Japan is a major consumer of a lot of premium wines, natural wines and grower Champagne, but there is not much hype around Japanese wines, considering Japan is one of the food capitals of the world. Why has it been difficult for the wine industry in Japan to thrive? From what I’ve from an ex-winemaker of Chateau Mercian, it was illegal for wineries to operate their own vineyards until about a decade ago. This meant that wines made with grapes grown in Japan were quite expensive, and the general consumers preferred to buy and drink imported wines. Many of the big companies like Suntory have been producing wines “made in Japan” using imported grapes or grape juice, but in 2015, a new law was passed stating that Japanese wines must be made with grapes grown in Japan, and for any labels stating a particular region, 85% of the fruit must come from that area. But because of the previous law preventing wineries from having their own vineyards, it will be a while until more Japanese winemakers actually grown their own grapes and make wine using 100% of their own crops.
A couple of years ago, my father sent me a Dancyu (Japanese food and beverage magazine) edition that featured wines and cheeses from Japan. I was intrigued to read that Japanese wine makers and cheese makers have come a long way, and that they have learnt to harness the Japanese terroirs and create their own expression instead of imitating European wines and cheeses.
One of the winemakers that stood out to me was Takahiko Soga of Domaine Takahiko. It was a brief section but it basically stated that he was practicing organic viticulture and only growing Pinot Noir. I have tried several Japanese wines, but I was never able to get my hands on any of his wines due to limited availability.
Luckily, during our trip to Hokkaido, Soga-san agreed to show us around his winery and vineyard.
Soga-san owns 4.6 hectares of land (elevated at 60 meters) in Yoichi, which is located near Otaru in the western peninsula. He actually only planted these vines in 2010, and his first vintage was in 2012. He explained that the land was previously used for growing organic fruit and vegetables so the soil was already in fairly good condition. His family had been running a vineyard in Nagano, but after gaining more experience with Coco Farm in Tochigi, he searched around Japan (and even abroad) for land that would be most suitable for Pinot Noir. He explained that the cumulative temperature is close to that of Burgundy, and rainfall is minimal.
His philosophy is to practice organic viticulture and allow the grapes to express the land as much as possible through wine making processes with minimal intervention. He also strives to create wines that are best suited for Japanese food; and wines that have as much Umami as possible. Fermentation is at the heart of Japanese cuisine- the main ingredients such as Miso, soy sauce, Mirin, Sake, are all fermented. Although wine making doesn’t involve the use of Koji like for all these other products, Soga-san believes that he can make wines that complement these ingredients, and have Umami. He uses as little sulphites as possible and only adds if he feels there is a need.
His philosophy on aging wines is quite interesting, but as I didn’t write notes and I don’t remember everything he said word to word, I will refrain from going into too much detail (since I don’t want to misinterpret his views). He believes that his wines are best drunk quite fresh (or within 2-3 years of the vintage) and he doesn’t believe that wines that can be aged for longer are necessarily better. In fact, he thinks that those kinds of wines are not suitable for Japanese cuisine, and he strives to make wines that can go through a life cycle within 10 years or so.
Another interesting idea he brought up is about terroir. If an outside wine company decides to buy land in Hokkaido and makes wine, he doesn’t believe that they can capture true terroir, even if they are growing the grapes and making the wine there. He believes that true terroir is about the local community, and about those who live off that land. Practicing viticulture to make the wines that are expressive of the land, and truly complement the food that people eat locally- food from the same land. He is very connected with nature, and he says he is first and foremost a farmer, and then a winemaker.
Soga-san doesn’t strive to make wine that will be accepted globally because he wants to embody terroir and make wines that are true companions for Japanese food. The demand for his wines far outweigh the supply but he is happy as long as his wines are loved in Hokkaido and in Japan.