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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?
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.
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.
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