Japan’s new generation of winegrowers are launching a wine revolution

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It’s dawn after Typhoon Chanthu inundated the vineyards of Koki Oyamada, and the budding winegrowers who came to train at Domaine Oyamada are already bathed in sweat, slapping mosquitoes as they pluck bunches of grapes. grape petit manseng in the oppressive heat.

They gathered from across the country to study with one of the pioneers in a Japanese wine transformation that is starting to gain serious global attention – successfully shedding the lingering reputation the country offered little more than cloying drinks suitable for convenience store shelves or ryokan gift shops.

At this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards, considered the world’s most prestigious wine competition, Japanese wines had their best ever year, winning 71 medals, including two platinum and four gold.

With just over 350 (and growing) wineries, Japan is unlikely to compete on a large scale with major wine-producing countries such as France or Australia, where the appropriate ground is simply more. abundant. Combating heat, humidity and humid summers, Japanese producers have instead sought to carve out a niche for themselves in distinctive and well-crafted wines.

Despite these challenges, followers of the Japanese wine scene say the momentum is on its side. Considering that the country’s wine efflorescence began in the early 2000s – and it takes around 15 years for new vines to express their potential – it’s possible that this surprising wine tale is just beginning.

“We’re in the very early stages of discovering some of Japan’s finest wines,” says Julian Stevens, former taster at prestigious British wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd in London and Tokyo. “I think it’s a really exciting time.

Emerging winemaker Naoki Yamada harvests petit manseng grapes at Domaine Oyamada at dawn. | JOJI SAKURAI

Growing pains

Some of the reasons for wine processing in Japan become clear during a grueling morning of participating in the Oyamada harvest.

First, the quality European grape varieties planted at Domaine Oyamada are remarkable even to wine connoisseurs Рalongside the rows of petit manseng, Oyamada has planted equally obscure grape varieties such as mourv̬dre and tannat. Until 2000, it was rare for Japanese vineyards to even grow familiar grape varieties such as Merlot and Chardonnay. Instead, they made wine from Japanese table grapes and cheap imported fruit or concentrated must, which explains the notorious sickly sweetness.

Then there is perfectionism in cultivation. Since the start of the summer, Oyamada and her interns have covered each cluster of the vineyard with paper umbrellas to protect them from seasonal weather. tsuyu rains – and typhoons, which sweep the country throughout the fall and can damage crops just when they need to be harvested.

After cutting a bunch, the winegrowers must examine it carefully for spoiled grapes, pulling them out one by one. Inspection is done not only by looking, but by sniffing – rotten grapes often hide in a healthy cluster, detected only by a sour smell.

One of the most careful aspects of Oyamada’s cultivation style is mixed planting. In the same vineyard, he cultivates different grape varieties side by side, which is more laborious than planting each field with a single grape variety. This, he says, creates an environment that allows him to grow grapes in the most natural way possible, with minimal organic pesticides (he never uses chemicals).

“A diverse planting environment is more like the natural world, which makes the vines stronger and less prone to insect attack,” Oyamada explains. “Plantation diversity increases insect diversity, reducing the proportion of pests.”

Winemaker Koki Oyamada explains the process of maturing wine in top quality barrels imported from the village of Meursault in Burgundy, France.  |  JOJI SAKURAI
Winemaker Koki Oyamada explains the process of maturing wine in top quality barrels imported from the village of Meursault in Burgundy, France. | JOJI SAKURAI

French connection

A similar perfectionist spirit caught the world’s attention more than a generation ago – in the culinary world – when a wave of young Japanese chefs went abroad to train in the great kitchens of France and beyond. ‘Italy, and returned with world-class skills that helped transform Tokyo into a gourmet mecca.

There are parallels with Japanese winemaking today. To succeed, many winegrowers have trained in prestigious estates in France and Italy, or have studied in the best French wine institutions. The pioneers of Oyamada created the country’s first “estates”, where wine is made from grapes grown only on the winemaker’s land. One of Oyamada’s contemporaries, Eishi Okamoto, was described by a famous Tokyo chef as handling grapes “as if they were diamonds or pearls”.

Like their culinary counterparts, these winemakers returned home armed not only with knowledge, but also the desire to create something unique, seeing little point in making a second best burgundy or barolo. This is one of the reasons why the world class of wine is starting to pay a lot of attention to Japan.

“Japanese winemakers today are looking for a distinctive appeal,” says sommelier Yuji Inui, serving a selection of Nagano wines at Kamoshiya, the Japanese wine bar he runs in Matsumoto, prefecture. from Nagano. “They are looking for a differentiated quality from European wines.

The tendency of these new winemakers to apply an almost obsessive dedication to mastering what Oyamada calls “the art of the farmer” is in part at the origin of a surprising twist in the narrative of wine transformation in Japan. . If two decades ago ambitious mavericks traveled to France to learn from the masters, today one of France’s most prestigious vineyards has come to Japan to make wine.

Le Domaine de Montille, which Berry Bros. & Rudd calls “one of the purest expressions of Pinot Noir found today in Burgundy”, dates from 1730. Two years ago, Etienne de Montille – the ninth heir to the family estate – acquired a plot of land in Hokkaido and planted the first saplings of a new vineyard, calling it the “Montille & Hokkaido Project”.

De Montille says climate change and “the potential of the Hokkaido terroirs to express the best of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay” were fundamental to his decision, as well as the knowledge that he could count on exceptional local talent to bring it to life. ” help make your project a reality.

“From the start, I conceived this project as a cooperation between France and Japan, so quality is important”, explains de Montille. “Winemaking in Japan has changed a lot over the past 10 years. I am convinced that quality and authenticity represent the future of Japanese wine.

Miyuki Katori, representative director of the Japan Vineyard Association, discusses the range of Japanese wines at Tokyo Buan wine bar.  |  JOJI SAKURAI
Miyuki Katori, representative director of the Japan Vineyard Association, discusses the range of Japanese wines at Tokyo Buan wine bar. | JOJI SAKURAI

Wines of the new wave

Pioneers like Oyamada learned about winemaking from a figure considered the godfather of wine processing in Japan. In the 1980s, Usuke Arai fought a lone battle to prove that Japan could make good wines – and succeeded with a Nagano Merlot that is part of the legend. He was then the mentor of a generation of winegrowers.

Today, Oyamada is leading a new wave of mentoring that unleashes an energy unparalleled in Japanese wine. Young winegrowers now have the opportunity to learn from the masters at home. And unlike traditional Japanese “master-apprentice” frameworks, there is a feeling of freedom and openness. Prominent figures in the movement include Toyoo Tamamura of the Villa D’Est winery in Nagano, and an American, Bruce Gutlove, of the 10R winery in Hokkaido. Gutlove calls his operation “an incubator” of talent.

“The influence of these numbers in launching a new generation of winemakers cannot be overstated,” said Miyuki Katori, representative director of the Japan Vineyard Association, at Buan, a Japanese wine bar in Tokyo where young people get together to talk about wine.

De Montille, too, is part of the movement. “We want to share the knowledge and experience of Burgundy viticulture,” he says. “Whenever we bring in a wine expert from France, we always organize seminars for Japanese winemakers.”

Looking to the future, Oyamada says he is delighted to see his young winegrowers take Japanese wines in surprising new directions.

“My wish is that they continue to create wines that we veterans never imagined,” he says. “My generation broke an old system, an old way of making wines. This new generation is not tied to any of this. They are free.”

For more information, visit bit.ly/oyamadadomain. Over the next few months, New Wine Frontier will explore the evolving world of Japanese wine through profiles of the country’s most exciting winemakers.

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