Earlier this month, I visited St Cousair’s winery in Iizuna, Nagano. St Cousair is a family-owned gourmet food and beverage company headquartered in Nagano. From a single jar of apple jam the company now produces fruit syrups and butters, ciders and, of course, wine. It has over 100 stores across Japan and recently expanded into Oregon in the United States.
What I respect and appreciate about St. Cousair is its attention to tradition and willingness to experiment. For example, we started our visit at the restaurant attached to the winery where I ordered the Nagano Chardonnay. This is a blend of the 2016 and 2017 vintage (New World regulations make this type of blending possible). I was skeptical at first. Why would the winemaker blend vintages? Were the 2016 and 2017 vintages poor and not sell?
I didn’t get to ask these questions. But I did get to drink the wine. It was very good–just the right balance of fruit and oak with some acid. For me, the Nagano Chardonnay shows how St. Cousair balances tradition and experimentation to produce the best product it can.
After drinks, we met with the winemaker, Mr. Nomura, and the vineyard manager, Mr. Tsuchiya. They showed us the winemaking facilities. The facilities are large by Nagano winery standards but smaller than I thought given St. Cousair’s operations.
As an aside, they use the same equipment to make their cider. Grape presses are not necessarily designed to press other fruit so this is an interesting nod to experimentation.
After the winery, we visited St. Cousair’s Oijiri vineyards. These vineyards provide a portion of the grapes that go into St. Cousair’s wine. The vineyards are managed entirely by hand. A nod to tradition.
After the main vineyards, we had the chance to visit some experimental vineyards in Shinanomachi. These are experimental in two senses: First, Shinanomachi soil is mostly volcanic and not particularly suitable for wine grape growing. Second, while there are a few vines for each international or otherwise well-known wine grape variety, a majority of the plantings are Japanese indigenous grapes. The Japanese indigenous grapes were Kiyomi, Kiyomai and Yamasachi. I had never heard of them. Mr. Tsuchiya, who lives in Shinanomachi and is clearly looking to cut his commute time, seems particularly excited by Kiyomai. He explained that it is unique in that while its sugar goes up, its acid does not go down. This means that it may be possible to achieve sugar and phenolic ripeness with this variety with little effect on acidity. Let’s check back in three years.
I am excited to see what St Cousair can do for the Nagano wine industry. It has an approach to tradition and experimentation which I believe balances Japan’s view of wine (as essentially a European product) and need to innovate to become competitive in the industry. It also has a wide reach in Japan but is definitely local in culture and focus. With its clout and scale, St. Cousair has the potential to lead Nagano wine to become better and better.