres Vineyard, Ribbon Ridge, 2007-Y12,000.
Medium to deep ruby with a pink rim. The nose is of new oak and spicy beetroot. On the palate the wine seems to have more alcohol, with fresh black fruit, truffles, beetroot, savory tannins and a very long smooth finish.

Beaux Freres Pinot Noir, The Beaux Freres Vineyard, 2008 (the vintage of the century), Ribbon Ridge-Y12,000.
Medium to deep ruby with a pink rim. The nose is very similar to the Beaux Freres Vineyard 2007, but with more fruit (raspberries, cherries, blackberries, Damson plums) and complexity on the nose and palate. Silky tannins, full bodied with a long complex finish.

Beaux Freres Pinot Noir Upper Terrace, 2008, Ribbon Ridge- Y17,000
A deeper, shimmering ruby with a pink rim. More forest floor and barnyard on the nose, like a classic Burgundy. Racy, mouth-watering acidity, gritty tannins and lots of classic Burgundian beetroot, truffles and forest berries. Very long finish of grained satin ribbon. Definitely a wine that is for keeping and savoring for a special occasion.

Copyright 2011-Sandra Shoji,  サンドラ ショージ

Wine and Mushrooms, Japan’s Sensual Magic!

Autumn in Japan is mushroom heaven.

Rural biking expeditions on narrow Japanese foothill roads edged with maple trees lead into chilly pine forests. What seems to be stacks of neatly cut firewood are nurseries for  Shiitake mushrooms.

Wine and mushrooms are sensual magical friends. The key is pheromones, chemical equivalents to hormones. Pinot Noir’s earthy, forest floor, spice and musk odors are said to mimic male androstenone. Mushrooms have lots of protein and B vitamins.

 

In Japan they are the perfect antidote to steamy summers that wring the life out of people.Pinot Noir’s ancestral home of Burgundy is home to pricy pungent truffles sniffed out by truffle pigs and truffle dogs. Burgundy’s cuisine is packed with   soul-satisfying fungi dishes that put some meat on your bones in preparation for winter. Mushroom or truffle omelets, mushroom and chestnut stuffed roasted fowl or beef. Mushroom stews or large raviolis plump with duck stuffing floating in broth speckled with shaved truffles.
The natural wine match is Burgundy’s red wine grape, Pinot Noir, smelling of forest floor and wild things. However, Burgundy’s other red grape is Gamay, which in Japan is known for the loads of drink-up soon Beaujolais Nouveau that hit these shores each November like clock-work. However, some wine shops do carry Beaujolais from one of Beaujolais’s top ten villages from small wineries. These can be velvety rich with an edge of cherry, especially with a few years of maturity.
Mushroom & Wine Breakfast at Tasting Australia (photo-Hiroshi Shoji)
Autumn in Japan have restaurants celebrating the return of cool weather with mushroom tempura, Chawanmushi—a steamed egg custard and Matsutake Gohan, rice steamed with Matsutake (pine) mushrooms.
Tiny, earthenware or China teapots of fragrant Dobinmushi appear in restaurants and at home. The pale broth is served in a tiny teapot (dobin)and topped with an even tinier inverted cup holding an even tinier wedge of a citrus called yuzu. It is enough to make you feel like you are at Alice’s tea party with the Mad Hatter.
Floating in the dobin’s broth are usually two ginko nuts, a slice of fish cake, a shrimp, a smidgeon of skinless chicken and a dainty sprig of mitsuba a Japanese wild parsley. The crowning glory is a single slice of delicate Matsutake pine mushroom whose price of Y15,000 and up for three mushrooms at a local farmer’s market is enough to make you want to go into the business of Matsutake growing
For those who can afford to buy whole Matsutake mushrooms, the tradition is to cut them in half lengthwise and grill them over smokeless charcoal, and serve with a squeeze of the citrus Sudashi.
The key to matching Japanese mushroom dishes with wine is gauging the mushrooms’ meatiness and flavors. Delicate Dobinmushi would be overwhelmed by an oaky, buttery Chardonnay, but might work with an unoaked, dry Chablis. Yet, if your mushrooms are button type and in a creamy white sauce, then a buttery Chardonnay is a perfect choice.
However, dobinmuchi’s lemony yuzu and celeryleaf-like mitsuba (trefoil) better suits a young, cool-climate Riesling. Pale gold as late autumnal sunlight, Riesling’s citrus, apple or Asian peach flavors, low alcoholic content and higher acidity make it a terrific food wine. Cooler climate Rieslings have more citrus, stone and green apple flavors, while warmer climate Rieslings are rounder and with peach nuances.
German Kabinett (level of ripeness) Rieslings are off-dry with lower alcohol and zippy high acidity. Young Rieslings from Austria, Alsace and New Zealand are still crisp, but with higher levels of alcohol. Those from Australia and Washington State tend to be fuller flavored with more body.
Meatier mushroom dishes like Mushroom Risotto,Portobello or Shiitake mushrooms stuffed with bread crumbs and cheese find a nice match with a bold Barolo from Italy’s northwest Piedmont, made from the king of Italian grapes, Nebbiolo.
Tomato and mushroom dishes need wines that can handle the acidity in tomatoes. The classic match is the Sangiovese grape, whose most famous wine is Chianti Classico from Tuscany, Italy.  Recently, Sangiovese is also popping up in Australia and California.
Few white wines match tomato dishes. Yet, Austrian chefs and cooks often pair Austria’s elegantly robust grape, Gruner Veltliner with pasta or cutlet dishes made using tomatoes. Tasting of white pepper, lemon and floral honey, Gruner’s acidity matches tomatoes’ acidity. Also, Gruner’s slight green character matches the greenness found in more store-bought tomatoes.
For autumn days when the frost is on the pumpkin, cook up some brown mushroom soup or stew, a steak smothered in Shiitake mushrooms or sautéed Pierogies or Gyoza stuffed with potatoes and brown mushrooms. Or even pastry stuffed with smoked duck and mushrooms.

Duck and mushroom stuffed pastry (photo-Sandra Shoji)

 

Their richness and heavier weight suit subtly oaked red wines like a Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra, South Australia, a New Zealand Pinot Noir or delicate Zinfandel like Ridge.
Another grape that can handle hearty dishes is Pinotage from South Africa. Pinotage is a cross between the delicate Pinot Noir and the sturdy Cinsault grapes. When made well with a few years of maturity, it is a very suave wine with essences of mushrooms, wild strawberries, violets, blueberries and smoke.
On a final note, while visiting Food-Ex 2010 in Japan, a huge food and beverage annual event that draws exhibitors and visitors worldwide, we discovered truffles are now being grown in Hokkaido. While they may not need pigs or dogs to sniff them out as they won’t be found in pungent forests, they still tasted sensually delicious.
(Copyright 2010: ( Sandra Shoji-サンドラ ショージ)