Friday, January 10, 2014

Jacob's Creek "Wa": Surprisingly good wine just for Japan

On my recent scuba trip in Indonesia, the dive boat we were on (Dewi Nusantara) was fabulous in almost every way but one: the wine offered was Jacob's Creek, a Chardonnay and a Shiraz-based red blend.

The red was fine for the purpose of not offending international non-wine aficionados: innocuous, it tasted red. But the white wine was eccch (Parker version: Powerful overblast of artificial lemonade with hints of vanilla extract, children's aspirin marmalade and pain grillé. 87 points) That was all the table wine we had access to for 12 days, which was probably good for my liver, as I preferred the boat's slightly mildewy desalinated water.

We stopped over in Japan on the way home and had dinner at a friend's house, and the first bottle of wine somebody opened was a Jacob's Creek white. "Not again," I thought, wondering how far from Australia I needed to go to get away.

It turned out to be another important lesson in keeping an open mind. Jacob's Creek Wa, made only for the Japanese market, is surprisingly good.

I like sake with sashimi, but "Wa" would work

The back-label copy says it's meant to go with Japanese food, especially fresh seafood, which I figured was bullshit because back-label copy usually is. But in this case there was a name associated with it: sushi chef Mamoru Sugiyama, whose restaurant Ginza Sushiko has a Michelin star and a little name recognition in the US because of the film "Sushi: The Global Catch."

Sugiyama sought a "karakuchi" (dry) wine that would be "sharp, pretty, with good acidity," again says the back label. And the world's third-largest spirits & wine company (Pernod-Ricard, which owns Jacob's Creek) delivered, which just goes to show what a big company with lots of resources can do when it chooses.

Jacob's Creek "Wa" South Eastern Australia 2012 is a blended white wine, which I'm told is Semillon-based. I thought it had Riesling in it: it leads with stone fruit and apricot pit notes, along with some bright citrus. There's an appealing grip to the mouthfeel and a slight saltiness to the finish that really does go well with seafood. It's 13% alcohol and far more acidity-driven than most Jacob's Creek wines.

Winemaker Rebekah Richardson gets the freshness by night-harvesting and keeping the grapes cool throughout the production process. It's not like any other Jacob's Creek wine I've ever had, and that's a pity. But in large part that's because you get what you pay for.

In Japan it costs about ¥1700, which is about $17 US. In the US, Jacob's Creek is pigeon-holed, not unfairly, as an $8 wine at best. How would they explain to consumers that this wine is twice as good? We'll probably never see "Wa."*

* ("Wa" is a Japanese word that roughly means "harmony," and is frequently invoked in an aesthetic context to emphasize the unique Japanese sense of harmony. Its use in selling a wine made in Australia is, while not inaccurate in this case, also pandering a bit, kind of like calling a wine made for the US "Bald Eagle's Blend." But that's marketing.)

Jacob's Creek has shipped container loads of its Wa to Japan, which means while it's hard to get ahold of in the US, you can pick it up very easily in Tokyo. To its credit, Jacob's Creek (and Pernod-Ricard) is giving the Japanese what they want. Assume what you will about their other wines.

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  1. This is the second time I've seen an Australian wine (Dave McIntyre writing highly of Lindeman's Bin 65 Chard the other - that should compete at a higher price point than expected in the US. Is it an issue of perception or needle-in-a-haystack luck on these?

  2. There are tons of great Australian wines if you're willing to pay $25 for them. So it's not luck, it's spending a little more.

    But perception matters. Jacob's Creek has been selling cheap slop here for a long time. There's no way I would pony up $17 for a bottle of anything by Jacob's Creek without tasting it, and quite frankly, only my curiosity about the label induced me to taste this wine at all. If Pernod-Ricard wants to sell a wine like this in the US, it needs a new brand for it, but they're smart enough to realize it.