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 with brewed rice (and water) that 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 **)

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.

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 be soon put in place to regulate and clarify the situation.

And, as it exists already in most other wine-producing countries, it is important 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?

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) 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 really define what is what between "Japanese Wine" (from rice) and "Japanese Wine" (from grapes)... sigh) 

"The Sake Dilemma" by ©LeDomduVin 2019

Anyhow, did you ever taste a Japanese wine (the one made with grapes)? 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 Thursday (***).

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 Thursday. (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 (on the first floor of our headquarters office building in Kowloon Bay), where Jameson and the distributor had already started tasting some of the wines, while the Chef was bringing some dishes sampled in preparation of 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 major 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 the exclusive agent for the HK market.

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

Château Mercian winery is located in the Yamanashi province, roughly about 100 kilometres 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. A turning point and the beginning of a new era in Japanese viticulture.
The brand "Château Mercian" was established in 1970, and planting of various grape varieties in diverse regions of Japan gradually occurred in the following years and evolved gradually 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 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

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 wine 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 wines and "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 invited not to only taste but also comments and give my opinion about the wine pairings for the up and coming dinner. After all, it would go against my epicurean nature and status as Sommelier to refuse such an invitation 😊. (And my kids were probably happy to be home with the nanny, doing whatever they want without daddy lurking around). 

FYI: The menu that I saw and the food that was 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 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 and below).

Some times ago, depending on the source, it appeared that it was mistaken at first to have European origin by some and believed to be indigenous of Japan by others. But later on, after studying its DNA, it seemed, in fact, to be a hybrid of a Europe's Vitis vinifera and one or more Asian Vitis species. Nowadays, it is clear that parts of its DNA originated from Europe and it is believed to have found its way to Japan via the Silk Road, probably a 1000 years ago, travelling from Europe via the Caucasus, across Central Asia, then on to China and finally to Japan. Consequently, Koshu, being found only in Japan, is now considered the most important indigenous grape variety of Japan.  

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 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)

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

A beautifully crafted wine, once again, 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) in the palate than on the nose, with light toasted, buttery notes, but not heavy. Quite long finish somehow, but rather simple overall, yet satisfying. More expressive with the food than alone somehow. Well balanced here again, which compensated for the lack of complexity of this partly wooded chardonnay rather 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 which was not strong enough to withstand the flavours of the prawn... (either way, this pairing was less 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, 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, to which other ingredients are added like peanuts or seeds and even vegetable like asparagus. 

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

“Shun Tak” spare ribs are usually pork spare ribs that have been seasoned with salt and several spices (at least 4 or 5 spices), then slowly cooked or more traditionally steamed to give them a really soft, almost melting in the 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 afterwards that they (the Sommelier of Dynasty Garden and Eric the distributor) choose the Merlot to go with that specific dish, which was a mistake in my opinion. 

Muscat Bailey A

For those of you 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 suffering heavy snowfalls during winter, he was seeking a grape that could withstand the freezing conditions and start experimenting with crossbreed grape varieties. After years of experimentation, he came up with “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, tangy, with high acidity, almost puckering but with dark, earthy ripe red and dark berries/fruits. Almost Beaujolais-esk in the palate to some extent. Lovely balance overall. A very pleasant surprise as it was my first time tasting a wine made with this specific grape variety, and I thought it went really well with the dish Dalong Fresh Fried Milk and Shun Tak spare ribs. A very interesting example of savoury/umami tastes in 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 fine 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 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

And 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, a real shame as I loved his food and he was really dedicated to taste and quality. 

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 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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