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Friday, March 12, 2010

BY THE GLASS

Wine importers keep their cool


A few years ago, I enjoyed a chilled glass of wine while sitting on a cobbled street in the medieval French city of Chinon in the heart of Loire Valley; the wine was from the surrounding vineyards of Samur and tasted absolutely divine. When I got the chance to sample a similar wine from the same region this week, however, I felt slightly let down — the subtle minerality of the drink seemed to have been lost. This was no doubt due in part to circumstance — sensations are often more vivid when we're on holiday and basking in the afternoon sun — but it got me wondering: Wine travels huge distances to get to Japan; by the time it reaches us, has the journey itself had an effect on its quality?

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Tara Tan Kitaoka, president of K.K. Vnarius. PHOTOS COURTESY OF K.K. VINARIUS

This question had been in the back of my head for some time when I stumbled upon Tokyo-based K.K. Vinarius, a company that has developed a unique way to ensure that their imported wine is left undamaged by long-distance travel. I met with the company president, Tara Tan Kitaoka, to find out more about their unique system.

It all started when Kitaoka's late husband, Paul, found that his experience of drinking Italian wines in Italy and drinking the same wines in Japan was vastly different. "Paul wondered why the wine tasted so good in Italy and yet tasted so bad here," says Kitaoka. The couple began to suspect that fluctuations in temperature while the wine is being shipped over was part of the problem.

Shipping companies use refrigerated containers (known as "reefer" containers) to transport wine; and excepting unforeseen circumstances, such as failure of power supply, such containers are supposed to keep shipments at a steady temperature throughout their voyage. It's a difficult task to fulfill, though, as the shipping route from Europe to Japan crosses the Equator twice.

Paul, whose background was in engineering, decided to create a device that could independently verify shippers' claims. The GTTCS (guaranteed total temperature control system) is a sophisticated thermometer that slots easily into a wine box and records the temperature of a shipment over a period of time. Before shipping any of their Italian wine to Japan, the Kitaokas sent empty shipments that contained the GTTCS via shipping companies who were told the cargo was wine. They asked that the temperature of the cargo be kept at a constant of 10 C. The results were disappointing.

They sent more than 25 empty shipments before they found a company that was actually keeping the containers at the temperature they required.

"If you don't maintain the temperature at 10 degrees, the natural taste of the grapes change," explains Kitaoka. Heat damage to wine can be serious. If a bottle is exposed to extreme heat, the cork gets pushed out and bleeds, rendering the wine undrinkable. Such damage, of course, is easily detectable by the consumer, but wines kept at only a slightly higher temperatures, say 22 C, also undergo an accelerated aging process that can be detrimental to the wine's taste and bouquet. K.K. Vinarius' system ensures that this doesn't happen. "Our wines arrive (in Japan) with the same taste that you would get at the winery in Italy," says Kitaoka.

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Avoiding the heat: To ensure that Italian wines reach Japan in peak condition, K.K. Vinarius imports wine directly from areas such as Friuli-Venezia Giulia and makes sure that shipments are kept at a constant 10 C during the voyage.

Kitaoka knows what she's talking about: She's a professional wine-maker who trained in Italy under the likes of Super Tuscan guru Giacomo Tachis before she made her own name with a 1988 Amarone that won a Vinitaly gold prize award. Her expert knowledge is the reason she demands that wines from Italy reach K.K. Vinarius in Japan untainted by heat damage.

The company pays a premium to their shipper, JF Hillebrand, in order to ensure that every shipment has been maintained at 10 C. This means that K.K. Vinarius' wines, which are mainly sold to high-end hotels and restaurants, are not cheap — the system adds an extra third to the cost of the wine. "We deal with really important people like the Del Ponte, but they really pay, they never, never discuss price," says Kitaoka.

K.K. Vinarius only imports wine from Italy, so if you enjoy wine from other regions, or you don't want to shell out so much, what can other importers offer to guarantee the quality of their wines?

