Questing for the ideal wine: Norakura's decade of "bringing out the uniqueness in land and producer"

Norakura boasts loyal fans both inside and outside of Hokkaido. Standing here are the married owners, Ken and Kazuko Sasaki (at their Motomachi, Hakodate winery).

The “Norakura” winery is well known both in and outside of Hokkaido, and this year marks a decade since the winery launched a farm field in the city of Hokuto. At the winery, the Ken and Kazuko Sasaki couple produce natural wine made with organic grapes and fermented with wild yeast. Since the Norakura winery has reached such a major milestone in its path, we spoke to the couple about its history and the future of Southern Hokkaido wine with its increasing array of new market entries.

Ken comments, “We want to preserve the resonance of spring water that travels up through the layers of the earth.” Their decision to not use filtration or antioxidants gives their wine a pure, natural flavor. They ship about 13,000 bottles per year, and stock shelves at about 50 liquor stores nationwide. The wine sells out so quickly, they are often called, “The Ghost Wine”.

In 2011, Norakura started up a farm field in the city of Hokuto. In 2012, it launched a winery in the city of Hakodate, in land previously owned by a printing company. Currently they grow mainly green Chardonnay grapes and red Pinot noir grapes in a field approximately three hectares in size.

With their experience learning grape cultivation and wine brewing in the French Burgundy region, the Sasaki couple compared the different regions of Hokkaido based on empirical value data and weather data and were attracted to Southern Hokkaido due to its comparatively longer autumns and expectations for delicious grape ripening.

■Food event becomes a tradition

Taking time to explain their wine production ideals to liquor stores, bars, and restaurants helps shop owners and staff communicate those ideals to customers. This gradually percolated into the hearts and minds of city residents. Their desire for people to enjoy wine together with their meals bore fruit in the 2016 “Noma Salute” event launch.

The event is organized by an executive committee made up of Norakura and Hakodate liquor stores, bars, and restaurants. Visitors can enjoy domestic and foreign natural wines together with food, and there is also a market selling Southern Hokkaido produce and wine. It is held every other year. In 2018, the visitor count was near four hundred people. Ken commented, “This event is the absolute ideal format because it links producers together with bars and restaurants in a way that is fun for consumers.”

■Supporting new wineries

In recent years many new wineries are popping up in Southern Hokkaido. In addition to “Domaine de Montille”, a longstanding French winery with farmland in Hakodate, at least 15 enterprises are growing grapes for wine, including individual growers and incorporated enterprises.

Ken always says, “Instead of having just one winery making ten different kinds of wine, you get more diversity if ten wineries each produce one kind of wine, and that is more fun.” And this is why he supports the land selection process for new wineries and is always friendly and thorough in teaching grape cultivation techniques as well.

The couple has started constructing a new winery on land near the field in Hokuto, and expect it to be completed in 2023. The goal is to actualize a long term aging process in a space that is about twice as large as what they use currently. We asked this inexhaustibly questing and experimenting couple about their ideal wine. Their answer was, “The unique characteristics of a Southern Hokkaido type of land, and the unique characteristics of ourselves as the producers. Our ideal wine is one that incorporates both of these kinds of uniqueness.” Their unique “artworks” will continue to delight the hearts of the populace.

Wines by Norakura. The labels are designed by Kazuko's older sister and her husband.