Monday, May 6, 2019

LeDomduVin: Encounter with Chateau Mercian: A Japanese Wine!

Chateau Mercian Logo - Courtesy of

Encounter with Château Mercian: A Japanese Wine 

When you think about Japanese Wine, you usually think about Sake (or Saké), of course... What else could it be other than the famous Japanese rice wine? The one made with brewed rice (and water) has been previously polished to gradually remove the bran and thus refine the grain to obtain distinguishable Sakés of various aspects, aromas, tastes, and textures. Right? (* and **)

Yet, have you ever tasted Japanese wine? And, I'm not talking about Sake now, I'm talking about wine made from fermented grapes. What? Well...What? Japan is producing real wine made from fermented grapes? Since when? ....Well, for quite some time... 

In fact, the production of grapes for consumption (and alcohol production) in Japan has existed (like in China) for (at least) the last 3000 years, yet the production of domestic wine using locally produced grapes only really began with the rise of Western culture during the Meiji restoration in the mid-1800s.

Another interesting fact is that, in Japan, due to lack of designation of origin and regardless of the types of grapes and/or even grains, the term "Sake" or "Japanese Wine" (which literally means "liquor" or "alcoholic beverage") can be attributed to pretty much anything and everything that is domestically fermented (even if the grapes or grains have been imported) like sake, wine and beer (in fact, any alcoholic beverages for that matter); which is quite confusing, (and quite controversial compared to the "Western World" definition of "wine"). 

However, this last fact is actually changing ("evolving," I should say), as the idea of implementing regulations on the designations of origin and the use of strictly locally grown grapes for Japanese Wine (not Saké) is emerging and will probably soon be put in place to regulate and clarify the situation.

As it already exists in most other wine-producing countries, it is important to establish a system protecting the designations of origin and regulating the use of specific Indigenous grapes as well as specific viticulture and vinification methods. 

Even if not as elaborate as the French AOC/AOP system, it will definitely be good to have an official way to differentiate Japanese Sake (technically rice wine called "Japanese Wine") from Japanese wine actually made from locally grown grapes.       

Because, let's be honest, that's a real dilemma.... as we are now talking about "Japanese Wine", which is not "Sake", made with "grapes" and not with "rice", and produced in a "winery" and not in a "brewery", really confusing, isn't it?

And if we reverse it, it is funny and also pretty confusing to think that "Sake" is referred to as a "wine" made out of "rice" in a "brewery", while "Sake" has nothing to do with "wine" (except the part of fermentation maybe). It is not a "beer" either.... (sigh... go figure.... they definitely need regulations and a system to be put in place rapidly to avoid the confusion and really define what the difference between "Japanese Wine" (from rice) and "Japanese Wine" (from grapes) is. (sigh) 

"The Sake Dilemma" by ©LeDomduVin 2019

Anyhow, have you ever tasted a Japanese wine (the one made with grapes)? Yes? No? Well, in my 28-year career in the wine and spirits industry on three continents (*), I've tasted a countless amount of Saké(s), but wine from Japan (other than Saké —you see how confusing that is—sigh...), I believe that it was my first time last Thursday (***).

I have heard some of the names/brands and even seen labels for some Japanese wines at wine fairs and other wine events, but frankly, I do not think I have ever tasted one before this Thursday. (Or, if I did, I have no accurate recollection, which is usually a bad sign for the wine.) 

Jameson, the Head Sommelier of Dynasty Garden (the Fine Dining Chinese Restaurant of the company I work for, located in our headquarters building, GFGC, in Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong) told me: 

"Hey, I'm tasting some Japanese wines later on today with a distributor for a Japanese wine dinner I would like to organize at the restaurant later this month. Are you interested?"   

"Yes, of course," I answered, as I had no intention of missing an opportunity to taste some wines, especially wines made from grape varieties and from a region I had never tasted before.  

