FRESH FROM TRAIPSING through the lavender fields of Central Hokkaido, I'm near the airport a half-hour from Sapporo, inspecting the smallest winery I've ever set foot in. Young owner/winemaker Kazushi Misawa welcomes me to his Chitose Winery and shows me its two large fermentation tanks, one of which stays unused because he just doesn't have enough grapes to fill it. Bemused by such incongruity, I naturally begin to suspect that I might be in the presence of prodigious greatness but stupidly don't know it yet.
And I'm in luck, because the first wine I taste doesn't disappoint – a pale straw-yellow with nice whiffs of apple and mango, yet the resemblance to its more famous antecedent variety wasn't there. “I don't find any Riesling here at all,” I say as Misawa awaits my verdict of his 2014 Kerner, the big fish in his small pond, retailing at ¥2,430 (HK$160) a bottle and 9,000 of them made each year from his modest total production of 17,000, which includes 4,000 bottles of a rather nice Pinot Noir that I also like. (Compare that to Bordeaux, where “small” might be 50,000 bottles a year.)
He nods in agreement. “It doesn't in younger vintages, but the Riesling characteristics will show as it gets older,” he assures me. Kerner, originally a German grape still planted in areas such as Rheinhessen and Wurttemberg, is actually a cross-breed of Riesling with Trollinger, a pale red grape alternatively called Vernatsch in the northern Italy's Tyrol. The only ones I'd previously tasted in Japan were downright awful but this, if not transcendent, was actually a nice way to reboot my view of the oenological wonders of a country better known for other beverages (sake, shochu, umeshu and, in more recent years, whisky).
Even though, I realise, there's a lot to learn. Like why is the kanji symbol for “north” printed in large font on Misawa's Kerner label? It says “Kita-Wine” (“northern wine”), he explains, to indicate its provenance in the north, namely Hokkaido. No wine appellation system exists yet in Japan and labels don't say much of anything at all, despit a few exceptions like Furano (which produces government-owned “Furano Wine”) and Yamanashi (further south near Tokyo on the island of Honshu, widely acknowledged as Japan's best wine region). Misawa says he didn't want “Chitose” on his labels even though that's where this vinification facility is; he buys all his grapes from Yoichi, an area northwest of here that's more famous for its Nikka whisky distillery, so “that would be dishonest”.
Sensing him in a confessional mood, I then ask how he ended up in Hokkaido when the family farm founded in 1923, Grace Winery, lies further south in Yamanashi prefecture, in the shadow of Mount Fuji. It's still owned by his father, Shigekazu Misawa, and its current winemaker is his sister Ayana, whom I'd previously met (and who set up this meeting for me). “Well, I don't like to say that I was ‘ordered' to come here,” he replies wryly, “but my father told me to go to Chitose and make wine.”That's all he offers, implying the prodigal son exiled to the provinces to make good.
And make good he apparently has. His small production also includes two wines labelled Private Reserve: one of the aforementioned Pinot Noir (just 1,000 bottles) and a Kerner Late Harvest dessert wine (2,000 bottles), the grapes picked in early November for optimal residual sugar. It's the 2010 vintage of the latter that I like for its accessible, young-filly panache (the wine equivalent of Taylor Swift circa 2012), which comes in 375ml half-bottles. He tells me the next on offer will be the 2014, citing poor harvests in the intervening years.
“I think Japan has a very long way to go as a wine producing country,” notes Jasper Morris MW, the Burgundy director at Berry Bros & Rudd, who had also recently passed through Hokkaido, three months before me. “The best parallel would be with the early years of the New Zealand wine scene, the late 1970s and early 1980s. But there is talent and passion. Things could develop quickly.”
Morris had made an earlier pilgrimage further south to Yamanashi, where he discovered Grace Winery and saw for himself how Misawa's sister Ayana was justifiably a rising star through her Koshu and Rosé wines, the latter made from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as an appealing Bordeaux-style blend aged in new French oak. She trained in Bordeaux and thereafter made wine in Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Western Australia.
