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Best of TFL: Kenjiro Kagami

Best of TFL: Kenjiro Kagami

The hour drive to the southern Jura from Beaune became progressively quainter as urbanity melted into the tiny stone villages. Finally, it opened up into fields, cows and a few vineyards. The last time I was in those parts, the lanes were sheeted in black ice. Snow coated the hills. But in July of 2019, in the valley between two mounds of heat waves, all was brilliant with lemony sun and puckery blossoms. With me in the car were the Chantrêves winemaking duo, Tomoko Kuriyama and Guillaume Bott and a long-time friend, Paul Wasserman, of Becky Wasserman Selections. We were headed to visit Japanese ex-patriot vigneron, Kenjiro Kagami. I was extremely happy about this outing because after three failed attempts, I was finally due to visit the elusive vigneron at 3pm.

We were early. To avoid being rude we parked a few minutes away and stretched out on the tender grasses by the banks of the creek as the fluorescent blue dragonflies hovered. “I worry about him,” Tomoko said, looking out at the pristine babbling water, “Kenjiro is very committed to no-till,” she said, mentioning what might be the most talked about trend in farming vines. “It works quite well of course. But the last time I was there, that piece of land, up near the forest, on a steep slope, really looked sad. I just don’t see how he’s going to get any grapes off of that section if he doesn’t turn over the land. He needs to make money. Well, we’ll see!” With a clap of her hands as a signal, we brushed off our pants and headed back to the car.

Even before Domaine des Miroirs debuted with the tiny 2011 vintage, Kenjiro was practically mythical. The ex-Hitachi engineer took an interest in wine in the late 90s and followed his heart to Beaune to study winemaking. He longed to work with grand cru vines and especially lusted after Musigny and limestone. He landed his dream job for de Vogüé as his stage and worked there almost daily, as school was merely once a week. His resumé evolved into stints with a trio of natural legends: Thierry Allemand in Cornas, Bruno Schueller in Alsace, and Jean-François Ganevat in the Jura. It was Ganevat who found him his land in nearby Grusse, a village with the same number of residents now as in the 1700s: 185.

I drank my first Miroirs in about 2014. It was most likely that initial 2011 vintage. Although I didn’t love the chardonnay with its acidic, milky reduction, there was something in there that just didn’t let me forget it. I went out of my way a few years later to meet the vigneron at a tasting in Paris. Formal, dapper, a silk scarf tied deftly around his neck, he put up with my French. It was there that the wines grabbed me as being somewhere between heaven and earth, between wine and the rain, between there and not, some sort of blindfolded trust of balance. I came away wondering whether it was wine or something else entirely.

We pulled up to a rundown farmhouse right on the road and pushed in the weathered doors. Inside there was a pre-harvest mess: a small pneumatic press, barrels, bottles and not much room to move around. We opened another door to find Kenjiro in a brick-arched long and narrow barrel room. A slight, bearded man in clothes a size too big, he reminded me of a high school kid cleaning out the garage. His treasures were fermenting and aging in two large, red-banded barrels as well as old barriques stacked two and three on top of each other. The barn was leaky and a little warmer than optimum for natural winemaking, I thought. After the hellos and the immediate distribution of INAO tasting glasses, a shyness settled over the room. But as soon as French was swapped out for Tomoko and Kenjiro’s native language, animation kicked in. All of the sudden Kenjiro smiled broadly. “What makes you smile?” I asked and Tomoko answered, “The cuverie is filled with wine for the first time.”

It must have been a remarkable feeling of relief and perhaps a bit of triumph. Usually Kenjiro’s yields are terribly low with no more than 25 hl per hectare. This adds up to maybe 10,000 bottles a year if he is lucky. But in 2018 there was the potential for more than double that. Finally, there was some wine to sell around the world, not only Japan, Denmark, France and England.

The vigneron scampered up the barrels with a pipette. He drew out the wine and then silent and cat-like, he jumped down from the top, landing thudlessly, spilling not a drop. He started to explain his methodology. The first few vintages he used to start fermentation by making a pied de cuve. This, a little test batch of natural yeast ferment is one way traditional winemakers kick off fermentation. Now, he just waits until each of his vats take off. “The wine just cooks,” he says.

Kenjiro Kagami in his petite cave in Grusse.

I instantly imagined a great iron cauldron filled with wine boiling away. But what he was trying to tell me was that he employs no physical means of extraction, no punch down, no press. He really does nothing—or near nothing. It’s the gentlest of infusions. Surely he had to use carbon dioxide to keep the wine safe from fruit flies before fermentation was active, I asked.  He shook his head, no. It’s often that the wine stays fermenting for 45 days this way. Fermentation happens and that’s all.

As is customary in the Jura we started with red. He squirted the 2018 Poulsard, destined to be his Ja-Nai (meaning ‘yes-no’ in Alsace dialect) into our glasses and oh, joy. It was intense, vibrant, electric. Then came the 2018 Trousseau. He rarely makes one. It was licorice and had a raspberry-like purity. “It has some mouse,” I remarked. Usually I’m timid about this thing with a winemaker unless they bring it up first. It’s the same way I feel uncomfortable telling someone they have bad breath. But there wasn’t a whiff of bullshit in that cellar and I knew it would be ok. “Yes,” he said. He had no doubt it would resolve. It is his personal opinion that one reason for its prevalence of late is climate change.

