In August 2012, I visited Chateau Mercian in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan. It was full midsummer and the vines were turning colorful with ripening grapes.
Chateau Mercian is located about 10 minutes drive from JR Katsunuma Budou-kyo Station. Because of its proximity to Mt. Fuji, the soil contains high levels of volcanic ash and along with this unique terroir, the extreme temperature drop in the night creates a magnificent foundation in producing wines with a distinct style. The winery has fame for major grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon but they are becoming increasingly known for its Koshu wines. Koshu is a Japanese indigenous grape variety (pronounced as “Kō-u-shū”) and the wines made with this grape range from sweet dessert wines to clean and crisp style. Even though the grape skin is “reddish grey” the wines made with this grape are usually white.
Chateau Mercian is owned by Mercian Corporation, a leading wine and spirit company in Japan. The company also has a strong link to Californian wine industry and is the importer of Robert Mondavi, Opus One, and Markham.
The history of the winery goes back to 1873 when Japan was entering “Meiji Restoration”, the movement where the country started opening its gates to foreign cultures and influences, allowing the absorption of new values, techniques and lifestyle. Wine was a tangible symbol of westernization and modernization. The innovative group of viticulturists founded the first “winery” in 1877 which later became what is now Chateau Mercian. With its wine making process learned under the master enologist Pierre Dupon and master agriculturist Charles Barth in France, the company introduced wine culture into Japan and became the first to start commercial wine production.
After WWII in 1949, the Mercian brand was formulated and the first wine under the new brand "Shinshu Kikyogahara Merlot 1985" was awarded a Gold Medal in Ljubljana International Wine Competition and even got another Gold Medal with "Jyonohira Cabernet Sauvignon 1990"．These accomplishments proved that Japan had the potential to grow into a high quality wine producer that was able to compete with other already established wine countries.
The pioneer spirit and hard work are continually the core value of modern day Chateau Mercian. At the same time, their unremitting pioneer spirit is driving them into a new phase, focusing on the production of world-class Koshu wines with a strong focus on "Japanese-style finesse and elegance.”
Tom Stevenson’s “Wine Report” featured Chateau Mercian as “the best winery in Asia” and recent Wine Spectator reviews on “Koshu Kiiroka” led to huge media attention worldwide.
Kiiroka carries a bright acidity with lively minerals, giving it a very crisp characteristic. At the same time, a soft and fine touch on flavor coexists to create a unique sensation that is hardly found in other wines.
The following is a review from Wine Spectator regarding the 2009 vintage: "This clean white offers floral, peach and citrus flavors in a gentle texture, with a light but firm backbone of acidity. Modest flavors, but balanced. Drink now. –TM"
According to the marketing team of Chateau Mercian, the balanced and sharp acidity with a touch of comfortable bitterness found in Koshu wines offer a great matching potential with delicate cuisines. The wines are a perfect accompaniment of fresh Japanese seasonal seafood and wild vegetable dishes. Another interesting point mentioned was that Koshu wines contain more Polyphenol than other average white wines, making them easier to pair with fatty cuisines, such as tempura and other deep fried dishes.
Personally, I believe that this wine could find a unique position in Los Angeles’ restaurant industry.
The most recent Zagat's “Best Restaurants in Los Angeles” listed 5 Japanese restaurants in the top 10 and Japanese cuisine along with other Asian cuisine involving fresh seafood have been hot topics on LA Times and other popular media, simultaneously bringing attention on beverages such as sake and shochu.
What is next? – I would absolutely keep an eye on Japanese wines.
-----Special thanks to-----
Mr. Kosei Ajimura, Head Winemaker, Chateau Mercian
Mr. Yuuichiro Abe, Marketing Division, Mercian Corporation
Mr. Toshio Ueno, Manager of Business Development of Mutual Trading Company - Official US Importer of Mercian wines