“I took a train out to Kofu,” Morris remembers, “one and half hours from Shinjuku station in Tokyo, climbing steadily through Alpine valleys before dropping down to a fairy-tale world of a small plain enclosed by mountains. Many of the vineyards were visible as little plots attached to houses and workers in broad-rimmed hats were out in the winter sunshine, pruning above their heads. “Shigekazu Misawa met me at the station. His daughter Ayana, now the winemaker, clearly has the ambitions and competence to start making something special here and, from this visit to Yamanashi, I would say her wines were definitely the stand-out experience.”
There are now some 200 wine producers in Japan at last count, and Morris tells me some salient facts: only 30 percent of Japanese wine is locally consumed (the other 70 percent has to be exported, since the French and Italians still rule in terms of domestic market share). The Japanese government is only now planning to regulate the industry with a view to identifying regions and wines actually made from Japanese-grown grapes, so that certain bottles can eventually be labelled as officially Japanese.
Morris believes there are “only three areas of Japan with production of any significant scale” – Yamanashi (from where the very first Japanese commercial wines sprang in 1874), Nagano (just north of Tokyo) and, of course, Hokkaido. Those first Yamanashi wines were Koshu, a pink-purple grape variety first cultivated 1,000 years ago in the Caucasus. The form planted in Japan today derives from damaged Koshu grapes meant for eating that were used to make wine instead.
Widely credited as the pioneer of Koshu, Shigekazu Misawa was the first to plant vines in the high altitudes of Akeno and, more importantly, the man who introduced to Japan a viticultural breakthrough – instead of growing in the traditional pergola system where the vines are “trained” to grow in horizontal trellises, he urged the use of VSP (vertical shoot position) where the shoots are made to grow upwards, perfect for Japanese vineyards where vine sizes tend to be small. This means yields are sacrificed for sugar – wines can be made at decent alcohol levels without enrichment through added sugar and at yields much lower than pergola-trained Koshu, eschewing the artificial feel of additives.
Morris raves to me about the 2013 Cuvée Misawa Koshu from Akeno, which he drank over lunch and found its fresh and lively flavours complemented well the yuzu peel in his food. “Grace also makes a delicious Chardonnay and a sound Cabernet-Merlot blend,” he adds, “though this was eclipsed by an exciting 100-percent
Cuvée Misawa Cabernet Franc.” The 2014 vintage of Ayana Misawa's Koshu won the Gold Medal and Regional Trophy at the 2015 Decanter World Wine Awards, and critics lauded its greenapple-and-peach aromas, its lively personality marked by engaging acidity.
Her current Chardonnay is from 2013, a different wine with a slightly nutty and minty character, the oak ever-present yet soft on the finish, from grapes grown on the slopes of Akeno where the longest sunshine hours in Japan are recorded. Grapes grown with the advantage of sunny exposures are known to result in better oak integration, resulting in wines such as the Grace Koshu Toriibira Vineyard Private Reserve, a complex and highly structured white, firm in its acidity and long in the finish (and the 2014 version is shipping out, literally, as I write this).
That family patriarch Shigekazu Misawa sent his son Kazushi northwards suggests a divideand-conquer strategy. It's no small accident that the fledgling Chitose Winery's grapes are grown and harvested at Yoichi, the first region in Hokkaido to plant the European wine grape Vitis vinifera 30 years ago. “Hokkaido grows
grapes at the same latitude as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but in a climate noticeably colder than the European equivalent,” says Morris. “While Tokyo was coming to the end of its cherry-blossom season, the snow had only just melted in the vineyards of Hokkaido. Temperatures can be minus 20 degrees or below in winter but the seasonal weather patterns provide enough snow to cover the vines completely, providing insulation from dangerously extreme temperatures in the air above.” Insulated as a gambit to secure future riches? Morris adds that Japanese wineries have “very much the feel of the small-scale Pinot Noir wineries of New Zealand's
South Island, including the snowcapped mountains as a backdrop.” The foundation has already been laid in Hokkaido's vineyards, where the vines somehow thrive in thin clay topsoils over volcanic bedrock, itself an act of bravado from which could eventually emerge even finer expressions of their brave new world.