Nirasaki, Yamanashi Prefecture
Japan is also a wine producing country, and some of its producers have reached such a quality that their wine is virtually sold before it is made, and this is the case for the wines of Eishi Okamoto, who founded the small domaine Beau Paysage in the high valleys of Yamanashi with the reassuring Mount Fuji in view.
The demanding wine lover in Japan has long been wary and mistrustful regarding domestic-produced wine, there's of course the large volumes of Koshu wine made with the indigenous variety but wineries aren't all into quality winemaking and the farming techniques are far from traditional. In the last decade though, a serious work has been done by some winemakers, with great results for those choosing the organic farming and low intervention in the cellar, you can certainly witness that firsthand year after year by tasting the Japanese domaines taking part to the wine fair.
Okamoto-san farms his vineyards organically with a Japanese twist, the farming culture in this country having also a long tradition of uninterventionist modes using different ways that the ones we know in Europe. The weather in Japan is way more complicated for organic farming with a hot and humid summer and lots of rain (just imagine, people often say the Bordeaux region is unfit for organic farming...), but there are Japanese ways to make with these conditions without resorting to chemicals, one of them being the type of permaculture advocated by Masanobu Fukuoka, managing fields and vineyards without ever plowing them to preserve the microbian life on its surface.
We reached the small city of Nirasaki after some 3 hours in a limited-express (Azusa) train on a JR line departing from the Shinjuku station in the direction of Kofu, under a bright sky. As I wrore earlier people in Europe usually don't know that november and december are great months to visit Japan with blue skies and temperatures that are usually milder than in France at the same time. Of course we were heading to the mountains and we experienced a temperature drop compared to Tokyo.
I had made this day visit with my friends Junko Nakahama and John Wood, both being incidently people who helped set up the yearly wine feast Festivin. I thank them for making it easier to help me take the train for a relatively-far region, but I actually found the train very easily : coming from Ikebukuro with the Yamanote line (which is some sort of surface subway going around Tokyo), I arrived 15 minutes later on the platform # 9 at the Shinjuku Yamanote station, and I just had to walk to platform # 14 and wait for the train to come in. Junko has brought a handfull of homemade organic onigiri, these wrapped rice balls which you can buy everywhere in the konbinis (convenience stores open 24/7) in Japan. I had brought one myself, a leftover from my breakfast. On a normal trip I'd have brought along a one-cup sake to go with it like the Japanese travellers love to do in trains but we were on our way to visit a winery and that was not wise.
At destination, we were taxied from the train station to the facility of Beau Paysage by no less than Mr Goda who happens to live near here and knows Eishi Okamoto well. Eishi-san was busy at the time of our arrival with a bottling. We soon reached the winery which sits on both sides of a country road, with a log house on one side which includes a tasting room and a modern facility with a house on the other side.
Eishi Akamoto studied biochemistry at the University of Yamanashi, and he learnt already the basics of winemaking and fermentation there. After graduation he worked for a local winery in the Katsunuma area (a wine region on the north-eastern wing of Yamanashi), Fujicco Winery Ltd. (also know under the name of Fujiclair from what I understand) for 3 years, from 1996 to 1998. This is a large winery that doesn't own vineyards, buying grapes like a coopérative would do in France. For Eishi Akamoto it was obvious that the making of a wine begins with the viticulture and he longed for this tight relation with the vineyard which was absent in his job, that's why he considered taking care of a vineyard himself and make wine from it. He quit the company and moved to Yamanashi in 1999, taking what the Japanese call arubaito jobs,アルバイト in Kanji, the word comes from the German word Arbeit and means here temporary positions. Being part-time employed doing seasonal excavations of archeological sites, he had time on the side to plant vines, beginning with 0,7 hectare of Merlot in Yamanashi. Asked if you need planting rights in Japan like in France where it's very complicated in this regard with the administration, he says no special authorization is needed, you can plant vines like you'd do for vegetables. Actually he had already prepared and planted his vines in Katsunuma and he brought them along when he moved to Yamanashi, gaining time in the process [another thing that would turn the French bureaucracy crazy upside down...].
Eishi-san opened officially his winery 2 or 3 years later after his first parcel planting, letting him time to prepare. In Japan you need quite a lot of money to get the permission to open a winery because of the tax aspect of the operation, the administration making sure that you can pay the fees.
Speaking of the vinification in the early stage of his winery, Eishi-san says that then he used to add sulfur in the beginning of the vinification, on the destemmer (on the grapes). Gradually he reduced the use of it, and the turning point was in 2002 when he tasted a wine from New Zealand, Providence, he just loved it, he wanted to follow this path. At that time he also met Asai Usuke who used to be the winemaker at Mercian (the renowned Japanses winery) and who wrote lots of litterature on wine. Usuke-san who passed away since, was some sort of mentor for many winemakers of the new generation in Japan, a bit like Jules Chauvet in Beaujolais, and he told him to stay away from text books, from the winemaking recipes favored by wine schools. He then changed his winemaking mode and searched for his own way, and same thing for the vineyard management where he relied to traditional Japanese farming management. In 2004 he met Miyuki Katori the wine writer and she told him about the existence of a natural-wine movement taking momentum in France and Italy, which he wasn't aware of before that. He went to discover these wines by himself in these years, around 2004 or 2005 through Katsuyama-san, the owner of Shonzui, the first natural-wine bar to open in Tokyo. Katsuyama-san had him taste 10 or 15 of these wines and his first reaction was negative, there was a Pinot Noir by Gerard Schueller and also a wine by Mark Angeli among them. After a while and repeated tries he began to open to these wines and feel they were different for the better. Speaking of Katsuyama-san I think he was pictured here (top right) with Eishi Okamoto (bottom left) during a vineyard visit in 2012.