My day at the office came to an end around 6.30 pm, and instead of going home as I normally do, I headed to the restaurant Dynasty Garden (on the first floor of our headquarters office building in Kowloon Bay). Jameson and the distributor had already started tasting some of the wines while the Chef was bringing some dishes sampled in preparation for the wine dinner that was to occur a few weeks later.   

Eric C.C. Ng, the Director of "Hing Lung Food Place Limited"
at Dynasty Garden Restaurant - ©LeDomduVin 2019

Jameson introduced me to Eric C.C. Ng, the Director of "Hing Lung Food Place Limited", a food and beverage distribution company historically founded by his father, with a focus on meat distribution (atop of other food products) in Hong Kong, which evolved and changed its focus a few years back to supply a wide selection of Saké(s) from about 20 Japanese breweries (and thus the primary distributor of Sake in HK).

Alongside the Sake(s), they also decided to carry some Japanese wines (made from grapes—again, see how annoying it is to always have to specify what is what—the Japanese really have to do something about this) to enhance their portfolio and enable their customers to choose among various Japanese products (which makes sense to carry both, in my opinion).

So, after being approached by the winery to promote and distribute their wines in Hong Kong, they added Château Mercian to their portfolio, and are now the exclusive agent for the HK market.

After shaking Eric's hand and being invited to sit down to participate in the tasting with them (Eric, the distributor, and Jameson, the Sommelier), I started to ask Eric a few questions about Château Mercian. I knew nothing about this winery and was eager to learn more about it.

You can always visit the website of Château Mercian to find out more details, but here are a few key points about this winery that Eric told me about:

Château Mercian

Château Mercian is located in the Yamanashi province, roughly 100 kilometers west of Tokyo. 

Chateau Mercian map location compared to Tokyo, Japan 
- Map courtesy of Google Map

The vineyard was established 142 years ago when "Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoushu-Gaisha" the forerunner of Mercian Corporation was founded in 1877. This was a turning point and the beginning of a new era in Japanese viticulture.
The brand "Château Mercian" was established in 1970, and the planting of various grape varieties in diverse regions of Japan gradually occurred in the following years and evolved gradually over the decades:
  • Merlot in the "Kikyogahara" region in 1976
  • Cabernet Sauvignon at "Jyonohira Vineyard" in 1984
  • Chardonnay in the "Hokushin" region in 1990
  • Cultivation started at the Mariko Vineyard in 2003
  • Koshu wine was first released in 2005
The "Mercian Katsunuma Winery" was rebuilt with state-of-the-art facilities and equipment and officially became "Château Mercian" in 2010. 

The wines are made from various grape varieties planted in several parcels of vines scattered in various regions of various prefectures (e.g., Yamanashi, Nagano, etc...) in the central part of Japan, as you can see on the map below:

Château Mercian Vineyards and Grape Varieties Map -
Original map courtesy of Chateau Mercian edited by ©LeDomduVin 2019

The rest is history, as, since then, Château Mercian has become one of the leading wineries in Japan, producing exemplary wines that easily compete with their Western world counterparts. Their wines have received numerous accolades, medals, and recognition in many international wine challenges and expositions worldwide. Their reputation is second to none and the quality of their wines is now well established, exhibiting cleanness, freshness and balance in all their wines and "cuvées".


Wine Pairing Tasting

As soon as I sat down, Jameson poured me the first wine they had tasted while they were already discussing and commenting on how it paired with the food Executive Chef Fung (Man Ip) had just served at the table.

Executive Chef Fung (Man Ip) of Dynasty Garden Restaurant 
-  ©LeDomduVin 2019

It is at this point that I understood that I will not keep the promise I made to myself earlier that day to "come, say hello, taste the wines and leave shortly after to go back home to my kids". I mean, don't get me wrong, I love my kids very much, but I could not miss this opportunity to taste these wines and the food served with them. Especially if invited to taste and comment and give my opinion about the wine pairings for the upcoming dinner. After all, it would go against my epicurean nature and status as a Sommelier to refuse such an invitation 😊. (My kids were probably happy to be home with the nanny, doing whatever they wanted without Daddy lurking around). 

