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Grape adventures in northern climes

by Felicity Hughes

If you’re thinking of taking a break from the sweltering heat of Japan’s southern and central regions, Hokkaido is the perfect destination. As well as its wonderfully fresh local cuisine, stunning natural scenery and balmy climate, the northern island is also home to a burgeoning wine culture that looks set to spread its tendrils overseas.

Like in New Zealand, winemaking in Hokkaido is relatively in its infancy. Tokachi Wine, the oldest winery in Hokkaido, was founded in 1963, but it wasn’t until 1977 that wine made from European grape varieties was first produced, by a winery named Tsurunuma.

A forward-thinking farmer named Naoru Imamura had returned from agricultural training in America with a passion for wine. Imamura chose to plant vines that do well in Germany, such as Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Traminer, which he correctly judged were well suited to Hokkaido’s climate. Wines from Tsurunuma tend to be light and refreshing: For example, its Muller-Thurgau is crisp, elegant and an excellent match for some freshly caught Hokkaido oysters.

If you’re planning to visit Hokkaido to find out more about its wine regions, consider attending Tsurunuma’s annual Wine Carnival on Sept. 11. Held at Hokkaido Wine’s head office in Otaru, the event attracts around 8,000 visitors a year. Alongside lashings of wine, autumnal produce from the local area is available from stalls at the festival site. To celebrate the harvest, live bands play on stage.

Though this is all jolly good fun, it’s unfortunately necessary to appoint a nondrinking designated driver to explore Hokkaido’s vineyards themselves: Buried deep in the heart of lush countryside, most wineries aren’t on bus or train routes. Wineries are scattered all throughout Hokkaido, but there are a large concentration in Sorachi Subprefecture, close to Sapporo, making it a convenient area in which to plan an itinerary.

Though innovative in its day, Tsurunuma represents the old guard of Hokkaido wine, sticking to tried and tested Austrian and German varieties. Now, however, many new wineries are springing up, run by young winemakers who want to try their hand at cultivating different varieties of grape, such as Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

Taichi Yamazaki of Yamazaki Winery (also located in Sorachi) is one of them. At the age of just 26, he’s chief winemaker, working alongside his older brother who is in charge of viticulture and his parents who run the business side of the venture.

“Right now we make Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Merlot,” he says. “We chose Pinot Noir because at that time it wasn’t a variety that was cultivated in Hokkaido. I wanted to challenge myself with that variety of grape. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are varieties that are sold all over the world, but here you couldn’t find it anywhere, so I thought it might have its own distinct characteristics if cultivated here.”

Though he learned winemaking from his father and older brother, Yamazaki also toured German vineyards in order to refine his winemaking skills. Yamazaki’s Merlot has a fruity scent and a rich flavor, and goes perfectly with Hokkaido lamb.

Yamazaki winery is open to the public on weekends by appointment; there you can tour the vineyards and sample its wines before stocking up on a few bottles in the gift shop. And the Yamazaki family are keen to greet visitors.

“We were farmers, but we didn’t know where our produce, our vegetables and wheat, was going; we didn’t know who was eating it,” says Yamazaki. “We lost our motivation. We wanted to find a way to sell the things we had made ourselves, so we started to make wine.”

Drawn by cheaper land prices than in other parts of Japan and the milder climate that more closely resembles Mediterranean conditions, many young Japanese winemakers consider Hokkaido to be a promising new frontier. “In the last two or three years, it’s really been attracting attention,” says Yamazaki. “Recently, viticulturists and winemakers from Honshu are getting hold of land in Hokkaido and having a go at making wine here.”

If these winemakers can manage to produce dry wine of a good standard, it’s possible that the region will begin exporting wines to Western countries. The sweeter wines of Hokkaido are already gaining popularity in other parts of Asia.

“We export a little to East Asian countries: China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore. That’s been going on for the past three or four years,” says Masahisa Abe, chief secretary of the Hokkaido Wine Tourism association. “We have a grape called Niagara, which is a table grape you can also use to make wine. This grape really appeals to Japanese and Asians. It’s a bit different from European wine: It’s sweet and has a juicy scent.”

Compared with the wine region of Yamanashi, with its hot, humid summers, Hokkaido has a climate well suited to winemaking. The lack of humidity means that vines can be grown vertically, European-style, rather than on a trellis: The trellis method, often employed in Japanese vineyards, helps prevent mold but also produces grapes low in sugar concentration.

However, there is one big downside to growing grapes in Hokkaido: the excessively cold winters, during which vines are covered by a blanket of snow.

“The winters are quite fierce,” admits Yamazaki. “We have the problem of frost damage, plus, if the temperature drops too low, the vine dies.”

For now, thoughts of winter are far away, as Hokkaido’s vineyards ripen through August and September, bearing luscious fruit that looks set to produce some delicious wine. If you manage to visit the area, don’t forget to sample some of the region’s equally sumptuous cuisine along with your vino: Locally bred deer and beef are a great match for the region’s reds, while fresh oysters are a must if you select one of the crisp white wines.

For information on the Wine Carnival and Tsurunuma Winery, visit www.hokkaidowine.com. Yamazaki Winery is open to visitors on weekends by appointment. For more information, visit www.yamazaki-winery.co.jp.

Strong showing for Japan wine contest

At the end of July, the 14th Japan Wine Challenge competition was held at the Sheraton Miyako Hotel Tokyo. Judges from Japan and overseas swilled and sniffed their way through a phenomenal 1,249 wines from 26 countries to award 44 gold medals and 191 silver, plus trophies for the best 10.

“The number of entries was slightly down, but that was to be expected in the light of all that has happened,” said Lynne Sherriff, cochairman of the Japan Wine Challenge. “In the face of this year’s earthquake and tsunami tragedy, but especially in light of the dignified response of the Japanese people to the disaster, it seemed right to continue with the event and show solidarity with the country. We decided, along with Princess Takamado (who participates in the award ceremony and charity auction annually), that it would be inappropriate to hold a big and bold trophy event with a charity dinner as we did last year, and that event has been postponed until 2012.”

Trophy for Best New World White Wine: Shaw and Smith M3 Chardonnay 2009, Adelaide Hills. ¥3,520 from Farmstone: www.farmstone.com.

Australia’s cool wine regions are now producing smaller amounts of exceptionally refined and elegant wines. Adelaide Hills is one of these regions: 4 degrees cooler during the day and 8 degrees cooler at night than lower altitudes, its grapes ripen perfectly, rather than overcook, in the summer heat.

Trophy for Best Koshu Wine: Grace Gris de Koshu 2010, ¥1,715 from Asahiya Winecellar: item.rakuten.co.jp/asahiya-wine/1528847.

Japan’s Koshu wines are making inroads on the international wine scene. A light, citrusy drop that compliments sushi well, this is a great choice for those who enjoy a lower-alcohol wine.

Trophy for Best Value Wine: Terre Cortesi Moncaro Le Vele — Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 2010. ¥1,300 from Iida Wine: www.iidawine.com.

This fruity Italian number is soft and gentle on the palate. Verdicchio is the classic grape of Le Marche, a wine-growing region in central Italy enclosed by the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea. Wines made with this grape have improved in quality over the past few years.

If you’d like to sample some of the winning wines, we recommend signing up for the Japan Wine Challenge Gala Dinner & Charity Auction on Feb. 3, 2012. Princess Takamado will attend the ceremony and dinner at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo in Roppongi, and proceeds will go to Wine Into Water, an organization that provides clean water for communities that lack a sanitary water supply. Tickets are ¥30,000. (F.H)

For more information, visit www.japanwinechallenge.com.