If you yearn to glimpse a vineyard in autumn, consider visiting one in Japan. In several prefectures, quality-minded vintners are exploring the grape varietals, cultivation techniques and microclimates needed to produce first-class wines.

The vineyards of Hokkaido Wine

As with Japan’s sommelier industry, Japanese winemakers often turn to France as their reference point. Many study at French estates and return to focus on premium French varietals. Others search beyond the classics for grapes compatible with Japan’s circumstances or craft distinctive wines from local grapes such as Koshu (Vitis vinifera orientalis).

As we saw in the last column, legislation permits the label “Japanese” to be given to wines containing just 5 percent of “domestic” wine. But top wineries are spearheading the move away from the use of low-grade, bulk-imported wines, instead cultivating their own vineyards.

In Hokkaido, early-maturing German varietals (including Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgau and Riesling) are best suited to the cool climate. There are other viticultural advantages. Suitable terrain for vineyards is abundant, and Hokkaido also experiences less of the heavy rains that cause vineyard ailments such as rot and mold elsewhere in Japan. As a result, its wine-grape cultivation is increasing.

We sampled a 1999 Hokkaido Wine Otaru Muller-Thurgau “Kobo” (3,000 yen) from Hokkaido Wine, a winery founded in 1974. Produced from 100 percent Japanese grapes, it is delicate, flinty and crisp, with green apple and lime flavors, making it a good match for sashimi.

In Yamanashi Prefecture’s Katsunuma region, Marufuji Winery has been in the Omura family for 150 years. Fifth-generation winemaker Haruo Omura is one of Japan’s influential, innovative vintners. Fluent in French, Omura studied at the University of Bordeaux 25 years ago.

Try his 1997 Marufuji Rubiyat Koshu “R” (2,500 yen). The Koshu grape is believed to have reached Japan around 1,200 years ago from the Middle East via the Silk Road spice route. With bright flavors of butterscotch, pear, creme frai^che and lemon, this wine is a superb expression of Koshu.

Another prime Katsunuma destination is Grace Winery (Chuo Budoshu). The 1996 Chuo-Budoshu Grace Chardonnay (5,000 yen) is one of the most memorable Japanese wines we have tasted. Reminiscent of a savory Mersault, it offers aromas of smoke, bacon rind and toasted nuts, with flavors of lemon, tangerine and white pepper.

In Nagano, Obuse Winery is located in a resort area, about an hour’s drive from the villas of Karuizawa. This small, charming, old-style winery has crafted a stunning, powerful 1999 Obuse Chardonnay (4,000 yen); it yields papaya, banana and lime flavors.

Coco Farm & Winery in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, is among the world’s most unusual, inspiring wineries. Its staff is composed partly of mentally handicapped adults from the adjacent residential school, Cocoromi Gakuen. Founder/teacher Noboru Kawata is still robust in his 80s. He started the winery in the belief that working outdoors in a team offered a healthier, more humane life for mentally handicapped adults than institutional seclusion.

For over a decade, Coco Farm’s winemaking has been directed by Bruce Gutlove, a veteran of several top California wineries. In recent years, Coco Farm has been a vigorous advocate of winemaking innovation in Japan. Its unique sparkling wine, Novo (made in part from Koshu grapes) was poured at the gala dinner for the Okinawa G-8 summit.

Just an hour via express train (Tobu Isesaki Line) from Tokyo’s Tobu Asakusa Station, Coco Farm offers a spacious tasting room with a veranda overlooking the vineyards. Call to arrange a tour with Gutlove or Vineyard Manager Machiko Ochi, daughter of the founder.

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