FYI: The menu I saw and the food served that day slightly differed from the finalized menu below, as the Chef modified some of the dishes based on our comments for the food pairing to sublime the wine and vice versa. 

Here is the finalized menu. However, it was subject to some slight (last minute) changes between the time I wrote this post and the date of the dinner, but at least it gives you an idea: 

Chateau Mercian Wine Dinner (V3 June 22) courtesy of Dynasty Garden Restaurant

Nice menu, isn't it? Makes me salivate just by reading it...

The Wines and the Dishes

So, without further due, here are my tasting notes for the wines we tasted that day and a few comments on the food served with them. 

The first wine was 

Château Mercian "Koshu Kiiroka" 甲州きいろ香 , Yamanashi, Japan 2016

As on the menu above, the " Château Mercian Koshu Kiiroka 甲州きいろ香 " 2016 was served first and paired with a plate of 3 appetizers: Marinated Black Fungus / Spicy Wagyu Beef Cheek / Chilled Bitter Melon.  

"Koshu" is a white grape variety, with a distinctive pinkish skin,
grown primarily in the "Yamanashi" Prefecture of Japan 

- edited for ©LeDomduVin 2019

For those of you who might not know, "Koshu" is a white grape variety with a distinctive pinkish skin grown primarily in the Yamanashi Prefecture of Japan (see the region's maps above and below).

Some time ago, depending on the source, it appeared that some mistakenly believed it to have European origin and believed it to be indigenous to Japan. But later, after studying its DNA, it seemed, in fact, to be a hybrid of Europe's Vitis vinifera and one or more Asian Vitis species. 

Nowadays, it is clear that parts of its DNA originated from Europe. It is believed to have found its way to Japan via the Silk Road, probably a thousand years ago, traveling from Europe via the Caucasus, across Central Asia, then on to China, and finally to Japan. Consequently, Koshu, found only in Japan, is now considered Japan's most important indigenous grape variety.  

Yamanashi Prefecture Map with regions courtesy of
edited by ©LeDomduVin 2019

The name “Koshu” is also a former name for "Yamanashi" and is still the name of a region within the "Yamanashi" prefecture (see map above).

Frankly, I did not know what to expect from a wine made with "Koshu" grapes. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I looked at its "robe" and put the glass to my nose.

Château Mercian Koshu Kiiroka 甲州きいろ香 , Yamanashi, Japan 2016
- ©LeDomduVin 2019

Château Mercian Koshu Kiiroka 甲州きいろ香 " 2016
Very clear, clean, really pale yellow color with silver and greenish reflects. Very expressive and clean, perfumy, zesty nose where mingle floral, honeysuckle notes and yellow fruit aromas like citrus and peach. Dry-German-wine-like nose in a way. The palate is dry, balanced and zesty, with a crispy mouthfeel enhanced by yellow fruit, peach and citrus flavours (like on the nose), and lemony acidity. I loved it, especially the combination of fruitiness without being sweet and high acidity without being puckering. Really enjoyable and perfect to start the menu. The acidity generating the saliva in your mouth opens up your appetite. 

Although I did not think it was necessarily the perfect pairing, it went well, overall, with the appetizer combination of Marinated Black Fungus / Spicy Wagyu Beef Cheek / Chilled Bitter Melon. This wine was a nice discovery to my palate and overall senses. It was not the most complex but pleasant, clean, and cleansing. I will keep an eye open for an opportunity to try more "Koshu" wines in the future. Definitely a grape to discover. (©LeDomduVin - May 02, 2019)

Château Mercian Koshu Kiiroka 甲州きいろ香 , Yamanashi, Japan 2016 (back label)
- ©LeDomduVin 2019

The second wine was 

Château Mercian "Mariko Vineyard" ソーヴィニヨン・ブラン Sauvignon Blanc 2015

This wine was served with a "Braised fish maw with minced salty fish in a casserole". It was definitely a discovery day (for me), as I believe it was the first time that I tried "knowingly" "Fish Maw". I may have previously (during the last 8 years I spent in Hong Kong), but definitely not knowingly. I would have remembered otherwise, as, as weird as it may be, "Fish Maw" is the culinary term for "Dried Swim Bladders". 

