I got a kick out of Japanese Rhône winemaker Hirotake Ooka's apron the other day at Caves Augé's Rhône tasting. What on earth can these two things have in common? Actually, I'm told Japan has a pretty thriving and enthusiastic* natural wine scene (as excellently reported here by the far-roaming and indispensable Bertrand Celce). Unfortunately, despite being half-Japanese and working for a Japanese company, I haven't been to said nation since my first and only voyage there at age eleven. I wasn't into natural wine then.
It doesn't help that I didn't then and do not now speak Japanese. As I tasted through Ooka's wines that day we conversed in French, and the irrelevant coincidence of both being Japanese natural wine afficionados went unmentioned and probably unnoticed on his end, since physionomically I take after my Jewish mother.
Of Ooka's wines that I've tasted, I'm most impressed by his sparkling Saint Peray. Over dinner at Vivant recently, and again at the Augé tasting, the 2006 was delicate, white-floral, and expressive, a fine example of what makes the Saint Peray appellation such an appealing corner of the sparkling wine world.
It's an aspect of miniaturised detail, never overblown, sort of like the electronic compositions of Max Richter:
In somewhat more perplexing form that day was Ooka's Grenache-based "Cuvée G" from 2008.
I was tasting it besides an unknown French fellow who was as surprised as I was: the wine was showing in a fascinatingly advanced state. Not gone, but prematurely aged for sure, and prematurely complex, with lean spice and soy components that reminded me oddly of old Langhe blends.
Neither Ooka nor the anonymous French guy were with me on that one, but, as ever, there was no way of knowing whether it was because I was way off the mark, or whether they just hadn't tasted a lot of old Langhe blends.
* Possibly redundant to say this. I can think of no unenthusiastic Japanese subcultures, except, perhaps, politics.
An immensely informative 2011 piece on Hirotake Ooka @ WineTerroirs, fascinating for its account of Ooka's struggles planting some particularly steep hills on Cornas
Some notes on the Ooka's 2006 "Cuvée G" @ LeBlogd'Olif
Some skeptical 2012 notes on Ooka's "Canon Rosé" @ WineMadeNaturally (after which, in a footnote, the author proposes a stoplight colour-coding system for rating the accessibility of natural wines, which would be a nice idea were it not for the horrendous confusion that would result from all challenging wines being termed "red" regardless of actual wine type.)