Hirotake Oooka has been making wine for a few years now in the region of Saint Peray. Saint Péray is the southern-most appellation of the northern Rhone, and only whites are made there. The name of his estate/négoce is Domaine de la Grande Colline, and this name is almost a straight translation from his family name : Oo means big (grand) and oka hill (colline) in Japanese. And it happens that as you'll see later, Hirotake is engaged in an audacious project in order to plant and make wine from indeed a big hill hovering over Cornas...
After studying chemistry at the Meiji University in Tokyo, he went to France because he wanted to make wine and he landed in Bordeaux in 1997, to attend the enology school and DNO courses, where he befriended for example Jean-Yves Perron who was there learning too... Looking for training opportunities in a winery, he looked to stay with Cornas vintner Thierry Allemand whose wines he had discovered in Saint-Emilion at L'Envers du Décor, an outstanding wine bar/restaurant near Bordeaux. But Thierry had no available position at that time, and he worked with Jean Louis Grippat in Tournon instead. Thereafter he went also to work and help Thierry Allemand on weekends, and he remained very admirative of his wines, his energy in tending his steep-slope vineyards, and his philosophy.
The Jean-Louis Grippat winery was bought up by Guigal As Hirotake Ooka worked there and he was promoted viticulture chief at Guigal for the Hermitage & Saint Joseph sector, overlooking two Guigal-owned estates, Grippat and Vallouit. After 2 years there he was hired by Thierry who needed someone, and he founded his own estate step by step in parallel.
Hirotake Ooka drove us in his Toyota utility van on the heights above Cornas where he is investing a lot of energy and passion. After several kilometers on a winding road, we reach the plateau and turn right on a dirt road, passing a beautiful isolated farm first, then we stopped atop a bare slope with the valley and a guess of Cornas down in the far beyond a narrow and wooded valley. He asks us if we have proper shoes for our destination, we aren’t going to change shoes anyway but it reminds me suddenly the horrific slopes we’ve been through with Thierry Allemand in his all-terrain Toyota and how certain I was that this would end up in a terrible rollover down the steep slope (imagine driving on an awfully steep slope on the mud under a storm...). We are here at an altitude of 350 meters on the Cornas appellation with the Rhone valley in the far, this is where Hirotake Ooka is preparing the foundations of his future Cornas vineyards.
Hirotake didn’t step a foot in Cornas without preparation : after working with Thierry Allemand, he first purchased grapes from good spots of the appellation in 1997 to see how it behaved in the vinification and if he felt confident with the terroir.
Another unexpected hurdle to come over in the next years is the appetite of unplanned predator around there at harvest time : last autumn as the oldest of these young Syrah vines displayed beautiful, ripe grapes, everything was picked by the birds living in all these woods around... Hirotake thinks to install near there maybe a high-frequency beeper or something like that.
Speaking of the planting mode, there’s 1,6-meter width between the rows and 0,8 meter between each vine, which makes a density of 8000 per hectare. Coupled with the arid nature of the soil, here are vines that will have to fight to find their nutrients, which I understand as being a good first step for making great wines. The first vineyard we walk along is 4 years old, and the vines still look like babies, there’s obviously no watering nor fertilizers here, but in the long term they will be deeply rooted and better armed for the summer heat of Cornas. Hirotake says that he never sprayed these Syrah once since the planting.
Asked about the climats or plots' names here, Hirotake says that he hasn't thought to this question yet, but his 11 currently-planted or soon-to-be-planted plots among the woods on these Cornas slopes will have probably a name to distinguish them in time.
While walking back to the van we passed a tiny, 5-rows-strong plot (also recently planted) overlooking the slope with the Rhone valley and Cornas in the far. Very cute miniature vineyard. All these vineyards in the making are not producing grapes for the vinification yet, and Hirotake earns his living with the white wines he makes out of his 0,8-hectare vineyard in Saint Peray and from the purchased grapes that he vinifies. He buys grapes from near Privas, near Condrieu, Apt, and also in Saint Joseph where he buys from a retired vigneron who works his vineyards like in the past and never sprayed any chemicals.
We taste a few wines with Hirotake :
__ Chardonnay 2009, grapes purchased in Flaviac, Ardèche. One-year-long fermentation in casks, after which it was racked into a vat. There's still some fermentation going on here with a few grams of residual sugar, so he delays the bottling. No stirring of the lees. The press is in another facility, so when he presses, he fills the casks near the press and then transports the full casks over here. Nice wine (but no other notes, sorry).