Carl Robinson of the Tokyo-based importers Jeroboam points out that its shippers also have a system that checks the temperature of its wines. "Our shippers give us the option of putting recorders in the containers from Europe," he explains. "Everything we ship from Europe, we ship in reefer containers. We don't do it for every shipment, but we often ask shippers to randomly put recorders in the containers to see if there are any issues. We have found that, every time we have done that, fluctuations have been within a very, very small range. Unless the reefer container is turned off, runs out of fuel or has its battery changed — when there's an interruption to the power supply — it should be fine," he says.

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Italian vineyards to Japanese tables: The province of Trento (or Trentino), one of the regions of Italy from which K.K. Vinarius directly imports wine.

He believes, like Kitaoka, that one of the ways of circumventing the problem of heat damage, is to use importers who import directly from the winery; this makes it easier to track the path of a wine from its source to your door. "Our company specifically only imports from producers, we don't import from the second market, which is where you can get a lot of issues. We buy from the growers and then we ship to Japan. We don't buy from brokers," he says.

At the end of the day, it's all about relationships. Like K.K. Vinarius, Jeroboam offers refunds to unsatisfied customers, and he believes that Japanese consumers are sophisticated enough to detect heat-damaged wine once it's poured. For the consumer, this means it's important to find a wine seller that provides refunds when you're dissatisfied. It's always difficult to step forward and say that you're dissatisfied with a wine, especially if it's something as subtle as heat damage, so it's nice to see a wine company take it upon itself to independently verify its shippers' claims.

For absolute peace of mind, particularly if you're a fan of Italian wine, there is always the option of buying wine from K.K. Vinarius' online store. Although it's not quite the same as being whisked off to Tuscany to drink a top- class Chianti, in terms of taste and bouquet, it offers the genuine article.

For more information on mentioned wines, visit kkvinarius.com and www.jeroboam.jp


Wines that express the spectrum of Italian grapes undamaged in transit

Fizz

Opere Brut Rose, ¥7,000

This 100 percent Pinot Noir floods the senses with the scent of petals and has a dryness that gives it a pure finish.

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Whites

Riesling Renato 2007, J. Hofstatter, ¥3,500

This Riesling is lemon in color with a subtle green tint that reflects a citrus scent on the nose. In the mouth it's dry and restrained with muted sherbet flavors that make it a great compliment to sashimi or, if you're eating Italian, risotto.

Tocai Friulano 2007, Plozner, ¥3,000

Not to be confused with the Hungarian grape Tokay, which is used to make sweet dessert wine, Tocai Friulano is a relative of the Sauvignon Blanc grape. It has a crisp acidity with grassy hints on the nose and an apple zing in the mouth. The Plozner winery is now run by third-generation Sabina Maffei, who is not sloppy when it comes to wine making and, despite using modern technology, checks every detail in the vineyard personally.

Quattroperuno 2008, Plozner, ¥4,000

Plozner comes up trumps again with a charming mix of 95 percent Sauvignon and 5 percent Viognier. Its candied-apple flavor goes well with yakitori.

Vigna Regis 2005, Vecchie Terre di Montefili, ¥6,500

A scent of pink peach whisks you away to the verdant hills of Tuscany, while a golden color hints at treasures within. A blend of 80 percent Chardonnay, 15 percent Sauvignon and 5 percent Gewurztraminer, this is aged 3 months in oak to lend it a delicate vanilla finish.

Reds

Lagrein 2007, J. Hofstatter, ¥3,800

This wine has a deep, dark color and oozes with rich berry flavors that would compliment full-flavor pork dishes such as shabu shabu . A slight peppery nose is typical of this grape.

Chianti Classico 2006, Vecchie Terre di Montefili, ¥4,250

At 100 percent Sangiovese, this Chianti reflects the recent revolution in Chianti production. Deep blackcurrant in color, it has strong alcohols that bop you on the nose before seducing you with similarly rich currant flavors on the palate. Again, lightly touched with oak.

Aglianico del Vulture Titolo, 2004, ¥8,000

Made by 24-year-old Elena Fucci, this wine harnesses the raw power of the Aglianico grape to stunning effect. Peppery with strong licorice flavors, this wine will reach its full potential in about a year's time.

Turriga 2000, ¥18,000

A full aroma and elegant taste with no rough corners. The oak in this wine gives it great length in the mouth.




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