By Sophie Hardach
TOKYO, June 4 The aroma is like a rock concert, with notes of butterflies dancing over a pond and an aftertaste of Jesus Christ and his disciples.
Wine reviews with a twist are a speciality of "Kami no Shizuku" ("The Drops of God"), a manga comic series that has taken Japan by storm, is conquering Korea and China and has boosted European wine sales along the way.
Written by a brother-and-sister duo of wine enthusiasts, the manga comic combines a mystery plot with a playful introduction to European wines. Think "The Da Vinci Code" set in a Tokyo bar.
"The minute it was translated into Korean, we had calls from three importers," said Basaline Granger Despagne, whose family has grown wine near France's Dordogne river for 250 years. Their Chateau Mont Perat 2001 Bordeaux appears early on in the manga.
"When it was translated into Chinese, people called us from Taiwan saying, 'I bought some Mont Perat and sold 50 cases in two days because of the manga'," she said in a phone interview.
In Korea, businessmen drop names from the serialised book into chats with reporters and shops display "Drops of God" signs.
Wine industry experts believe part of the manga's appeal is that it teaches readers enough about wine to understand the drink and impress their friends, but does so in an entertaining way.
The main character of the manga, a young man called Shizuku Kanzaki, discovers the beauty of wine after his father, a famous wine critic, dies and leaves an unusual will: a description of 12 wines he considers to be the best in the world, comparing them to Jesus Christ's disciples.
The first person to find these "disciples" will inherit the father's wine collection, a contest that pits Shizuku against his adoptive brother, Issey Tomine, who works as a sommelier.
Their quest to find the "Drops of God" is illustrated by double-page manga graphics visualising the heavenly wines. A dark, dark forest with a pond and the aforementioned butterflies depicts the taste of one "disciple".
Shizuku's first sip of Mont Perat, on the other hand, triggers a vision of blurred faces, guitar-strumming musicians and raving fans.
"I know what you mean -- it's like Queen!" Shizuku's friend, a barman, exclaims, referring to Freddie Mercury's rock band. They go on to compare the wine's acidity to Mercury's voice, wrapped in the thick sound of guitars and drums.
Yuko Kibayashi, who writes the scenario for the manga with her brother Shin under a pen name, told Reuters the idea for the series came to them when they tasted a Burgundy wine that impressed them so much they turned into wine aficionados.
In an e-mailed exchange, she said the manga is not sponsored by anyone and they choose the wines based on their own independent research, including trips abroad and tastings.
"We mention wines that we've actually drunk and felt were delicious," Kibayashi wrote.
"The kind of 'betrayal' of writing that a wine we didn't like is delicious would pose the danger of destroying the manga."
Kibayashi's view is reflected in the manga, where wines costing 1,000-2,000 yen ($8-16) spark just as much excitement and colourful visions among the characters as pricier liquids.
Umberto Cosmo, an Italian wine producer, was thrilled when his family's much-loved Colli di Conegliano Rosso Contrada di Concenigo appeared in the manga.
The Cosmos drink their Colli di Conegliano red with meals at home, and that's how it was presented in the manga: a good, moderately priced table wine for everyday enjoyment.
Speaking to Reuters by telephone from Italy, Cosmo said sales of the wine jumped some 30 percent after the manga came out.
Drinking wine the way the Cosmos do -- in a relaxed setting, with friends or family, accompanied by simple food -- is a familiar concept to most Europeans, but not to many Asians.
SLURPING AND SPITTING Wine remains an expensive status symbol in much of Asia, to be savoured in a top restaurant complete with a haughty sommelier as stiff as the starched white table cloths.
Japan probably has the most developed wine scene in the region. At a recent wine tasting in Tokyo's Grand Hyatt hotel, row after row of Japanese wine lovers were expertly slurping, spitting and taking notes as German sommelier Markus Del Monego explained what they were drinking.
"In Europe, wine is piece of grown culture. Europe has been shaped by wine for centuries," said Del Monego, a former sommelier world champion who frequently travels to Asia.
"In China, the wine scene is just emerging. It consists of a very small part of society that's very price-oriented, because it's in an exploratory phase. That phase has already passed in Japan," he added.
Early next year, "The Drops of God" will be published in French, possibly followed by Italian. The original book series is expected to continue for another five years or so, and there is talk of a film.
All this is likely to further stimulate the thirst for wine.
Supply, however, may hit a natural limit: there is only so much high-quality wine any given territory will yield.
And wine producers may not even want to sell that widely -- Basaline Granger Despagne said her family had been approached by distributors in mainland China but had so far found no one they felt comfortable selling their wine to.
In the meantime, the search for the manga's remaining "disciples" -- only three have been identified so far -- will keep manga fans, wine importers and vintners on their toes.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul, Ralph Jennings in Taipei, Elaine Lies and Rika Otsuka in Tokyo)
((Editing by Megan Goldin; firstname.lastname@example.org, +81 3 3432 8656))
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