The whites get a different treatment, pressing slowly over a day. No skin contact here. He lets the wines settle for two days and then puts them into old barrels where they rest for two winters. He scampered up again to get the 2017 savagnin, he would do this several times through the visit, always gracefully landing as if completing an elegant échappée. The savagnin in my glass was almost ready for the bottle. I looked at Paul, a skilled and focused taster. The eyes, flashed, right, this was a magnetic wine. It tiptoed on that tightrope between nut-like oxidative and smoky reductive. There were the elements of beauty: ginger, lemon confit, salt, a dusting of hazelnut and almond and so much intense salinity it was hard to believe it was topped off. “It’s ouilée,” he said. He paused as he saw we noticed the pronounced sherry-like qualities usually associated with the flor that develops when the wine is left exposed to the air. But then he added with a laugh, “But not that much ouilée.”

By that he explained that he only tops off his barrels about 5-6 times over the two years élevage. Which is, as he said, not much and without a doubt a flor developed to intensify the flavors.

When I asked about tasting the 2018 whites, he demurred. They were still fermenting. And so, we dove right into the 2016s. Those were the wines on the market. He pulled the cork out of the Ja-Nai 2016 and wiped the bottle drips on his plaid flannel shirt sleeve. “I don’t do analysis beforehand because the dark side of me and my training will come out,” he said, referring to his time in Beaune and working with more conventional winemakers.

The wine was muted raspberry purity, yet it was iron-laced. Then there was that subtle balance between the fruit and the savory. We fell silent in appreciation. Then Tomoko with her nodding head and beatific smile said, “You know, there’s a reason we are here.” She was hinting at a motivation for those Japanese people who moved to France to make wine. In that moment, I felt I understood her, but then chided myself for not pressing her to elaborate. When later I asked her to clarify, she said, “It’s true of course. In Japan it’s not always easy to get to the point straight away. You are obliged not to disturb Wa (circle=harmony).”

In other words, France offered freedom of uninhibited expression, at least in wine.

The vineyards were a quick drive away. Kenjiro’s 4 hectares started just below a forest, then slanted southwest. It stretched down to his latest addition; a hectare that used to be Ganevat’s. That’s the one he handed over to Kenjiro and told his former employee, “Pay me when you can.”

Mayumi (left) and Tomoko (right) talk shop in the vines.

Upslope sat the red grapes. The white varieties include a few rows of an Alsatian tribute—riesling. Thankfully for those devoted to the savignin more vines are also going into the ground. We started to trek into the lively vineyards. Kenjiro’s wife Mayumi was working the vines. As we approached her, the energy from the vineyard made my feet tingle. In the fading afternoon, bees buzzed, wildflowers grew, grasshoppers bungee-ed en masse from one sprig of grass the other. Tomoko’s eyes immediately went to the top of the vineyards, where although it was difficult to farm without plowing, Kenjiro had persisted. Tomoko was relieved. “It’s looking so healthy and beautiful up there, he made it work.”

Kenjiro might have made more wine than usual in 2018, but in 2019 he was back to 22hl per hectare, under 1000 cases. He was disappointed, but accepting. So, we’re back to scarcity once the 2019s come out. Considering the whole picture, at about $45 a bottle (in France) they are remarkably cheap. For now. It won’t stay that way for long. The market will accelerate, especially with the wines showing up at auction. And regrettably, with the way it goes, very little of that rise in bottle cost will go into his and Mayumi’s pocket. Thinking about this injustice, the difficult life of transforming land and vine into something equally profound, I asked him what he wanted from the next ten years. He didn’t have to think. He told me, “I want to find the balance.” I asked him what kind of balance and expected him to say that between life and farming, which can often be taxing. “No,” he said, “the balance between the vine, wine and the land.”

Months after my visit, I keep returning to his answer. It’s a kind of memory that I will keep with me and take out and hold up to the sun when I need to feel the light of beauty. He hit a rare spiritual nerve, the kind of walking-dream-like feeling that escapes articulation. Was it that Wa? Maybe it was indeed.

Kenjiro Kagami: The Wines

And so, it is true. Most of you might not ever be able to find the wines. And sometimes if you do, they might be disappointing, as was the 2011 chardonnay that I had at Noma in 2018. But mostly if you have the opportunity, pounce. And in that service, I give you my tasting notes. Not to make you go “Oh, woe is me” and lament what you cannot drink, but to be prepared for when you can.

Kenjiro Kagami works on 4 hectares and makes white with no skin contact, all pressed full cluster and that’s a slow press but there’s virtually no skin contact and have two winters resting up in old oak of various sizes of rest before bottling.

Chardonnay Cuvées

Cuvées made from either a blend or individual parcels:

Mizuiro (Les Saugettes)
Sonorité du Vent
Mon Rythme, son Rythme  (makes this very rarely)
Berceau (only made in 2011 and 2015)


Entre deux Bleus


Ja – Nai: Poulsard
Que Sera Sera: Trouseau (rarely makes this)
Ja Do: Poulsard and Trousseau blend (only made this in 2015)

Selected Tasting

2015 Berceau

The chardonnay is creamy and easy, volatility on the nose more than on the palate. The VA works here to deepen the complexity.

2016 Mon Rythme, son Rythme

The chardo here is from marl soils. Depth, broad, celery root, yellow plum. Volatile and electric, riveting wine.

2016 Entre deux Bleus

The savignin is completely gorgeous. It had a complex mélange of citrus that ranges from kumquat to orange to lemon to lime, on a wet spring day. The wine has depth, electric peach-fuzzy textures.

2015 Entre deux Bleus

I was lucky enough to have this with Doug Wregg at Scarr’s Pizza in NYC. And it just stunned. The intensity and salinity on a whisper of a dream-like wine.

2012 Entre deux Bleus

Kenjiro let us taste this wine that had been opened for a few days, and it was pretty impressive. It was fresh. Fierce. Reduced with a thread of salt air, the wine was creamy and completely vertical, warmed by textural, raspy acidity.

2016 Ja Nai

Muted from raspberry purity, iron fisted reduction with a nuanced, balanced savory quality.