Secret to Miyazaki winemaking: Dedication, toil and special soil

by Toshihiko Ueno

Kyodo News

In early August, 5 tons of newly harvested Campbell Early grapes were brought to the Tsuno Winery in Tsuno, Miyazaki Prefecture, to start this year’s batch.

Last year, a typhoon landed before the harvest, damaging the grapes, but this year winery manager Satoru Obata, 50, said, “We are looking forward to good wine.”

A major difference in temperatures this spring helped produce the best grapes in several years.

The secret behind the successful winemaking in the prefecture is the passion of Obata and others, and its unique, unconventional soil.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Hyakuji Nagatomo, who died in 1983 at age 85, planted vines at the foot of Mount Osuzu, marking the beginning of Osuzu grapes.

In Tsuno, situated halfway between the cities of Miyazaki and Nobeoka, it rains heavily, the temperature is high, the soil is volcanic ash and typhoons are frequent — conditions unfavorable to growing grapes. But with the efforts of growers the area has produced bountiful yields, with 2,000 tons harvested annually.

The Tsuno Winery was created in 1994 as a joint public-private venture, and Obata, who learned to make wine in Brazil, was invited to join as a technician.

Dreaming of making the world’s best wine, Obata and Seiji Akao, 33, a local wine technician, have worked hard together. The fruit of their labor poured forth in 2003, with a rose wine produced from Campbell Early grapes to be drunk fresh. The wine made the Top 100 list in Britain’s “Wine Report.” White wine produced from chardonnay grapes was also highly evaluated both at home and abroad.

Obata, who hails from Hokkaido and spent eight years at Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, was sent to Bolivia as a Japan Overseas Cooperation volunteer and taught people deep in the mountains there how to make marmalade for profit.

He then went to Brazil and stayed for three years to learn the art of producing wine. “I spent my waking hours only thinking about wine,” he said. His red won the top prize in that division at a Brazilian competition.

When he moved to Tsuno, he was constantly in conflict with those around him. When poor grapes were brought in, he rejected them, and when the municipal government asked him to import grape juice because of a shortage of wine, he spurned the request.

“As Miyazaki is the kingdom of ‘shochu’ (distilled spirits), there is a tendency to make light of wine. But people have begun to be attracted to the plant manager’s dedication,” he said.

About 10 years ago, Obata hit a wall in winemaking. After struggling to grow grapes in volcanic ash, he learned from Susumu Miwa, 47, who runs a fertilizer store, that the soil lacked minerals.

Miwa taught Obata a way to soften the soil with compost made of chicken droppings so vines would more easily absorb nutrients.

Takeo Koizumi, a professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture, said viticulture is closely linked not only to climate but also soil quality. He said Obata and others have carefully researched the way farmers nurtured the soil since ancient times to great success.

Grapes grown using this method have produced higher volumes, strong flavor and resistance to diseases, reducing the amount of agricultural chemicals used.

“A prompt decision was necessary to go against long-standing customs,” said Reiji Kuroki, 56, who grows grapes for the winery. “By seeing grapes thriving, I feel I have rediscovered the fun of agriculture.”

There are about 160 wineries in Japan, and even those in Yamanashi Prefecture, the most popular winemaking region in the country, are trying to survive by improving their soil as the Tsuno Winery has.

Other varieties of fruit are also being grown in the town, including plums and kumquats.

“We don’t stick only to grapes but would like to produce alcoholic drinks using fruit that everyone can be proud of,” Obata said.

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