__ Saint Perray 2009, Marssanne. Saint Peray is a small appellation (Saint-Péray web page in French) with only 60 hectares altogether, white only, both still and sparkling (Champagne method). This Marsanne has still 7 grams of sugar with some fermentation still going on. The yeast being the wild yeasts and no additives being used to activate the process, the wine takes its time. Not only he doesn't use lab yeasts, but he doesn't add di-amin or amino acids in the process like some winemakers may be tempted to do, to accellarate the readyness of the wine.
__ Saint Peray 2006, a Rhone white which is still in fermentation (a resin vat). He has some Saint Peray through purchased grapes and also through his own 0,8-hectare vineyard there. The purchased grapes part has fermented swiftly while his own needed lots of time for this vintage, it was the first year after he took this rented plot, and having been conventionally farmed before, it didn't get enough life of its own, wild yeasts and oter things, to ferment easily. Of course since he got this vineyard, he farmed it his way and without chemicals or weedkillers but the vines need some time to recover from the hard stuff they have been sprayed with for years. The recent vintages from this plot, 2009 or 2010 for example, ferment easily already because the life settled again on the vineyard. Very fresh wine in the mouth, I note, to which Hirotake answers that it was not that fresh in the geginning. I ask about the remaing sugar, thinking he would say maybe 7 grams, but he says the analysis says 20 grams, which sounds weird (even for him) when you taste and swallow the wine. He waited 5 years to make a still white but these days he thinks that he will vinify it as sparkling, Champagne-style, which should be good even if it may have no appellation as such. B. notes some apricot notes
__ Saint Peray 2010. From a vat. Hirotake is happy with the 2010 vintage because he made only two sprayings altogether, one with sulphur when the leaves went out, the second at blossom with some sulphur and a bit of copper, and nothing after that. He still had an oïdium attack later where he lost 20 % of the grapes but he still didn't spray. He is this way conducting trials to see howfar he can go without spraying treatments and what is the result in the volume and quality of grapes. He picked only some 11 hectoliters in 2010 on his 0,8-hectare vineyards, but he could complete with purchased grapes. For this year for example he wants to replace the sulphur spraying by essential oils, like grapefruit-seeds essential oil for example. He says that he never topped up the cask and he's eager to taste the wine too to see how it behaved... The wine tastes like a young white wine with a light bitterness. Good length, B. notes. The wine is dry, he says, and after another year of élevage he will bottle it. To bottle his wines, he uses a 6-spout bottle manual filler which works smoothly by gravity without shocking the wine.
__ Grenache 2008. Bottled very soon, purchased grapes, 24 months of élevage in casks, then in a vat for 6 months. Very beautiful color. Aromas of morello cherries and a good chewy with tannins feel in the mouth. The vintage was hard because of heavy rains early september. The Syrah by the way saw its maturity blocked after that, between 11,5 and 12. The Grenache is traditionally picked 2 or 3 weeks later than Syrah, here it was in mid-october after a healthy Mistral wind episode. But it was picked a bit later and it now boasts 15 ° in alcohol even if that's not obvious at tasting. The vinification was whole clusters left untouched in a vat with CO2 during 3 or 4 days, after which he walks atop the vat and stomps the grapes with the feet, and so on once a day for 20 days. Then the press juice and the free-run juice go into separate casks to continue the fermentation. He notes that his press juice is usually better than the free-run (jus de goutte) because there are many intact grapes and the juice turns out lighter and more fruity. He uses a vertical wooden press, it is actually Thierry Allemand's press (he hasn't bought one yet). It is a very good Burgundy press, he says, it's not working with pawls like usually, but it is the central screw that turns by itself. The pressing lasts one day, without the need to do a rebêchage, when you cut off the outer ring of the compacted grapes and press further.
__ Côte du Rhône, Grenache 2010. From a demi-muids (a big capacity cask). Purchased grapes. Very intense color too here. Still at work, says Hirotake. Turbidity. He would like to pick Grenache early enough to avoid excessive alcohol. He looks for refineness and acidity and this particular wine whose grapes were picked around september 10th makes only some 12 ° in alcohol. The tannic mouth is a bit hard but there are hints of interesting things to come (I'm not an expert to judge wines that early in their making but somehow I feel confident enough to say that this wine has a nice future). The grapes come from a village named Saint Julien en Saint Alban near Privas and Flaviac. The village is included in the Côte du Rhône appellation.
