A look at Hokkaido as an upcoming wine region

THE HOKKAIDO WINE CO.’s Special Cuvee Pinot Blanc 2019.

IT HAS been estimated that vineyards existed in Japan as early as 718 AD, in Katsunuma, Yamanashi prefecture. But it was sometime in the 16th century that winemaking started with the arrival of the Jesuit missionaries from Portugal.

Among Asian countries, Japan had a head start in terms of wine assimilation, education, and even appreciation. It is therefore no surprise that even to the present, Japan has the highest per capita consumption of wine in Asia and is ranked second only to China in total wine consumption volume. China just dislodged Japan some three or four years ago, even if the Chinese population is more than 11 times that of Japan.

WINEMAKING IN JAPANWhile there has been long history and tradition of wine and vineyards in Japan, the country has not really capitalized on this much. At present only 2% of all Japanese wine consumption is of wine from a local source, with the majority (more than 70%) of local wine production coming from three prefectures: Yamanashi with 31%, Nagano with 23%, and Hokkaidō with 17%.

Koshu in Yamanashi prefecture is the main hub of Japan’s winemaking industry. The native eponymous koshu grape varietal is also the main grape in this region.

Koshu is a pink skinned grape varietal most likely imported from the Caucasus through the Silk Road around a thousand years ago. Koshu, the grape, was harvested initially as table grapes.

In 1875, a newly formed company, Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoshu in Katsunuma, intended to be the first real winery in the country — but they were trying to make wines from koshu grapes using mainly saké brewing equipment. Since that did not work, in 1877, the winery sent two staffers, Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya, to the Champagne region in France to learn viticulture and enology. This was even earlier than when Masataka Taketsuru (known as the Father of Japanese Whisky), went to Scotland to learn whisky in 1918 as covered in my last column. Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoshu would therefore become the first winery to apply European winemaking techniques in the country, but that sadly did not last.

The company dissolved in 1886, but Kotaro Miyazaki, one of Dai-Nihon’s shareholders, decided to continue the business and took over its equipment. Miyazaki then teamed up with Ryuken Tsuchiya (one of the two men sent to study wine in France) and his younger brother Yasuyuki to form Kaisan Winery.

In 1949, Mercian was created and eventually replaced the Kaisan name, and in 1970, the word chateau was added to the name to make it Chateau Mercian.

In 2006 Chateau Mercian became a part of the large conglomerate Kirin Beer Group.

I had the pleasure of visiting Chateau Mercian in early 2018.

HOKKAIDO’S JUMP TO WINE RELEVANCYWhile Hokkaido’s contribution to total domestic wine production is just 17%, this is still a huge improvement from a decade or two ago when it was barely registering its volume. Hokkaido now has a flourishing wine industry with 48 wineries currently operating in this segment.

In June of 2018, the Japanese government designated Hokkaido as a wine region with its own Geographic Indication (GI) system similar to France’s Appellation d’ Origine (AO or DO) and the US’ American Viticulture Area (AVA). A Hokkaido GI means that 100% of the wine comes from Hokkaido vineyards.

It turns out that climate change, in particular global warming, has been beneficial to Hokkaido, which is one of the coldest regions in Japan. The warming allows for reduced acidity, higher residual sugar, and more complexity in the wines. This is also the right micro-climate to produce good red wines like a Pinot Noir or Merlot.

Hokkaido’s ascension in wine relevancy may also be because the region produces more internationally appealing varietals, like Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir as opposed to more omnipresent local varietals like Koshu and Muscat Bailey A.

Muscat Bailey is a hybrid created in Japan in 1927 by the Iwanohara Vineyard using Bailey and Muscat Hamburg grape varieties.

While Yamanashi as a wine region to me is more like a New Zealand South Island GI, in particular Nelson, Hokkaido has a more Alsace and its neighboring German wine region of Rheinhessen feel to it.

VISITING HOKKAIDO WINE CO. LTD.Included in my last Japan trip was a visit to the Hokkaido Wine Co., probably the largest winery in the Hokkaido prefecture. The winery was founded in 1974 in Otaru City, and 2024 happens to be their 50th or Golden Anniversary.

The winery, while modest by European Union winery standards, produces around 2 million bottles of wine annually, making them easily a top five wine producer in the country. The majority of the wine production goes to the domestic market.

The winery has a beautiful cellar door that showcases all their wines for sale, and has a coin-operated Enomatic machine like-dispenser that visitors can use for small tasting portions before purchasing. The winery also holds organized-wine tours that last around 30 minutes, including a guided tour of their facilities, a view of their fermentation vats, bottling machines, storage and a dark room that has a large 3D wall for their virtual vineyard video presentation. The tour ends at the cellar door where sample wines are handed out for tasting.

TASTING NOTESHere are my customary tasting notes from my visit in late February this year:

• Hokkaido Kerner 2021 — Kerner is a crossbred varietal created in Germany from Riesling and Trollinger varieties. I wrote: “lovely nose with longan, lychee, and very fresh, good acid backbone, tartness that is not offensive but noticeable, light, citrusy, juicy with peach and mineral notes at the end.” It was my first time to try this, and I actually enjoyed it.

• Tsurunuma Harvest Special Cuvee Pinot Blanc 2019 — Pinot Blanc is the white grape genetic mutation from the Pinot Noir. This varietal is found in Alsace, France, Germany and Alto Adige in Northern Italy. I wrote: “white peach nose, very subtle, herbaceous with hints of green apple, and quite soft, creamy with nice nutty flavors at the end.” This is my favorite wine among the three I tasted, especially given its vintage, closing in at five years old, when I have never tasted Pinot Blancs older than three years.

• Tazaki Vineyard Zweigelt 2017 — Zweigelt is an Austrian hybrid red grape varietal created in 1922 by Friedrich Zweigelt. This is Austria’s proudest red wine. I wrote: “dark-purplish color, aromatic, ripe berries, with apple-tart taste, lighter bodied than how the color projected, bitter-sweet tannins, and peppery finish.” This is probably my second time to try Zweigelt, and my first with a Japanese version. But like the Austrian version I tried earlier, it was not a memorable experience for me. It is decent, but not a wine for me. I may need more samples to appreciate this varietal.

There are a lot of upsides in Japanese wine that we can see at this present stage of development, but whether Japanese wines can go on the same trajectory as Japanese whisky remains to be seen. First, we need to see more Japanese wines produced and exported!

Sherwin A. Lao is the first Filipino wine writer member of both the Bordeaux based Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux (FIJEV) and the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy and other wine related concerns, e-mail the author at wineprotege@gmail.com, or check his wine training website https://thewinetrainingcamp.wordpress.com/services/