A coffee tour of Osaka will eventually lead to Takumura Coffee & Wine (featured on our sister site here), a spacious wine distributor and coffee roaster that does its best to put forward the finest of both. A friend joined me at this intersection of beans and grapes and while talking about the similarities between the two beverages, we were steered towards a natural wine: Ronco Severo Friulano 2014 was an eye-opener; a vibrant and citrusy cup with a medium body. Our first natural wine experience was a good one. With our interests piqued, a friendly barista directed us to a nearby natural wine bar.
After fumbling around some nearby neighborhoods we found a bistro that looked like it had been pulled out of a quiet corner of Paris. The shopfront was walled with dark wooden boards, replacing the customary concrete exterior of a typical urban building here. Under an awning scrawled with the shop name Balthazar was a door decorated with cut and stained glass. Pots overflowing with plants were crammed in every corner and hanging from every eave of the small storefront.
Inside Balthazar, we were greeted by a handful of intimate tables and bar seats. The dim lights and the collection of scuffed tables, chairs, and floors were reminiscent of classic kissaten (old-fashioned Japanese coffeehouses) but the vintage travel posters on the wall and the chaotic collection of wine bottles told a different story. We sidled up to the bar and were greeted by the shop owner, Mihara Yuta, who welcomed us and asked for our order. We told him that we were here to investigate these natural wines. He gave us a “say no more” sort of look and proceeded to pour.
Over the next few hours, my friend and I were expertly guided through a number of stimulating wines that engaged and excited us. Pours were punctuated by tapas prepared by a chef obscured somewhere behind a wall of empty bottles. We eagerly snuck peeks as flames rose up from the other side of the bar, sipped and discussed the new rush of flavors, and began to interrogate our host.
When Mihara first tried natural wine some 10 years ago, he realized that there was no going back. I could sense the pleasure he got from sharing his passion with the clientele at Balthazar. Before each pour, he would take a second to taste the offering. He would sniff, furrow his brow, sip, concentrate, and then give a knowing nod of satisfaction.
Though Balthazar feels like a local secret, it regularly receives visitors from abroad. Mihara explained that Japan is a country of “maniac collectors,” so be it wine or vinyl records, some of the best stuff ends up here. Oenophiles can be sure to sample some interesting vintages when visiting a wine-centric bistro on this archipelago.
The shop name is a French word that translates roughly to “a grand feast.” When Mihara came to Osaka from Shimane, a far-flung coastal prefecture on the northwest side of Japan’s main island, he wanted to create a place where friends could talk and lose track of time while celebrating food and wine; a place where patrons could appreciate the straightforward flavors of natural foods and natural wines.
Mihara found a partner with similar ideals in the mountainous southern tip of Kyoto prefecture, and now sources organic vegetables from her farm. Root vegetables are sourced from Shimane. Some days these can be found for sale out in front of the store. Using this fresh produce as a base, Balthazar offers up French-inspired cuisine from Japanese vegetables.
These sentiments are what led Mihara to the natural wine world. Mihara feels that, much like organic produce, the flavors of the land and the grape are much clearer in natural wines. He talks about wines as music: there are many different genres that appeal to different people. It’s not for him to say what is good or what is bad, it’s all a preference. He compares traditional and natural wines to onigiri—rice balls. “It’s like the choice between Grandma’s freshly packed onigiri and one from a convenience store. One is so much warmer in flavor.” After an evening of wine and conversation, my friend and I left Balthazar feeling a bit warmer too.
Eric Tessier is a freelance journalist based in Providence, RI. This is Eric Tessier’s first feature for Sprudge Wine.