A Beaune to Pick

Wine lovers from Ja­pan find a home in Bur­gundy

SAVEUR - - Contents - BY JON BONNÉ

The res­tau­rant Bis­soh can be found through a nar­row door off Rue Mau­foux, a cob­ble­stoned street travers­ing Beaune’s im­pos­ing 13th-cen­tury ram­parts. At a low wood counter, Mik­i­hiko Sawa­hata serves meaty un­agi mar­i­nated in soy sauce, mirin and, un­ex­pect­edly, red bur­gundy wine. His sushi rice is an­other ex­am­ple of local adap­ta­tion, tangy with a hard-to-place lilt. Good rice vine­gar is in short sup­ply lo­cally, ex­plains Sawa­hata, Bis­soh’s chef and owner, so he blends it with cider and bal­samic vine­gars.

Sawa­hata, a one­time TV cam­era­man in Yoko­hama, met his wife, Sachiko, a for­mer Ja­panese Airlines flight at­ten­dant—now Bis­soh’s som­me­lier and co-owner— when he was cook­ing in Naples and she was study­ing wine in Di­jon. They de­cided to set­tle nearby. Be­fore they ar­rived, Sawa­hata says, “there were no Ja­panese restau­rants in Bur­gundy.” But much has changed in just over a decade. De­spite its con­ser­va­tive rep­u­ta­tion, the re­gion has ce­mented a broader global out­look. Its best wine­mak­ers now travel the world and con­fer knowl­edge­ably about restau­rants and wine lists in New York and Tokyo. As their wines have sur­passed bordeaux as the dar­lings of con­nois­seurs, the Bur­gun­di­ans—and their an­cient wine cap­i­tal of Beaune—have found a cos­mopoli­tan edge. Bis­soh’s 300-se­lec­tion wine list would be im­pres­sive even at Paris’s étoilés: a ros­ter of top Bur­gun­dian names like Comtes La­fon and Frédéric Mug­nier, joined by nat­u­ral pro­duc­ers like Pierre Over­noy, Jac­ques Selosse, and Yvon Mé­tras of Beau­jo­lais (a good pair­ing with that ro­bust eel).

Beaune has de­vel­oped a small but grow­ing Ja­panese ex­pat com­mu­nity, at least 100 strong with an­other cou­ple hun­dred liv­ing just north in Di­jon—not just chefs but wine­mak­ers and ne­go­ciants, all thriv­ing. Ja­panese vi­gnerons have set­tled else­where in France, of course: in the south­ern Jura, where Ken­jiro Kagami farms the pre­cip­i­tous slopes for his Do­maine des Miroirs, or in the Rhône town of Cor­nas, where Hiro­take Ooka tends vines. In re­cent years, both have be­come beloved in Tokyo’s thriv­ing nat­u­ral-wine scene. Still, it’s Bur­gundy that holds a spe­cial psy­chic draw for the Ja­panese.

“The Ja­panese love to taste and en­joy wine, but they also study wine,” says Tomoko Kuriyama, an emerg­ing wine­maker in nearby Sav­i­gny-lès-beaune who is orig­i­nally from Tokyo. “And most Ja­panese im­merse them­selves in some­thing al­most un­til they’re crazy. I think Bur­gun­di­ans like that.”

Kuriyama moved to the re­gion in 2011 when she mar­ried Guil­laume Bott, a wine­maker at Do­maine Si­mon Bize (whose cur­rent pro­pri­etor Chisa Bize, the widow of owner Pa­trick Bize, is also from Tokyo). Today they make wine to­gether un­der the Chanterêves la­bel.

At La Lune, just down the street from Bis­soh, Sei­ichi Hirobe deftly bal­ances French and Ja­panese fla­vors: A del­i­cate scal­lop chawan­mushi (or flan salé, sa­vory flan, as the menu has it) is fol­lowed by veal sweet­breads sautéed in soy sauce, all paired with a saline Per­nand­verge­lesses white from Do­maine Pavelot. There’s a cer­tain syn­chronic­ity be­tween the two tra­di­tions: the way the foresty sub­tleties of pinot noir— in, say, a Vol­nay with a few years’ age—align per­fectly with the piney in­ten­sity of mat­su­take mush­rooms, or how the umami-bol­stered opu­lence of Bur­gun­dian chardon­nay echoes the rich­ness of miso. And the two cul­tures share a pro­found re­spect for the nu­ances of taste, and a near monas­tic at­tune­ment to quiet shifts in the sea­sons.

Still it took some time for the Ja­panese to fall for Bur­gundy. Koji Nakada, who runs the small ne­go­ciant win­ery Lou Du­mont out of the old Do­maine Four­rier prop­erty in Gevrey-cham­bertin, re­calls work­ing at a French res­tau­rant in Tokyo in the 1990s. “All any­one wanted was bordeaux, bordeaux, bordeaux,” he says. But Bordeaux’s sta­tus-ob­ses­sion gave way to Bur­gundy’s in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism, es­pe­cially as the lat­ter re­gion’s wines grew subtler, los­ing some of the ag­gres­sive oak and roasted fla­vors they man­i­fested in the 1990s. A big boost came in 1998, when the ubiq­ui­tous Ja­panese TV host Monta Mino pro­claimed the

The two cul­tures share a pro­found re­spect for the nu­ances of taste, and a near monas­tic at­tune­ment to quiet shifts in the sea­sons.

health ben­e­fits of red wine, es­pe­cially bur­gundy. “That year was miraculous,” says Nakada.

It didn’t take long for the par­al­lels be­tween Bur­gundy and Ja­pan to emerge, and soon the Ja­panese be­gan ar­riv­ing—new devo­tees of a sto­ried re­gion who came not for a stint, but to stay. One night at her home in Sav­i­gny, the wine­maker Tomoko Kuriyama gath­ered sev­eral wine­maker friends around the table for a din­ner of mar­i­nated mack­erel and bur­gundy, but also a pinot noir grown by friends on the slopes of Hokkaido, Ja­pan’s north­ern­most is­land. This par­tic­u­lar mar­riage of cul­tures might not have been im­me­di­ate, she says, re­call­ing a pe­riod of ad­just­ment, “but at the end of the day, we feel quite com­fort­able here. We feel at home.”

Mik­i­hiko Sawa­hata, Yoko­hama na­tive and chef and co-owner of Bis­soh, a Ja­panese res­tau­rant in Beaune, Bur­gundy.

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