《New styles of delicious alcohol from the north》

The producers of distinctive alcoholic beverages help to support the stagnating Hokkaido economy during the Coronavirus pandemic and perhaps possess the presence to refresh the region. In this ‘New styles of delicious alcohol from the north’ series, we explore the strengths and unique techniques of Hokkaido-produced alcohol, and its links with food.

June 18

Special feature

《New styles of delicious alcohol from the north》Part 1 : Aiming for worldwide recognition 1- The conviction of a distinguished winery

Baptiste Pagès inspects the young Pinot noir vines in the Montille vineyards. May 8, Hakodate

In early April, as the last remaining snow disappears, in a hillside vineyard overlooking Hakodate, maintenance was being carried out on the young Pinot noir variety of vines used to make red wine.

 Currently, the5hectares of vineyards are run by Domaine de Montille, a winery in Burgundy, France with a history of almost 300 years. “Because there is less snow in Hakodate, the vines are not damaged during winter and we are able to cultivate vines that are resilient to disease,” enthuses Baptiste Pagès (34), the person responsible for grape cultivation.

 Pinot noir originates from Burgundy and is the pronoun of the same company’s red wine. It is also known as the ingredient of the world’s finest wine, Romanee Conti, which appeals to wine lovers throughout the world due to its delicate taste and bouquet.
However, in recent years, global warming has resulted in earlier harvest periods in Burgundy, and wine production is under pressure to undergo transformation.

 In search of a new region for the production of the grapes, Montille singled out Hokkaido. With hot and humid climates like that of Japan’s Honshu region, the ideal acidity necessary for wine cannot be attained. In 2017, Montille established an agricultural corporation in Hakodate and, in order to improve the vineyard drainage, laid an underground drainage ditch jointly developed by a French enterprise and Hokkaido university researchers. The company hopes to begin wine production in 2023, and to sell its products in Japan as well as export them to Europe and the like.

  With an influx of Honshu capital into Hokkaido from 2010 onwards, the number of wineries rapidly increased. In 2009 there were 14 wineries in Hokkaido; as of the end of March this year there are currently 47. Long-established wineries chose Hokkaido as a suitable place for cultivation but several Hokkaido winery owners say, “in the past, world-class flavors could not be produced.

■ Climate also helps to improve quality
Kimura Koji (44) of Kimura Farm in the town of Yoichi, Shiribeshi subprefecture speaks almost nostalgically about the past. “At first, the Pinot noir grapes were very sour. They could only produce a color lighter than that of a pink rosé.”

■ Mundane tasks
Kimura Farm has contracts with Hakodate Wine (Nanae, Oshima subprefecture) and Chitose Winery (Chitose), and is a pioneer that has continued to produce the Pinot noir variety of red-wine grapes since the late 1980s. At first, a lot of the fruit was susceptible to disease, and the quality was disappointing. Kimura and his father Tadashi (71) selected a strain suitable for Yoichi’s climate; one that was resilient to disease. From that strain, they nurtured seedlings, gradually increasing them through the repetition of mundane tasks. It took over 20 years to stabilize both the quality and the yield.

■ “The most suitable place”
Rising temperatures due to global warming are also boosting production. According to NPO Corporation Wine Cluster Hokkaido (Otaru), Hokkaido’s cumulative temperature from April to October, which acts as a grape cultivation index, began to enter the 1,200–1,389-degree zone – the most suitable for the cultivation of Pinot noir – from around 1998. Since 2010, this range of temperature has almost always been maintained.

Meanwhile, cumulative temperatures in grape-producing areas in Honshu, such Yamanashi and Nagano, greatly exceed 1,389 degrees. “Hokkaido has become the most suitable place in Japan for the cultivation of Pinot,” says the NPO’s representative director Abe Masahisa (47).

Furthermore, as a result of producing good quality wine, the Yamazaki Winery in the city of Mikasa – which began cultivating Pinot noir from 1998 – called for aspiring winemakers to come to Hokkaido. “If Pinot can even be grown in the Sorachi region, which has heavy snowfall and is very cold …” says Soga Takahiko (48). Originally from Nagano prefecture, Soga established the Domaine Takahiko in the town of Yoichi in 2010. It was the first newly established winery to open in Yoichi for 36 years.

Takahiko currently cultivates nothing but Pinot noir in 2.6 hectares of vineyards. His representative red wine, ‘Nana-Tsu-Mori’ made with wild yeast, is shipped to noma, a world-renowned restaurant in Denmark.

■ A focus on training and development
A superior of Takahiko during his time at a winery in Tochigi prefecture, American citizen Bruce Gutlove (59) also established the 10R Winery in the city of Iwamizawa. Both men are focusing on the guidance of those aiming to establish new wineries in Hokkaido. Gutlove, a graduate of University of California, Davis, which has a proven track record in wine research, speaks about his reasons for training and developing successors. “Hokkaido has a unique climate but its winemaking history is short. By increasing the number of capable people in our field and exchanging opinions, we can produce good wine in a shorter period of time.”

Already, wine is being produced independently by more than 10 people who have trained under Soga or Gutlove, which is one of the reasons for the rapid increase in wineries since the start of the 2010s.

Takamatsu Toru (26), the first Japanese to attain the world’s most difficult “master sommelier” qualification began training under Soga in April. Takamatsu was impressed by the quality of the balance of flavor and bouquet processed by Soga’s wine and decided to relocate to Yoichi.

“While launching my own wine, I also want to work introducing Yoichi and Hokkaido wine – which is worthy of being exported – overseas.” The time has now come for the younger generation, like Takamatsu, to test their abilities worldwide.

Soga Takahiko (right) and Takamatsu Toru check the quality of wine made from homegrown Pinot noir. April 24, Yoichi

Wineries, whisky distilleries and the like continue to open throughout Hokkaido. In ‘New styles of delicious alcohol from the north’ Part 1, we dig into the initiatives being taken to continuously improve the quality of alcohol produced in Hokkaido. (5-part series)

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