Long renowned as an agricultural hub rife with orchards and pristine water sources, a group of viticulturists, distillers and brewers are quietly developing Yamanashi into a hub of Japanese wine, whisky and beer production.
Just a short trek from the bustling downtown area of central Yamanashi’s Kofu Station, a beautiful estate sits surrounded by mountains resembling the grounds of a Tuscan monastery. Founded in 1917 by Seizo Imai, Sadoya Winery is run today by his grandson, Hirohisa.
“We make wines that extract the best from the weather and nature around us,” Imai says as he attributes Yamanashi’s unique climate profile to the success of Sadoya’s flagship wine available in both red and white, the Chateau Brillant. According to Japan’s Meteorological Society, the prefecture gets the longest hours of sun exposure, the largest temperature difference between night and day, and the lowest annual rainfall in Japan — peak conditions for cultivating wine grapes, which thrive on weather conditions of the opposite extremes.
The Chateau Brillants are made from grapes grown at Sadoya’s four-hectare vineyard, managed by Imai’s cousin, Kichinosuke. It’s a five-minute drive west, but visitors can sample the grapes at the winery, which hang from a small row of vines near the entrance. The wines themselves can be sampled in the tasting room, and Hirohisa offers a pour of the Cabernet Sauvignon.
It is a tart medium-bodied red with a fresh tannins finish that invites a surprising hankering for sashimi, and its 2013 vintage won a silver award in this year’s AWC Vienna International Wine Challenge. The Semillon white begins with crisp notes of a Cortland apple coated with a note of honey, and its 2014 statement won a gold medal at this year’s Concours des Feminalise competition in France.
“I was very pleased,” Imai says as the international recognition is, in a way, a culmination of Sadoya’s relentless efforts at perfecting French-style wine-making in a country with such different climate patterns. In the early 1920s, Imai’s father, Tomonosuke, learned French and had written a letter to implore viticulturists in France to send him 40 different seedling varietals to Japan. The two-month boat journey had spoiled the first batch, but after some trial and error, salvageable seedlings finally arrived from Montpellier, and were cultivated in 1936.
While he is glad Sadoya has received international recognition, Imai says the winery is primarily focused on increasing domestic sales. With global trade driving down the price of wines from abroad, Japan-made wines still labor to compete against their French, Italian and New World counterparts.
“I think most Japanese people (prefer) French or California wines because that’s what they’re used to,” Imai admits. He adds, however, that Sadoya’s sales have grown throughout the years, distributing around 220,000 bottles annually throughout Japan — a 5-percent increase from last year.
Thirty-five kilometers northwest from the winery, Suntory’s Hakushu whisky distillery sits at the foothills of the Japanese Southern Alps surrounded by a serene forest.
Suntory launched Japanese whiskies to the world stage when its 2013 Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask won the coveted 2015 Whiskey Bible “World Whisky of the Year” award.
Its crisp and verdant cousin, Hakushu, draws from Yamanashi’s Ojira River, which is certified by the Environment Ministry as one of the highest quality water sources in Japan. Master blender Keizo Saji, the son of Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii, is said to have chosen this location to build Suntory’s second whisky distillery for its proximity to the river, and for its high daily temperature difference, which impacts the whisky’s maturation process.
Visitors can test this theory on a distillery tour, as a waft of caramelized malt infused with the fresh scent of mizunara, or local Japanese oak, fills the entrance. A guide takes my group to the fermentation area where yeast is added to malt and water in massive wooden wash backs, or circular vats that resemble large portable hot springs. Many whisky distilleries use stainless steel wash backs to jump-start the fermentation process, but Hakushu’s wooden vats infuse a signature oaky flavor into the mix.
Gasps erupt as the group witnesses some liquid undulating in one of the enormous copper stills. The stills are filled with whisky that has left the fermentation stage and is ready for distillation and refinement.
“What an auspicious day to witness some future whisky dancing for us,” the guide says, as cameras attempt to zoom in on the amber concoction. It will take at least 12 years to produce the next batch of aged Hakushu statements — a long time for aficionados and bars confronting the global Japanese whisky shortage spurred by the rapid demand in recent years.
The tour ends at a sampling hall with instructions on how to concoct a Morikaoru highball. It is one part whisky, three-to-four-parts soda water in a glass full of ice, topped with an aromatized mint leaf. It is a refreshing cocktail, but the Hakushu feels somewhat wasted mixed in all that ice and soda water. From Suntory’s standpoint, though, it may be a strategic way to make each bottle last longer — dilute each pour to ride out the shortage.
Back near Kofu Station, the microbrewery that won the first prize IPA at last year’s Japan Brewers Cup, sits quietly on an unassuming shopping arcade. It’s a two-story outfit with a compact brewery on the first floor, and a cozy taproom upstairs called Hops & Herbs.
Established in 2012 by Australian Mark Major and brewing maverick Satoshi Niwa, Outsider Brewing is a stalwart addition to Japan’s burgeoning craft brewing scene.
Major fell in love with Japan when he visited as a teenager, and eventually came to live in Kofu where he opened, and still runs, a pub called The Vault. As the Finance Ministry made it possible for more microbreweries to produce their own beers, Major saw an opportunity to bring ji-bīru, or local beer to Yamanashi. Major eventually headhunted Niwa, a brew master who had a reputation for expertly incorporating local ingredients into unique beers.
When Niwa was a brewer at Iwate Prefecture’s Iwate Kura — maker of the popular Japanese pepper sanshō beer — he created the Oyster Stout, which is brewed using fresh oysters. Niwa is also well versed in Western beers after 13 years at the now-defunct Hakusekikan Beer in Gifu Prefecture, which produced an American barley wine among others.
Major entrusted Niwa to create concoctions that would be archetypally his. With access to Yamanashi’s bountiful harvest, Niwa has imbued ingredients like persimmon skins and shiitake mushrooms into Outsider Brewing Company’s signature wild yeast beers.
“Honestly, our beers do better in Tokyo than in Yamanashi,” concedes Major, who says it has been difficult to take locals out of their Asahi Super Dry and Kirin Ichiban comfort zones.
Outsider Brewing distributes kegs to about 150 bars throughout the Kanto region. When asked whether he has any plans to distribute abroad, Major smiles. “Maybe one day,” he says. “Let me focus on getting it out here first.”
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