This Shiojiri Station Merlot has a terroir as unique as its taste. 

Let’s face it — Japanese wine is yet to steal the spotlight from local stalwarts like sake and shochu on the international stage. That’s not to say it shouldn’t, though, as Japan has been producing some exciting wines in recent years, and none is more exciting than a wine produced from grapes grown on a train station platform vineyard.

Called Shiojiri Station Merlot, this unique wine comes from Shiojiri City in Nagano Prefecture, one of the country’s most famous wine-producing regions. This is where locals tend to grapes in a very unique location, and there’s no other vineyard like it in the world, as it’s located on platform three and four at Shiojiri Station.

▼ The only platform vineyard in Japan.

Image: Shiojiri City Tourist Association

The grapes were first planted on the platform in 1988 to promote wine as one of Shiojiri’s major industries. Tended to by Japan Rail staff, along with volunteers and members from the city’s tourist association, and with guidance from Shiojiri grape farmers, the vines produce red Merlot and white Niagara grapes, which are harvested in autumn and used to make Shinshu wine.

Image: Shiojiri City Tourist Association

Shinshu, an old name for Nagano, is one of Japan’s leading wine-producing regions, making wines from the area highly sought after throughout the country. None is as sought after as the Shiojiri Station Merlot, however, because…where else can you taste the terroir of a Japanese train station platform?

Due to the limited yield produced by the relatively small vineyard, Shiojiri Station wines are made in very limited quantities, and on 1 November, the 2019 vintage was released. Only 120 bottles were produced, with 40 unoaked (priced at 4,000 yen [US$38.21] each) and 80 aged in Mizunara oak barrels for seven months (priced at 8,000 yen each), making this a very special Japanese wine.

We were lucky enough to receive a bottle of Shinshu Mizunara Barrel Aged Shiojiri Station Merlot recently, and while we were impressed by the thought of drinking wine from a train station vineyard, we had our reservations about how it would taste.

This was our first time tasting wine made with grapes from a train station, after all, but according to the winemakers, the vineyard is no gimmick. The platform is elevated and bathed in light, allowing it to produce sweet, dark-skinned merlot grapes that lend themselves to a very high-quality wine.

Plus, this wine is aged in Mizunara oak barrels, an unusual step for a wine, as the rare and expensive Japanese oak is primarily reserved for whisky ageing.

Upon opening, the wine immediately displays remarkable complexity for its age, thanks to the time it’s spent kissing the oak of Mizunara barrels. This beautiful marriage imparts a heady bouquet of coconut, spice and sandalwood notes to the dark fruit aromas. 

▼ Impressed by the delicious aromas, the wine ticks another box for us with its beautiful, deep ruby hue.

Taking a sip, we were immediately taken aback by the intricate nuances of the wine. It was like no other Japanese wine we’ve tasted, showing a level of skill in its creation that far exceeds many other locally produced wines.

The barrel-aged Shiojiri Station Merlot is a vibrant, dry-yet-fruity medium-bodied wine that displays silky tannins and flavours of plum and raspberry that give way to deeper notes of cherry and blackcurrant. This palate-pleasing combination of fruit flavours is beautifully rounded out with creamy coconut and sweet vanilla for a smooth, nuanced, medium-long finish.

The aromatic oak flavours linger for some time, showcasing the high quality of the wine. It’s a brilliant Merlot that pairs well a wide variety of foods, including aged cheese, chestnuts, grilled meat, tuna, caramelised onions, Bolognese sauces, dark chocolate, and berries.

If this is any indication of where Japanese wine is headed, then the world had better prepare itself for a Japanese wine boom. The Shiojiri Station Merlot is far removed from the sweet, grape-heavy Japanese wines that have led industry pros to disregard the country’s vintners in the past. This is a robust and sophisticated wine, and we’d even go so far as to say it’s deserving of international recognition in award circles.

Don’t believe us? Then be sure to keep an eye out for their next vintage. While the 2019 vintage was so in demand it’s unfortunately sold out, there are plans to produce another vintage for next year, so keep an eye on the official Shiojiri Tourist Association site for updates.

The tourist association also holds a number of wine events at the train station vineyard throughout the year, so be sure to put Shiojiri on the itinerary for your next trip to Japan, and follow the association’s TwitterFacebook and Instagram accounts for further details.

Related: Shiojiri City Tourist Association
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