FEATURE: Aussie wine comes up trumps in Japanese manga series.
A hugely popular Japanese comic book series that follows the international adventures of two brothers in pursuit of the perfect drop has, until recently, remained largely unheard of in Australia.
That was until one of the country's oldest wineries got a mention.
''Kami no Shizuku'' (Drops of God), a weekly ''manga'' (comic book) series nearly in its fifth year of publication, is penned by brother and sister duo Shin and Yuko Kibayashi who write under the pseudonym Tadashi Agi.
The storyline reads like a wine enthusiasts' ultimate fantasy.
Acclaimed wine critic Yutaka Kanzaki dies, leaving a \2 billion wine collection which will be inherited by whichever son fulfills his cryptic quest to find the world's best wines.
The plot sees our hero, Shizuku Kanzaki, pitted against his adopted brother Issei Toomine, as they battle it out to locate 13 of the finest wines ever produced.
In his will, Kanzaki states that the brothers must first find 12 wines known as the ''12 Apostles'' and finally uncover the greatest wine on earth, dubbed the ''Drops of God.''
As the adventure unfolds, the pair travels around the world's most esteemed wine regions, particularly France, and recently paid a visit to the lush hills of McLaren Vale, in South Australia, an area renowned for its red wines.
Here Kanzaki tries a wine called Laughing Magpie, 2006 Shiraz Viognier, which is produced by d'Arenberg Wines, located 40 kilometers south of the capital city Adelaide.
Established in 1912, d'Arenberg is a 450 hectare, family-owned winery that combines time-honored European traditions with Aussie ingenuity.
Known for his colorful prose when describing wines, Kanzaki said the Laughing Magpie 2006 is ''Very good. I didn't expect much from a wine under a screw cap...it's spicy and overflowing with energetic life...it's both exotic and made for normal people at the same time.''
Chester Osborn, chief wine-maker and great-grandson of founder Joseph Osborn, agrees wholeheartedly with Kanzaki's description.
While Japan still prefers old-world, European wines sealed with cork, the vast majority of wines in Australia are now sealed with screw-caps.
D'Arry Osborn, managing director of d'Arenberg Wines, and Chester's father, strongly advocates the use of screw caps.
''Screw caps are a much better closure for our types of wine because they keep the freshness and the wines mature beautifully,'' the gentle elder Osborn tells Kyodo News.
Chester said he knew the 2006 vintage of Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier was going to be special because of ideal conditions that year.
The experienced wine-maker said a wet winter, spring and further rain in summer encouraged the grass to flourish between the vines.
This grass acts as competition for the vines and leads to a better balance of nutrients and more refined color and flavor.
With an average yield of 1.7 tons per acre, Chester said d'Arenberg Wines rivals the finest Grand Cru wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux in terms of low-yield, high-quality vines.
Chester, 47 and his father, 82, admit they'd never heard of ''manga'' before the ''Drops of God,'' but were proud to be featured in the September issue.
Chester believes the comic-book style enables more ''personality'' to be injected into a wine.
''It adds more fun, of course it's not just a technical review, it's not just a wine columnist's opinion, instead it's someone from the real world wanting to do it in a very humorous way,'' Chester told Kyodo News at his McLaren Vale winery.
A good review in this ''manga'' series sends its 360,000 weekly Japanese readers into a frenzy and sparks a mad rush to snap up bottles of the featured wine.
Also published in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and France, a mere mention in the ''Drops of God'' can boost a company's wine sales substantially.
Even before the edition of ''Drops of God'' hit the stands, all bottles of the Laughing Magpie 2006 Shiraz Viognier were sold out in Japan.
Kyobashi Wine Liquor Shop, a Japanese online wine store, snapped up the last 120 bottles in Japan after it learned the wine was included in ''Kami no Shizuku.''
The online shop has a page dedicated to wines featured in the ''manga'' series.
Wataru Takeno, who manages the Australian wine category for the online store, said the ''manga'' series had definitely raised interest in Laughing Magpie 2006, which falls into the higher end price category.
''The 120 bottles sold in a month is a very good result for wine (in the) 3,000 yen price (range) and for Australian wine,'' Takeno told Kyodo News.
Richard Cohen, 59, d'Arenberg's Japanese importer, believes the series is so popular in Japan because of the lack of Japanese-language wine reviews.
''There's so much wine from all over the world in Japan and there's not much press in Japanese, most of it is in English,'' Cohen told Kyodo News.
He said ''Kami no Shizuku'' has a unique way of informing people which wines are worth trying.
Now published in four languages, this cult wine manga continues to educate and entertain wine drinkers across the globe.
Kodansha, publishers of ''Kami no Shizuku,'' told Kyodo News they have been inundated with enquiries about an English-language version, and are also hoping to include an English edition in the near future.