Monday, May 6, 2019

Encounter with Chateau Mercian: A Japanese Wine

Encounter with Château Mercian: A Japanese Wine 

Chateau Mercian Logo - Courtesy of

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 by fermenting rice that has been previously polished to gradually remove the bran and thus obtains distinguishable Sakés of various aspects, aromas, tastes and textures. (*)

But, did you ever taste a 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, since quite some times... 

In fact, the production of grapes for consumption (and alcohol production), in Japan, has existed, (like in China), probably 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.

And 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 "Japanese Wine" can be attributed to pretty much anything and everything that is domestically fermented (even if the grapes or grains have been imported); which is quite confusing, (and quite controversial compared to its "Western World" definition of "wine"). 

However, this last fact is actually changing as the idea of regulations on the designations of origin and the use of strictly locally grown grapes is emerging and will probably be soon put in place to regulate and clarify the situation, and, like in most other wine-producing countries, to establish a system protecting the designations of origin and regulate 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's 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? (funny and also pretty confusing to think that Sake is referred to as a "wine" made out of rice in a "brewery", while it has nothing to do with wine (except the fermentation maybe) and 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 define what is what 😊) 

"The Sake Dilemma" by ©LeDomduVin 2019

Anyhow, did you ever taste a Japanese wine? Yes? No? Well for me, I've tasted a countless amount of Saké(s) in my 28 years career in the Wine and Spirits industry on 3 continents, but wine from Japan (other than Saké, you see how confusing that is... sigh...), I believe that it was my first time last Friday.

I previously heard some of the names/brands and even seen labels of some Japanese's wines in Wine Fair and other wine events, but frankly, I do not think that I ever tasted one before this Friday. (or if I did, I have no real recollection of it, 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 to miss an opportunity to taste some wines, more especially wines made from grape varieties and from a region I 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 where Jameson and the distributor had already started tasting some wines, while the Chef was bringing some dishes sampled in preparation of the wine dinner that will 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 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.

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 (it 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, as exclusive agent for the HK market.

So, after shaking Eric's hand and being invited to sit down to participate to the tasting with them (Eric, the distributor and Jameson, the Sommelier), I started to ask a few questions to Eric about Château Mercian as 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

Chateau Mercian winery is located in the Yamanashi province, roughly about 100 kilometres west of Tokyo. 

Chateau Mercian 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. A turning point and the beginning of a new era in Japanese viticulture.
The brand "Chateau Mercian" was established in 1970, and planting of various grape varieties in diverse regions of Japan gradually occurred in the following years and evolved with 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 as you can see on the map below:

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

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


Wine Pairing Tasting

As soon as I sat down, Jameson poured me the first wine that they tasted, while they were already discussing and commenting on how it paired with the food the Executive Chef Fung (Man Ip) 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, more especially if I'm invited to not only taste but also comments and give my opinion about the wine pairings. After all, it would go against my epicurean nature and status as Sommelier to refuse such an invitation 😊. 

The menu that I saw and the food that was served that day, were slightly different 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 (as of today). However, it might be subject to some slight changes between now and the date of the dinner, you never know, but at least that 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 consisting of 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 map above).

Mistaken at first to have European origin, it seems in fact to be a hybrid of Europe's Vitis vinifera and one or more Asian Vitis species. 

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 part of the "Yamanashi" prefecture (see map above).

Frankly, I did not know what to expect of that 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 colour 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 really loved it, more especially the combination of the presence 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, it opens up your appetite. Although I did not think that it was necessarily the perfect pairing, it went quite well overall with the appetizers combination of Marinated Black Fungus / Spicy Wagyu Beef Cheek / Chilled Bitter Melon. To my palate and overall senses, this wine was a very nice discovery, not the most complex yet really pleasant, clean and cleansing. I will definitely 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 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 their 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 tend 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, but 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 colour. 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 flavours reminiscent of those of the nose, in this rather surprisingly light, super clean and refreshing wine and not showing its age for a 2015 vintage. I would have thought that it might show some signs of fatigue, but no, it was really vibrant for a Sauvignon Blanc that has already a few years in the bottle. And 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 rather quickly. However, this one was really delicious and, surprisingly, really 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 such a thing as perfect food pairing exists in this world, then this paring was it. No doubt. I loved it. (©LeDomduVin - May 02 2019)

💥Work in progress.... to be finished soon 💥

That's all folks for today!

Stay tuned for more post 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 culture and respect the environment! Preserve the Planet!

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

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