__ Saint Joseph 2009. Same wine but one year earlier. Very nice nose, freshness, small red fruits. Nice. The vineyard from which the grapes come in Saint Joseph make 0,3 hectare only, and is 15 years old. It's a top of the hill location, exposed slightly on the north with always a breeze on it, which explains that his Saint Joseph remains fresh in the mouth.
__ Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. Bottle. Could have been Côte du Rhône but not with Cabernet. From Saint Julien en Saint Alban, they had 3 hectares over there but they uprooted them to transfer the plantation rights in Cornas. He never worked the soils on these Syrah Cabernet vineyards, he just cut the grass twice a year and sprayed a bit of sulfur and copper, that's all. Yields were 15 ho/ha only, with vines 60 years old on average. Lots of concentration. Some bitterness at the end of the mouth.
__ Cabernet Sauvignon/syrah 2005, from a nearby plot. From a vat where it was blended a month ago, means there was 5 months of élevage. This wine still has residual sugar and he hopped that the wine would referment after the blending but it seems that the wine feels good the way it is. He will probably bottle it as such in table wine label. The question here is that they make small yields and when the year is hot it makes lots of sugar which may not all be transformed by fermentation. The nose is more interesting than the mouth for me here. B. likes it.
__ Saint Péray 2008, back to the white. Bottled since last october. Very nice and fresh. 2008 was rainy but it yielded good results in the white. There was some mildew and the yields were particularly low, he picked the equivalent of 4 casks instead of about 10. I like this one, very classy wine. Lightly turbid. Very neat mouth, B. says. There's some CO2 also here.
__ Saint Péray 2005. Dusty bottle. Not so old, he says as he opens the bottle, the molds comes quickly. Very beautiful color, vivid gold. Purchased grapes (he hadn't his own plots then), half Roussanne, half Marsanne. He says that this wine was very nice at bottling, the, difficult during 2 years, and since the past year it tastes very good. He now (a month ago) sells it. His Japanese importer reserved many bottles waiting for this release. Very dry wine with a good length, very good. Hirotake says that this northern white appellation (Saint Péray) has difficulty to be recognized by the consumers in spite of its unique terroir qualities, and wine shops face an uphill battle to make it known to the amateurs. The good side is that qualitative négoce houses are investing in Saint Péray and there's a good chance that it will be more in the spotlight in the years to come, especially that there can be very good whites here.
Hirotake offered us to take several of the opened bottles and this great Saint Péray 2005 was one of our chosen bottles. We enjoyed it during a couple of days to make the pleasure last...
Hirotake says that on average he makes 10 or 11 cuvées per vintage, usually 2000 bottles each. Some, he makes for Japan only, like the Primeurs (Vin Nouveau), one white, one red which are shipped in november.
Hirotake Ooka and his wife have three children, a boy and 2 girls, aged 1,3 and 5, they don't speak French yet but they begin to learn at the elementary school.
60 % to 70 % of the wines of Domaine de la Grande Colline is exported to Japan (Vortex Wine). Mr Tateno the founder of Vortex is a very caring person who also does some bottle élevage in certain occasions, in order to release the wines on the market at the right time. He imports natural wine only from producers like Pierre Overnoy, Jean-Marc Brignot, Alexandre Jouveaux and Louis Julian for example. Hirotake also exports to Belgium (DiVino), Canada (Quebec - Primavin) In Paris you can find the wines at the Cave des Papilles, at Vivant, at Saturne, the new wine bar/restaurant opened by Ewen.
Hirotake tipped us about a new restaurant opened 5 years ago by a Japanese friend in Valence near there : it is named La Cachette, it has gotten its Michelin star for the 3rd consecutive year and beyond what seems to be a great cuisine and a sensitive wine list, you will find also the wines of Hirotake. He says that chef Masashi Ijich organized the previous day a vigneron lunch there, and please sit down before reading which winemakers took part to this feast : Bruno & Hélène Schueller, Kagami Kenjiro a Japanese guy who worked with Schueller and now makes wine in the Jura, Pierre Overnoy, Emmanuel & Anne Houillon, Jean-François Ganevat, Thierry Allemand, François Ribo, Clotaire Michal (who works with Thierry) and Hirotake himself. no outsider there and this was certainly a great time for many reasons, not only for what was in the glasses and plates...
Hirotake also told us about a natural-wine bar in Tokyo (Roppongi), a friendly and casual place with lots of artisan wines : Shonzui. The cook is his best friend, he is the one who started a few years ago Le Severo in the 14th in Paris (one of the best places for meat in Paris).