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Cold comfort drinking red wine in Japan

The vista of lights and the Tokyo Skytree from the Asakusa View Hotel.

“Drinking mostly Japanese beer and sake with food rather than the wine I’d consume back home wasn’t a difficulty, but for lovers of red wine though, expect to have to warm your glass to let the wine reach room temperature,” writes wine columnist RICHARD CALVER, home from a holiday in Japan. 

We are sitting in the 28th floor bar of the Asakusa View Hotel looking out at a vista of lights that stretch to the horizon, upstaged by the purple and silver lit Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world.

Richard Calver.

In the distance a fireworks display at Tokyo Disney World provides even more lightshow entertainment.

We’ve come from a dinner of prawns and octopus at a teppanyaki restaurant where, as usual, beer was the chosen drink to accompany Japanese food. 

I didn’t feel like any more beer or a flask of sake, so I ordered a nightcap of a glass of red wine in the fancy bar, at an equivalent of a nudge over $18 a glass. 

The list offers red wine or white wine and my red wine comes chilled, even in this comparatively upmarket venue. It has been a feature of the tour that whenever we ordered red wine, it came chilled. 

It was difficult to get a rationale for this quirk of wine service. Research showed two explanations: first that Japanese people like to drink wine slowly and therefore savour red wine more when it comes to room temperature from being cold. 

That explanation doesn’t really make sense. If you are going to drink slowly anyway the initial service temperature shouldn’t matter. 

The second explanation is that the favourite red tipple for Japanese is French beaujolais, a red that is frequently served chilled. Hence, because of this love of beaujolais, a lot of people unaccustomed to drinking wine most likely assumed all reds should be served chilled. This phenomenon is said then to have led to restaurants serving all reds cold in response. 

Again, it’s a long bow but, in my view, more plausible. 

I must say that the wine being chilled, and the price per glass, did slow me down. 

The wine served at the Asakusa View Hotel was horrible cold. Malbec does not suit being chilled. It was a 2019 Chateau Lamartine Malbec Cahors and was tannic and big with a backbone of acid. The black fruit notes in the wine only became apparent after warming the glass in my hands for around 10 minutes. The lightshow and a glass of water were enough of a distraction that this process was not annoying. 

But this wine was crying out to be accompanied by salty Japanese wagyu that was unfortunately sold out at the teppanyaki restaurant we had visited earlier. 

Malbec as a varietal that would suit the protein-heavy servings at many of the restaurants we visited seems like a good match. But not cold! 

If I went back to Japan, I’d try to get off the beaten tourist track and maybe do a walk, such as the ancient Samurai trail known as the Nakasendo way from Tokyo to Kyoto. 

Despite Japan’s population of around 123 million, there are many scenic open spaces and places where you can get far from the crowds of tourists we encountered. 

All in all, drinking mostly Japanese beer and sake with food rather than the wine I’d consume back home wasn’t a difficulty. Sake, in particular, cuts through salty, fatty meats or fish and is a drink that leaves a clean taste. 

For lovers of red wine though, expect to have to warm your glass to let the wine reach room temperature, which shouldn’t be an issue if you have something as entertaining as the view from the 28th floor of a hotel in Asakusa.

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