Japanese Chardonnay: The New Frontier?

While in Chinatown browsing the aisles at Hong Kong City Mall's grocery store, Hong Kong Market, last weekend, I ran across something interesting among the hundreds of bottles of sake: Japanese Chardonnay and Merlot, made by Chateau Mercian. It's highly possible that I'm the last person on earth to know that Japan produces wines other than the traditional rice wine, but everyone I've talked to has seemed equally clueless.

Wanting to try a bottle of Japanese wine for myself, I found that I was torn between buying the Chardonnay and the Merlot. I hate both equally -- Chardonnay for the oaky taste and Merlot for the excessive tannins -- and at $21 per bottle, I certainly wasn't buying both. I ended up choosing the Chateau Mercian 2002 J-fine Chardonnay based solely upon the fact that I could chill it and (hopefully) enjoy it in this scorching hot weather.

A few days later, I took the chilled bottle over to the home of two of my favorite oenophiles for a taste test. We were all pleasantly surprised.

It turns out that the Chateau Mercian Chardonnay is refreshingly and pleasingly unoaked, which means none of the bitter or harsh oaky taste that I normally dislike about Chardonnay. The delicate and barely sweet taste of the grapes is preserved this way, giving it the light flavor of honey and pears, with only the barest hint of butter. Although it's somewhat thin and verging on what I'd call "watered down," the wine is eminently drinkable on a hot summer day.

Researching the label further, I found that most of Chateau Mercian's wines are aged in stainless steel tanks, although the winemaker's website lists the Chardonnay as being aged in barrels of unspecified provenance. Something else important to note is that the Chardonnay is actually made with a blend of Chardonnay and Koshu grapes, the latter being a grape that is native to Japan and which has been cultivated since the 14th century. Koshu grapes are similar to Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc grapes and are apparently helping to create an enormous wine industry in Japan as vintners are learning to craft Japanese wines for Japanese palates.

I suppose $21 is a small price to pay for broadening my wine horizons, but despite that and the fact that I enjoyed the wine, I think I'll still stick to my sauv blancs in the summer -- especially the cheap ones.

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