I can already hear some of you swallowing hard in disgust and about to puke your last meal just by reading the word "bladder", but be reassured that "Swim Bladder" has nothing to do with the "Urinary Bladder" (for sure, some of you just puked right now....sigh...😉). 

The "Swim Bladder" is "an internal gas-filled organ that contributes to the ability of many bony fishes to control their buoyancy, and thus to stay at their current water depth without having to waste energy in swimming."  (according to  .... "Gas-filled organ"... hmm ... (oh no, please stop puking please.... sigh... 😊)

"Braised fish maw with minced salty fish in casserole"
- ©LeDomduVin 2019

However, what I did not know either is that the "Swim Bladder" is rather tasteless on its own but tends to absorb the flavours of the other components it is mixed with. For that particular dish, it was with mince salty fish (see picture above), and the result was really mouthwateringly delicious. And, believe me or not, it was even more astonishingly delicious when paired with the wine.    

Château Mercian "Mariko Vineyard" ソーヴィニヨン・ブラン Sauvignon Blanc 2015
(Front label) - ©LeDomduVin 2019

Château Mercian "Mariko Vineyard" ソーヴィニヨン・ブラン Sauvignon Blanc 2015
Very pale yellow, greenish color. Typical (really flagrant) cat's pee Sauvignon Blanc nose with hints of green pepper and cabbage and subtle notes of lime zest. Green lime, with high acidity and good balance overall with flavors reminiscent of those of the nose, is in this rather surprisingly light, super clean, and refreshing wine that is not showing its age for a 2015 vintage. 

I would have thought it might show some signs of fatigue, but no, it was vibrant for a Sauvignon Blanc that already has a few years in the bottle. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Sauvignon Blanc cannot age well, as there are beautiful examples of Sauvignons that have aged gracefully; yet in general, Sauvignon Blancs are at their prime within the first 5 years after bottling, after that they tend to lessen a bit in quality and/or age relatively quickly. 

However, this one was really delicious and impressively well paired with the Fish Maw and Salty Fish. The saltiness elevates and enhances the taste of this Sauvignon Blanc. I was really blown away by this pairing. If there is such a thing as "perfect food pairing" in this world, then this paring was it. No doubt. I loved it. (©LeDomduVin - May 02 2019)

Château Mercian "Mariko Vineyard" ソーヴィニヨン・ブラン
Sauvignon Blanc 2015
(Back label) - ©LeDomduVin 2019

The 3rd wine was 

Château Mercian Nagano Chardonnay シャトー・メルシャン 長野シャルドネ 2015

Château Mercian Nagano Chardonnay
シャトー・メルシャン 長野シャルドネ 2015
(front label) ©LeDomduVin 2019

Once again, it is a beautifully crafted wine served with a "Pan-Seared Kuruma King Prawn" and scallion.

Dynasty Garden's Pan-Seared Kuruma King Prawn
©LeDomduVin 2019

Served by (then) Executive Chef Fung (Man Ip) himself, below serving the "Pan-Seared Kuruma King Prawn" and scallion (at Dynasty Garden)

Executive Chef Fung (Man Ip) serving the
"Pan-Seared Kuruma King Prawn" and scallion (at Dynasty Garden)
©LeDomduVin 2019

Château Mercian Nagano Chardonnay シャトー・メルシャン 長野シャルドネ 2015

Clean, light, discreet nose, a slight hint of wood (stainless steel + 6 months in new French barrels). Displaying a slightly floral, mineral touch on the nose. Soft, light, mildly buttery mouthfeel. Appeared woodier (oakier) on the palate than on the nose, with light toasted, buttery notes, but not heavy. Exceptionally long finish but relatively simple overall, yet satisfying. Somehow, more expressive with the food than alone. Well balanced here again, which compensated for the lack of complexity of this partly wooded chardonnay, relatively light on its feet. Nice and refreshing, nevertheless, but it could have used a touch more of  "je ne sais quoi", to make it more dense and appealing (in my opinion). The prawn was tasty, but maybe too flavorful for this wine, or was it the wine that was not strong enough to withstand the flavors of the prawn... (either way, this pairing was less of a success compared to the 2 previous wines)  (©LeDomduVin - May 02 2019) 

