Below is a tourist’s guide to Nagano wine previously written for another publication. It has been lightly edited for this blog.
So, you, wine lover, have landed in Japan. Looking at a map, you see that you have many options to quench your thirst. You can go south-east to Yamanashi, which makes wine from Koshu, that new grape you have been hearing more and more about. You can go north to Hokkaido, which makes elegant Pinot Noir. Or–and this is the recommended route–you can go north-west to Nagano.
You have probably heard of Nagano as the site for the 1998 Winter Olympics. Its main feature, a mountain range called the Japan Alps, is ideal for skiing and for relaxing in natural hot springs after an intense downhill session. During the warmer months, the area is dedicated to farming. Apples, blueberries, buckwheat and corn are some of the main crops. It has also historically been known for producing succulent table grapes. Now, with Japan experiencing a wine boom, Nagano is quickly establishing itself as a wine region.
What sets Nagano apart and makes its wines special is a willingness among the winemakers to experiment. Many in the area handle a wide range of internationally-known grape varieties. Merlot in particular has taken to the land. In fact, it would not be strange to say that Nagano Merlot is a bit of a thing these days. The Merlot grape grows well in Nagano’s cooler soils and produces a light-bodied wine with flavors akin to cranberry and sour cherry. There is also an underlying bitterness which is more earth than simple under-ripeness. This bitterness is uniquely Nagano; dare I say, an expression of terroir.
Nagano winemakers are also experimenting with local varieties, namely Muscat Bailey A. Muscat Bailey A is a hybrid variety created by the father of Japanese wine, Mr. Zenbei Kawakami. Mr. Kawakami is credited with creating dozens of cross and hybrid varieties specifically suited to the climate and soil conditions in Nagano and neighboring Niigata. The variety produces a wine that has pronounced aromas of berry and typically a creamy aftertaste. It makes a fine pure variety rose and red and is also often blended with Merlot.
So, go north-west. There you will discover new styles, new takes on old styles and a wine region coming into its own.
How to Get to Nagano
From Tokyo station, Nagano City is approximately 90 minutes by bullet train. From Nagano City, it is best to take a car to visit the wineries to the north. For wineries to the south, it is possible to take the Shinano Japan Rail train line. This guide also includes some bars, restaurants and wine shops in Tokyo where one can enjoy and purchase Nagano wines.
Note that while there are currently around 40 wineries in Nagano, many are small and cannot accommodate visitors. The list below focus on those that have tasting rooms, tours or otherwise welcome visitors.
North of Nagano City
If you journey north, it is worth going all the way to Iwanohara Vineyard, which is considered the birthplace of Japanese wine. The winery is technically in Niigata prefecture. But, climate and soil do not respect political boundaries and the area shares many of the same characteristics as vineyards in Nagano. The winery’s original winemaker is none other than Mr. Kawakami mentioned above.
As you head back into northern Nagano, check out:
- St. Cousair Winery, located on a hill-top in Iizuna, is a welcoming place that resembles a Spanish villa. The food is made from locally sourced ingredients and, of course, the wine is too. Click here for a more detailed write up.
- Kusunoki Winery is a boutique winery located in Suzaka. It has a tasting room and an experimental vineyard where Mr. Kusunoki plays with trellis systems and varieties to find what works best in the area. Click here for a more detailed write up.
- Domaine Sogga, located in the charming town of Obuse, is for the dedicated wine lover simply due to the numerous types and styles of wine it produces each year. The tasting room has a map of the wineries vineyards, which are scattered around the area. The complexity can rival that in Burgundy.
South of Nagano City
South of Nagano City, the wineries are more concentrated and it is easier to visit several at once. In Tomi City:
- Rue du Vin has a cafe and tasting room and regularly invites the general public to participate in harvest and other winemaking activities.
- Hasumi Farm & Winery, which is across the street from Rue du Vin, is a small family-owned production. In fact, the tasting room and main office are in a converted house, which has its own charm that can compete with any of the larger and more elaborate operations in the area.
- Villa d’Est is up the street from the two wineries mentioned above. This is a more elaborate operation with manicured gardens around the main vineyards, daily winery tours, a shop and cafe.
Further south, there is Shiojiri City. While this city does not evoke the romantic images often associated with wine country, it is probably the most progressive in Nagano in terms of wine tourism. The city also provides a guide on how to reach some of its main wineries by the public bus system. These guides may be obtained at the information center just next to the train station.
- Izutsu Winery and Goichi Winery are located across the street from one another. Both have tasting rooms and large portfolios of less expensive wine. Goichi Winery makes a higher end single vineyard Merlot which is exceptional.
- Alps Winery started as a juice company in the 1920s. Today, it is increasingly known for its wide range of wines that include traditional French-styles as well as single varieties made from local grape varieties.
- Sun Sun Winery is owned by a nursing care company, which is unique in itself. The nursing care staff use the vineyards as a place for residents to engage in light physical activity. Actual operations are entrusted to Mr. Togawa who many call the godfather of Nagano wine. Click here for a more detailed write up.
Bars, Restaurants and Wine Shops
- Osteria Gatto is a wine bar located about five minutes walking distance from Nagano station. It has lots of Nagano wine amid lots of drawings of cats.
- Shinshu-kuraudo is a sake and wine shop and bar located inside Nagano station (check out the floor guide in the station). This is the best way to kill time before catching the train back to Tokyo. Notice how time flies when there is wine?
- Tomi Wine Chapel is a cafe, bistro and wine shop in Tomi City. As the name suggests, it is a place where Japanese wine is revered. All food ingredients are sourced locally.
- Fountana del Vino, a brasserie across the street from Shiojiri station, offers tastings of twenty-odd Shiojiri wines.
- Nodaya, a small wine shop, is located right in Shiojiri station.
If you cannot make it out to Nagano but at least find yourself in Tokyo, the best place to get a sense of Nagano wine is Ginza Nagano. This is the prefecture’s promotion store in Tokyo and, in terms of wine, it has a nice wine wall in the back as well as a bar in the front. The store also sells Nagano specialty foods. In addition, St. Cousair Winery, mentioned above, has several stores located around Tokyo, including The Grocery and Wine located in the Mitsui Outlet Park.
With respect to bars and restaurants, Tokyo has an ever increasing number that serve Nagano wine. Just check the wine list or ask your bartender or server whether they carry Nagano wine.
Here are a few honorable mentions: Saru Apero Bistro, located in Jiyugaoka, serves a few Nagano wines by the glass along side what it calls “historic wines” from places like Montenegro, Bulgaria, Moldova and Tunisia. A comparison tasting from these older but, in a sense, also “up-and-coming” wine regions would be interesting. In contrast, Osozakura, located in Nishiazabu, is an all Japanese wine bar. It also has a fantastically cozy restaurant on the second floor.