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Hard-won battles produce great wine grapes

by Melinda Joe

On an overcast morning high in the hills of the Priorat region in northern Spain, I found myself faced with a dilemma: I had to decide which shoots to prune from the gnarled arms of a 60-year-old Garnacha grape vine. It was mid-May, and several young grape clusters — tiny, green beads that fitted neatly into the palm of my hand — dangled from the new canes. My guide, Jordi Miró, director of the wine-producing collective Vinicola del Priorat, had instructed me to pull off all but “the two strongest stems.”

In the Priorat, an appellation known for robust red wines, the vines have to work hard. There’s little rain in this rugged, mountainous area 120 km southwest of Barcelona, so the roots of the plants must push through the dry schist (what the Spanish lyrically refer to as llicorella) and dig deep into the soil to seek out moisture. Botanical exertions are matched by the efforts of the grape growers, many of whom practice organic farming and do everything manually. Although the field is small, pruning the plants takes roughly two weeks; harvesting requires extra labor and time.

“In some places, they have to use mules to plow because it’s too dangerous for tractors,” Miró told me. Like many of the vineyards in Priorat, the one we visited was planted on a treacherously steep slope. Once I’d puffed my way to the top, I marveled at the dizzying landscape of striated cliffs and hillside vineyards. Below us, a solitary farmer worked methodically through the rows.

Priorat is one of the most difficult places in the world to make wine. Despite a long history of viticulture, its industry collapsed in the 1970s. It was revived by a small group of vintners in the ’90s, and labor-intensive practices have resulted in wines of great complexity. Though they vary in expression — from the luscious, opulent Garnacha-based wines of Alvaro Palacios and Mas Martinet, to the aggressively structured, biodynamic Cariñena from Terroir al Limit and elegant, balanced blends from Clos del Portal — all of the wines have a unique mineral character that comes from the soil and the bone-dry climate.

Japanese winemakers face similarly Herculean obstacles. Rather than a lack of rain, though, the biggest problem is an excess of precipitation. Hisa Kawabe, oenological director at Takahata Winery in Yamagata Prefecture, told me recently that Japan receives “up to 150 mm of rain a month” — more than double that of Burgundy. Winemakers must also battle high humidity, the threat of typhoons and drainage problems that can leave the volcanic soil waterlogged.

How do Japanese producers cope with the challenges? Many growers employ a pagoda system to aid circulation and keep mold at bay, but Takahata Winery goes a step further: From June to October, the winery covers the vine trellises with rows of plastic sheeting, stretched tightly over metal arches. The effect is that of an open greenhouse, which protects both the grape clusters and the ground from rain and typhoons.

The rain guard allows the winery to limit the size of the berries while extending the hang time, which means that the grapes develop sufficient sugar levels. “We can really wait to harvest,” Kawabe told me. “For other growers, if a typhoon comes, they have no choice.”

The idea originally came from local table-grape producers, who had been using the system to maximize yields. Kawabe says that the benefits for growers are fewer losses and “shorter work hours, because they can also minimize the use of pesticides.” As in the Priorat, the vineyards in Takahata are worked by hand — frequently by elderly farmers.

The wines have also benefited. Takahata’s wines have won numerous awards at national competitions, and the Flagship 2011 Night Harvest Chardonnay was featured in the popular wine manga “Kami no Shizuku.” I recently tasted the 2010 Barrique Chardonnay, which displayed prominent oak surrounding pure fruit, with a touch of minerality in the finish.

Kawabe, who worked as a winemaker in California for 15 years, says that the wine industry in Japan is “30 years behind the U.S.,” but he intends to keep experimenting. When we spoke, he described an idea for a waterproof ground shield made of Gortex that could both keep the soil dry and reflect sunlight at the vines during the rainy season. It sounded like an ingenious but costly plan. I couldn’t help wondering aloud if winemaking in Japan was worth all the effort.

“We’ve been producing wine in Japan for almost 100 years, and we still see the possibility to grow more in quantity and quality,” he replied. “I believe winemakers in Japan are the type of people who like challenges. We’re all teenagers at heart.”

The vintners who brought winemaking back to the Priorat had probably felt the same way.

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.