Château Mercian Nagano Chardonnay
シャトー・メルシャン 長野シャルドネ 2015
(back label) ©LeDomduVin 2019

The 4th wine was 

Chateau Mercian Hosaka Muscat Bailey A "Selected Vineyards" 2014 シャトー・メルシャン 穂坂マスカット・ベーリーA

For the 4th wine, we did not follow the order on the menu, as we tasted the "Hosaka Muscat Bailey A" and finished with the “Dalong” style, fried fresh milk, and “Shun Tak” spare rib, instead of the "Roasted Whole baby Pigeon" like on the menu. 

Chateau Mercian Hosaka Muscat Bailey A "Selected Vineyards" 2014
シャトー・メルシャン 穂坂マスカット・ベーリーA
©LeDomduVin 2019

“Dalong” style, fried fresh milk, and “Shun Tak” spare rib

“Dalong” style, fried fresh milk and “Shun Tak” spare rib
©LeDomduVin 2019 (1)

“Dalong” style fried fresh milk is usually made with Buffalo milk, which is fatter and creamier. It is mixed with eggs (usually egg whites) and starch, slowly cooked with a clever technique at a certain temperature to give it its foamy, fluffy, delicate texture. Other ingredients are added, like peanuts or seeds, and even vegetables like asparagus. 

“Dalong” style, fried fresh milk and “Shun Tak” spare rib
©LeDomduVin 2019 (2)

“Shun Tak” spare ribs are usually pork spare ribs seasoned with salt and several spices (at least four or five spices). They are then slowly cooked or, more traditionally, steamed to give them a really soft, almost melting-in-your-mouth texture. 

The combination of fresh fried milk and spare ribs was a delight to the taste buds. So soft, light, fluffy, and super flavorful, it was my first time trying this dish, and I really loved it. We tried both the Merlot and the Muscat Bailey A on that dish, and I personally prefer the Muscat, which seemed lighter than the Merlot and thus easier to pair with that dish (in my opinion). 

I only realized afterward that they (the Sommelier of Dynasty Garden and Eric, the distributor) chose the Merlot to accompany that specific dish, which was a mistake. 

Muscat Bailey A

For those who might not know this grape variety, "Muscat Bailey A" is a dark pink, thick-skinned grape variety used to produce light, fruity red wines, low in both tannins and acidity in Japan. It was created in the 1920s by Kawakami Zenbei, founder of the Iwanohara winery (located in Takada - Niigata Prefecture - on Japan’s west coast). His vineyards suffered heavy snowfalls during winter, so he sought a grape to withstand the freezing conditions and started experimenting with crossbreed grape varieties. After years of experimentation, he developed “Muscat Bailey A” a disease-resistant variety that buds sufficiently late in the season to avoid frosts in spring and ripens sufficiently early to escape those in autumn. Muscat Bailey A is a hybrid, created by crossing “Muscat of Hamburg” with “Bailey” (itself a little-known crossing whose family tree includes Triomphe and two American hybrids "Big Berry" and "Extra". Nowadays, Muscat Bailey A is one of Japan’s most popular wine grapes. (****)

Chateau Mercian Hosaka Muscat Bailey A "Selected Vineyards" 2014
シャトー・メルシャン 穂坂マスカット・ベーリーA
©LeDomduVin 2019 (2)

Chateau Mercian Hosaka Muscat Bailey A "Selected Vineyards" 2014 シャトー・メルシャン 穂坂マスカット・ベーリーA

