The closest link between the people that make wine and the people that drink it
My first visit to Japan was a most agreeable experience; it was, by turns, up-lifting, rewarding and surreal to see how the delightful team who make up BBR Japan are spreading Berrys’ unique message to a new and clearly very sophisticated constituency of wine drinkers. The BBR offices are, one cannot deny, a little less grand than No 3 St James’s St, although their location, at the heart of the Marunouchi district, is not without sophistication. And when one enters the Dining Room, the spirit of No 3 pervades the atmosphere, fine oil paintings and an impressive collection of 18th century bottles providing a subtle yet resonant backdrop to instil the BBR message and philosophy. I was there in my capacity as buyer of fortified wines, of our Iberian range and, most importantly, of Champagne and, by extension, English wines. I had been warned that the week would be quite intense and this certainly proved to be the case; the nine hour time difference and non-stop programme of lunches, seminars and dinners was undoubtedly challenging. But a pleasing challenge nonetheless and one that has left me with a far greater understanding of the Japanese appreciation of fine wines and even more importantly, of their stylistic preferences.
Elegance and subtlety are key; the courtesy and patience of the people is reflected in their vinous tastes, itself echoed in the local cuisine and the attention paid to the finer points of detail. I now think that some of the more powerful of our Rhône wines may not necessarily have the same impact as the most elegant of Burgundies. It is supremely logical that the fine weave of a Blanc de Blanc Champagne from R & L Legras, or a crisp Barbadillo Manzanilla sherry should find favour. Indeed it was slightly intimidating to be presented, at the beginning of a seminar on sherry, with a complete book on the subject written by one of the participants. I have absolutely no doubt that his knowledge on the subject far exceeded my own, yet he was careful not to show it and we had a very interesting discussion on the merits of En Rama styles, of aged sherries and on the development of the Almacenista category.
No shortage of expertise then, but was it to be isolated and restricted to one or two sommeliers and aficionados? My over-all impression is that this does not appear to be the case; the guests at the dinners and lunches were mainly from the burgeoning ranks of BBRJ private customers and their enthusiasm and interest was more than impressive. The 20th floor of the smart Ark Hills Club is decorated by an unrivalled collection of Le Corbusier water-colours, originals needless to say, and, dare I say it, standing the test of time more than some of his more famous buildings. An impressive location, then, for a Dinner where we tasted Champagnes from the suitably regal 2002 vintage. The marginal victory, amongst the wines, of the Cristal Rosé over the Bollinger and Pol Roger Rosé entirely matched my own preferences. Later in the week dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel was a memorable moment to introduce the charms of older White Rioja, in this case the 1987 Tondonia Reserva, in addition to the great Hermitage of Jean-Louis Chave. It came as no surprise that one of the guests had a comprehensive vertical collection of this wine and had, a month before, visited the great man in Mauves. Photographic evidence of the encounter was also provided, needless to say. The Dinner was even more memorable to me, as I experienced my first earthquake; the epicentre was not that far away, and as it touched 6.1 on the Richter scale, it was officially the second most significant of the year… and a poignant reminder of the terrible events of almost exactly twelve months previously. Despite being on the 31st floor and despite what I considered to be significant strong motion, I seemed to be the only one visibly and literally shaken by the tremor.
So, all in all, a memorable visit. I may have missed the cherry blossom by a couple of weeks, but the city was a feast of warmth and colour. A moving experience in so many ways. As I sat next to the bed at three in the morning, a latter-day Bill Murray in hotel slippers and kimono, deprived of sleep and wondering how much I really knew about Montilla Moriles, I was more than surprised not to be overwhelmed by a sense of bewilderment and fatigue, rather a gentle elation at the privilege of being able to discover a new culture and its charming people.