《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 25

Special feature

《New styles of delicious alcohol from the north》 Part 1: Aiming for worldwide recognition 2- ‘Crimson Glory’ extended the northern limit

Located in the city of Nayoro, ‘Shinga’ is known as Japan’s northernmost winery. “If there were no varieties that contained the Crimson Glory pedigree, we couldn’t have produced red wine here,” confides CEO Takebe Yuji (48)

■Minus 30 degrees

Born in Saitama prefecture and a graduate of Hokkaido University, former engineer Takebe began cultivating wine grapes with his wife, Mari (53) – originally from Nayoro – in 2006, in addition to their main job of growing rice. They first attempted to grow European varieties such as Zweigeltrebe and Kerner, which are cultivated in central Hokkaido, but temperatures that sometimes reach minus 30 degrees caused disease and they were forced to uproot the young vines.

After 11 years of repeated attempts, the grape that Takebe eventually selected was the ‘Shokoshi’ variety crossbred with Crimson Glory from home and abroad. A feature of Crimson Glory varieties is their resilience to cold. ‘If it’s a variety that contains Crimson Glory that grows naturally even in northern Hokkaido, it should be resilient to the cold,” thought Takebe. To prevent frost, on cold days even in May and June, bonfires were lit and hard work was required, but the vines thrived and, in 2019, the long-cherished license to produce alcohol was attained.

A smiling Takebe Yuki, CEO of Shinga, holds a glass of northernmost wine, made from the ‘Shokoshi’ Crimson Glory variety. April 12, Nayoro

■Developed in Ikeda, too

The Hokkaido variety of Crimson Glory of which production is increasing, is ‘Yamasachi’. The town of Ikeda in the Tokachi subprefecture, which runs Hokkaido’s oldest existing winery, crossbred the conventional variety of ‘Kiyomi’ with the pollen of Crimson Glory from within the town, in order to strengthen its resilience to cold. In 2006, the variety was registered with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. This was done in response to the climate in the town, where the cumulative temperature essential for the growth of grapes is low, and to minimize the labor involved in measures to prevent withering in winter.

Since 2010, the destinations of Yamasachi seedlings provided by Ikeda Town to help support farms and regional promotion in other municipalities are gradually expanding. Hokkaido farmers who sensed that “the stable cultivation of European varieties is difficult in the cool climate” began cultivation after becoming interested.

Some Hokkaido producers say that in severe cold regions like Okhotsk and northern Hokkaido, where summers are too cool, wine cannot be made, but from 2019 to ’20, a total of four new wineries were created in the city of Kitami and the town of Memuro in the Tokachi region. Cultivation regions are also spreading in the towns of Teshikaga in the Kushiro region and Niikappu in the Hidaka region.

The grape is also playing a role in spreading Hokkaido wine’s northern limit. In the town of Nakatombetsu in the Soya region, approximately 90 km north of Nayoro, last year, approximately 1.2 kg of grapes were harvested for the first time from Yamasachi vines that were planted as an experiment. The sugar content, too, which is essential for wine, exceeded 20%. “It’s a big step. While obtaining the understanding of the townspeople, we hope to nurture it into a regional vitalization plan,” says Mayor Kobayashi Naruyoshi (61).

■ If the characteristics can be utilized

Last November, Yamasachi became the first Hokkaido wine grape to be a variety registered by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV, Paris), and the variety name can be displayed on the labels of wines exported to European Union countries. This is the 3rd such example within Japan, as the foundations for the global recognition of Hokkaido wine continue to be laid. Although the amount is still small, exports of wine from Ikeda to Australia have begun. Concrete measures aimed at Europe are now being launched.

However, Yamasachi is an invincible variety for which Hokkaido farmers say, “a really delicious winemaking method has yet to be established”. Crimson Glory unique, strong acidity and bitter taste can also be disadvantageous. As only 15 years have passed since Crimson Glory was registered as a variety, there is still room for research regarding the balance of taste and how it is matured.

Tanabe Yumi (68), a Tokyo wine consultant who is originally from Ikeda and who has extensive knowledge of global affairs, has high expectations. “If the characteristic taste of Yamasachi can be utilized to the full and a wine that can be said to be a masterpiece can be created, it will become an unparalleled wine with a unique presence and Hokkaido will attract attention from around the world.”

The grape is also playing a role in spreading Hokkaido wine’s northern limit. In the town of Nakatombetsu in the Soya region, approximately 90 km north of Nayoro, last year, approximately 1.2 kg of grapes were harvested for the first time from Yamasachi vines that were planted as an experiment. The sugar content, too, which is essential for wine, exceeded 20%. “It’s a big step. While obtaining the understanding of the townspeople, we hope to nurture it into a regional vitalization plan,” says Mayor Kobayashi Naruyoshi (61).

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