Somewhat, somewhere between a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Franc on the nose, kind of weird, but very intense and ripe, a zest smoky and earthy, with notes reminiscent of both grape varieties (strangely enough). The palate is fruity and tangy, with high acidity and almost puckering, but it has dark, earthy, ripe red, and dark berries/fruits. Almost Beaujolais-esk in the palate to some extent. Lovely balance overall. A pleasant surprise as it was my first time tasting a wine made with this specific grape variety, and it went really well with the dish Dalong Fresh Fried Milk and Shun Tak spare ribs. A very interesting example of savory/umami tastes on the palate. (©LeDomduVin - May 02 2019)

The 5th wine was 

Château Mercian Nagano Merlot 2014 シャトー・メルシャン長野メルロー

Château Mercian Nagano Merlot 2014
©LeDomduVin 2019

Last but not least, we tasted the Château Mercian Nagano Merlot with the roasted whole baby pigeon. 

Château Mercian Nagano Merlot 2014
and roasted whole baby pigeon ©LeDomduVin 2019

Dynasty Garden restaurant Roasted whole baby pigeon
©LeDomduVin 2019

Château Mercian Nagano Merlot 2014
and roasted whole baby pigeon ©LeDomduVin 2019 (2)

Château Mercian Nagano Merlot 2014 シャトー・メルシャン長野メルロー

Fragrant nose, opened and rounded. Racy, elegant, flavorful, with ripe dark fruits in the palate, a nice Merlot overall. Well made but not memorable. I guess it bored me a little first as it is made with an international grape variety and second as when you're born in Bordeaux like me and from the right bank like me, Merlot is in your DNA, so, if not well-made (not saying that this Merlot is not well-made, it is acceptable and quite pleasant overall, but still...), to my palate it will always generate the same reaction: "He..." (in a bad or mediocre type of "he", not the positive one, the negative one... i.e., the way Gru's mum answers him "he..." in "Despicable Me" - see video below)

That's all, folks, for today! 

Château Mercian wines tasted on Thursday, May 2nd 2019
©LeDomduVin 2019

Château Mercian wines tasted that day on Thursday, May 2nd, 2019

Château Mercian wine and food pairing tasting
on Thursday, May 2nd 2019 with Eric Ng (left),
"Jameson" Chim Kin Yin (middle)
and LeDomduVin (a.k.a. Dominique Noel)
©LeDomduVin 2019

Château Mercian wine and food pairing tasting on Thursday, May 2nd, 2019 with Eric Ng (left), "Jameson" Chim Kin Yin (middle), and myself, "LeDomduVin" (a.k.a. Dominique Noel)

Thank you to Jameson (Dynasty Garden Head Sommelier) and Eric Ng (the distributor) for this wine-food pairing tasting. It was really enjoyable and even eye-opening to learn about the wines of Japan, especially those made with the local grape varieties. Thanks again.

Chef Fung Man Ip with LeDomduVin (a.k.a. Dominique Noel)
at Dynasty Garden ©LeDomduVin 2019

Thank you to Chef Fung Man Ip (above with me, "LeDomduVin" a.k.a. Dominique Noel) at Dynasty Garden for the great, tasty food prepared that day. Unfortunately, Chef Fung left shortly after this tasting, which is a real shame as I loved his food and he was really dedicated to taste and quality. 

Stay tuned for more posts like this one coming soon, and leave me a comment below if you feel like it.

Santé! Cheers!

LeDomduVin (a.k.a Dominique Noël)

Step into the Green! Drink more Biodynamic and Organic wines (and food) from sustainable cultures, respect the environment, and preserve the Planet!

(*) I once wrote a post titled "A little introduction to Sake: The Japanese Wine!" some years ago, if interested, you can read it here

(**) If you want to read more about Sake, you can also read this factual and more technical comprehensive guide to Sake (© 2011 by Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association and National Institute Research Institute of Brewing) here 

(***) This tasting occurred on Thursday, May 2nd, 2019

(****) Text sourced, taken and edited, or partly taken from and courtesy of Read the full article here 

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