Food & Drink

Back from the brink: Reviving abandoned vineyards in Osaka

by Nick Sinclair

Contributing Writer

As a declining rural population takes its toll on grape cultivation in Osaka Prefecture, Tomofumi Fujimaru is doing what he can to save its remaining fields from abandonment.

In 2013, he opened the Shimanouchi Fujimaru Winery in the very heart of Osaka — the only urban winery in the prefecture — where he produces 35,000 bottles a year using grapes from the surrounding area.

As a university student, Fujimaru worked as a part-time waiter in Osaka’s Hotel Hankyu International. He was soon overwhelmed by the huge variety of wines on offer, and figured that the best way to understand wine, more than studying or drinking it, would be to learn how to make it.

After graduating from university, Fujimaru was backpacking in Australia when he discovered a bottle of pinot noir from Kusuda Wines, a winery established in 2001 by Hiroyuki Kusuda in Martinborough, New Zealand. Famed for his meticulous grape selection, Kusuda’s wines have won various accolades and are offered to first-class passengers on Japan Airlines’ international flights.

Fujimaru found it hard to believe that a Japanese person could make such a delicious wine and decided he had to meet him, promptly leaving for New Zealand to learn directly from Kusuda by working at his winery.

Upon returning to Osaka, Fujimaru opened Wine Shop Fujimaru in 2006. His business soon expanded and now includes several bars and restaurants in addition to the primary Osaka winery. He also began to rent small grape fields in Osaka Prefecture that had fallen into disuse.

Osaka
Osaka’s only urban winery: The Shimanouchi Fujimaru Winery’s first-floor factory and second-floor restaurant. | OSCAR BOYD

The area around Osaka has long been a center of grape cultivation thanks to its hilly landscape, which offers superior drainage and sun exposure, as well as the southerly and westerly winds that protect the vines from excessive rain.

Though only 4 percent of domestically produced wine originates from the Kansai region, overshadowed by output from Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures, wine production in Kansai dates back over 100 years. Local wines experienced a boom in popularity during the 1950s, but changing demographics in the countryside, including an aging and declining population, have since taken their toll on local grape cultivation.

Local farmers were skeptical of this unproven young man when he first tried to rent some grape fields from them. He was eventually successful, however, thanks to an intervention by the head of Katashimo Winery, Osaka’s oldest winery still in operation, who encouraged the farmers he knew to take a chance on Fujimaru.

Piece by piece, Fujimaru accumulated parcels of land and now cultivates 2 hectares of vineyards. He is constantly on the lookout for new fields that are at risk of disappearing. The stakes are high from a producer’s point of view: If a farmer abandons a grape field for even one year, it takes five years of successive cultivation to get the grapevines back to winemaking standards.

Fujimaru primarily grows Delaware grapes on overhead arbors, harvesting and screening them for imperfections by hand. Compared to traditional wine grapes like cabernet sauvignon or merlot, Delaware grapes are large and juicy — a familiar sight in supermarkets but not generally considered a grape well-suited for winemaking, which tend to be small and sour.

Good things come to those who wait: Barrels full of wine in Fujimaru
Good things come to those who wait: Barrels full of wine in Fujimaru’s winery. | OSCAR BOYD

The whole operation is “hopelessly inefficient,” admits Fujimaru Winery’s manager, Hiroshi Kawabata, especially due to the patchy distribution of the company’s fields, some of which cannot be accessed by car and must be reached on foot. However, for Fujimaru, the end product is worth it, and its wines are enjoyed for their unique fresh, fruity flavor profile.

Initially Fujimaru outsourced wine production to the Katashimo Winery, but has produced and bottled wines himself since the opening of the Shimanouchi urban winery in 2013. In total, between the Osaka-based winery and a smaller Tokyo facility located in Koto Ward, the company produces around 55,000 bottles a year.

From the fields to the streets: A selection of the Shimanouchi Fujimaru Winery
From the fields to the streets: A selection of the Shimanouchi Fujimaru Winery’s wines, which are produced in the center of the city of Osaka. | OSCAR BOYD

It makes as many as 20 different varieties annually, mostly white wines, with separate ranges for wines made from Fujimaru’s own grapes — sold under the Cuvee Papilles label — and grapes procured from independent farmers. Prices are accessible, ranging from ¥2,000 to ¥3,500 per bottle.

According to Kawabata, the company’s vision is to double the consumption of wine in Japan, which necessitates making wine, and wine production, more accessible to consumers.

“Most wineries tend to be in remote locations, leading only those with a pre-existing interest in wine to visit,” explains Kawabata. “But by having ours right in front of customers, on the first floor of our restaurant, we can create an environment where anyone can easily gain exposure to wine.”

Customers can tour the winemaking facility on the first floor, and taste Fujimaru wines when dining at the Italian restaurant upstairs. Just 15 minutes from the mechanical crabs and maddening crowds of Osaka’s Dotonbori district, one can enjoy a glass of local wine and learn something of its creation.

Shimanouchi Fujimaru Winery’s wines are available at the group’s restaurants, wine bars and shops in both Osaka and Tokyo. They can also be purchased online. For more information, visit www.papilles.net/en.