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Japanese Wine II: Hokkaido
By Jim Clarke
Jun 9, 2020
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In my last column, I wrote about the Japanese wine scene, focusing on Yamanashi.  The area is home to Koshu, as well as a number of other varieties that a fan of, say, Californian wines, would be familiar with.  However, a very different wine scene has emerged on the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido – one more reminiscent of the Finger Lakes, Ontario, or even Nova Scotia.

As those comparisons suggest, Hokkaido is much colder than the larger wine regions Yamanashi and Nagano.  It gets warm and humid, but Hokkaido’s biggest climatic challenges come in winter rather than summer.  Vineyards, and vines, must both be carefully selected and managed to survive through the cold winters.  It’s common practice to not only cover the roots with soil, as might be done in upstate New York; sometimes the entire vine is folded down next to the ground to insulate it.  Those conditions sometimes call for different varieties – in some cases cold-climate hybrids, or even native North American varieties.  Many wineries grow Campbell Early, Delaware, or Niagara. 

While some of these make interesting wines, Tokachi, in the south- central part of the island, is home to a much more interesting hybrid grape.  The center of Hokkaido’s vineyards is west of Sapporo in the Yoichi area; there are others stretching northeast from Sapporo as well.  So Tokachi, past a range of mountains, is off on its own, and winters are even harder on the local vines.  In the 1950s the mayor of Ikeda, Kaneyasu Marutani, took an interest in vines and wine.  The area was working to recover from an earthquake and a series of bad harvests, and he made winegrowing part of the new agricultural plan, observing that the local vines survived the harsh cold.  In 1961 the local farmers formed the Grape Fanciers’ Association, and introduced 5,000 seedlings from more than 40 different varieties for trials.  Few survived more than a couple of years.  They then realized that the local Yamabudo grapes were of the Vitis Amurensis species; they survived temperatures as low as -35 C, and produced what they considered a respectable wine.

Since then, decades of hybridization and breeding experiments has yielded a pair of very satisfying cold-hardy red varieties.  Despite having essentially the same parentage, Kiyomai and Yamasachi create opposing styles of wine; the former’s wines are paler, and more acid-driven; the latter, dark and more tannic.  Neither carry the aromatic or textural markers often associated with hybrid varieties in the U.S.  and Canada.  The finished wine I tasted was a 50/50 blend of the two.  A light earthy note complemented its cherry and spice notes; a year in oak softened and rounded its juicy acidity.  Tannins were light, as was the alcohol, though it had a weight on the palate that belied its 10.5% ABV.  The town of Ikeda runs Tokachi Wine, and the majority of it is consumed locally.  It is indeed so obscure and difficult to find that you’ll most likely have to visit Hokkaido, if not Tokachi to find it, but it’s such a remarkable community story, and an enjoyable wine, to be worth seeking out.

Somewhat easier to find within Japan will be a number of wines made from Germanic crosses – 100% vinifera wines, but suitably bred for the cold.  The Schiava / Riesling cross Kerner is probably the most widespread; some of the examples we tasted showed a palate weight and heft I haven’t seen in European renditions.  Some producers are producing well-balanced, fresh wines from Bacchus as well.  Among reds, Occi Gabe has produced a satisfyingly juicy wine from the rather new, Blaufrankisch / Dornfelder cross, Acolon.

Hokkaido’s top wines, however come from tiny, boutique producers, typically working with “Alpine” or Alsatian varieties in particular.  Their output is tiny, and generally sells out upon release; if your timing is right, some of these wines can be tracked down in local shops as well as in Tokyo.  As a business model what these wineries are accomplishing may not be replicable in other areas, or even at a larger scale, but the intensity, focus, and seriousness of these wines was indisputable.  In particular, few of the Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir I tasted here required a qualification of the “good, for Japan” sort; they succeeded by the high standards of fine wine around the world.

Some Recommended Wineries:

Tokachi Wine: A fascinating anomaly, as described above.  The wine is a success, and enjoyable even without the remarkable community effort that lies behind its existence.

Domaine Mont: A tiny producer, with 1.8 hectares of estate vineyards devoted solely to Pinot Gris.  Owner-winemaker Yamataka Atsuko has been sourcing other varieties – Zweigelt, for example – from other local vineyards to build production while waiting for the young vines to mature.  He trained at Domaine Takahiko, and his sensibility and delicate touch stems from his parents, who owned a tea shop when he was growing up.

Domaine Takahiko: The best-known of Yoichi’s boutique wineries, dedicated solely to Pinot Noir, which Takahiko Saga farms organically.  The Takahiko wines are strictly allocated, Burgundian in their depth, and generally delicate in texture.

Niki Hills: A new, big-money investment from Kazunori Ishikawa, the owner of the conglomerate DAC.  The facilities are modern, with all the trappings – a restaurant, tasting room, and terrific views.  Work on the facility began in 2014 and was only completed last year.  Whites lead the way; we tasted some beautiful Kerner and Bacchus, and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and a little Pinot Gris are also planted.

Occi Gabe: Kiichiro Ochi studied winemaking at Geisenheim in Germany and worked in Nagano and a few other parts of Japan before setting up shop in Hokkaido.  The farm includes a restaurant and shop, and with fourteen different varieties planted Occi Gabe offers a wide range of wines to appeal to the diverse palates of visitors.  Ochi is more interested in red wine than white, though the portfolio includes Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, and a few other varieties.  His connection to Germany led him to plant the relatively recently introduced Blaufränkisch-Dornfelder cross, Acolon, which in Ochi’s hands yields a medium-bodied wine with black cherry and spice notes.  He says it may become the winery’s flagship.

Domaine Atsushi Suzuki: With 5.6 hectares of vines, Suzuki is one of the larger boutique producers, making wine since 2010.  Plantings include Kerner, Chardonnay, Bacchus, and Zweigelt.  The Acchi Blanc is white blend – a mineral, focused wine with refreshing acidity and notes of spice and quince.  The Tomo Rouge is 10% Zweigelt, with peppery, earthy aromas but an elegant, silky palate and fine structure.   

Read more columns by Jim Clarke:   Jim Clarke 
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