Speaking of the vinification for reds (which make 70 % of his production) he destems the grapes by hand the old way (see pic on left) and have them macerated in stainless-steel vats, doing some pigeage after about one week, 4 times a day. The temperature is not controlled and he doesn't add CO2, there's only the natural CO2 coming from the fermenting grapes. Then after one month he has the grapes pressed in his small basket press and puts the wine in oak for one-year élevage.
For the whites, like for example for his Sauvignon Blanc he used stainless-steel barrels like the one pictured above. Oddly there are two separate vatrooms here, one for the reds and one for the whites. For the whites (Sauvignon, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris) right now he is into skin contact in stainless-steel vats, for the 2015 he'll decide later if after the skin contact the wine goes into wood or not.
The total production at Beau Paysage is quite small as Eishi-san farms only a 3-hectare surface, and at the beginning he purchased grapes to be within the lowest amount of wine asked by the Japanese tax authority for new wineries, which is 6 million liters (sounds big, 6000 kilo-liters). Happily you're not obliged to keep producing at that pace, it's just on the 3 first years, and he could stop purchasing grapes after that [I think this minimum volume is designed to guarantee 3 years of good returns for the tax administration]. Anyway if he wanted to work with organic grapes there's no way he could find much fruit on the market, so he relies mostly on his own surface. He still buys 3 % of his grapes, with which he makes his "No Name" cuvée that goes mostly to restaurants. He ads that actually there is no independant grower making organic grapes because the coopératives that buy the grapes here don't pay more for organic grapes, the organic grower would even earn much less because of the lower yields.
I didn't ask questions about his staff, there were quite a few workers around when we visited, several of them women but I think they work seasonally. I wonder if like it happens in France some of them dream to make wine themselves too one day.
We were lucky to witness a bottling at Beau Paysage, which was taking place at the far end of the barrel room. It was a small batch of red, possibly the volume of a barrel of two, all done the Japanese way, very respectfully and meticulously. Amazing. It was a gravity filling of course, no violence at all on the wine : to get the height needed for the gravity the wine was transfered to an upper vat using an utensil looking like a big Hishaku water dipper. The worker was doing that so slowly and respectfully that I'm sure the wine didn't feel it was moved to another tank, even when he released the wine up there he did it in such a soft way with the dipper partly immersed that there was no splash. He'd also use a plastic bucket to catch any drop that would fall during the transfer and pour it back into the tank.
This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the name of the cuvée is Tsugane Le Vent. He can bottle 200 bottles per hour maximum.
This was almost like a tea ceremony, you'd feel the rigor in the details, there was no hurry, everything was done so that the filling went smoothly. The two female workers reminded me a visit in an artisanal sake brewery a few years ago in the Fukushima Prefecture where similarly two workers were doing the labelling by hand like it's been done for ages in the countryside. Here two female workers sitting on their legs the Japanese way were checking the smooth filling of 5 bottles of wine through thin flexible plastic pipes that guarranteed a very slow moving of the wine and no bubbles. Thanks to a light pannel positionned in the background they could see when the right level of wine was achieved and they'd switch the pipe to anoher bottle, passing the full bottle on the right to the staff manning the corking machine.
The only "modern" touch on this bottling operation seemed to be the corking part which was made using a small machine. Overall I was surprised by the fact so many people (4 of them) worked for this gravity bottling, in France I'm used to hear such small batch bottlings are done with a single person (the vigneron), maybe two, but Japan is like that, it's at the same time a very modern country but one where the human workforce is very present, you'll see that in small restaurants (even the cheap ones) and in the railway and metro system where staff is always visible in numerous places on the platforms and ready to help the traveller or commuter, something unheard of in France alas (they hide in offices or something).
We drove to a few parcels a small distance away in the Tsugane terroir at an elevation of 800 meters, the air was cold and windy with a pure light, the view over the mointains in the distance was sharp, this was a nice december day. Eisi Okamoto has some 10 parcels making a total surface of 3 hectares. At one point I asked if he had considered planting a bit more to reach 4 or 5 hectares, given the fact that his wines were in such a high demand in Japan, he says he could plant more, especially that he has some yet-unplanted surface at his disposal but he also has certain grape varieties he wants to get rid of, so there may be a balance in the total surface between the uprooting and the replanting.
Eishi-san said that the pruning is a very arduous thing that can't be tought easily and that's something he prefers to do himself for his whole surface, which limits also his ability to increase noticeably his surface. For his pruning he focuses on the shape of the whole vine, which he can do because he follows and shapes the vines since the planting, and a seasonal worker can't integrate in his pruning the image he's been building around the vines' growth because when you prune it's like if you were envisioning and anticipating the shape of the vine a year ahead, it's not an easy thing. Mr Goda jokes that if you prune the wrong way it's like when you get the wrong haircut, you have to wait lots of time to correct the mistake.
If I'm right the vineyard above is the Merlot which he planted 18 years ago (and moved to here). We later passed some Chardonnay as well as Cabernet Franc and cabernet Sauvignon. This year he had some problems with the Cabernet Sauvignon, like elsewhere it needs more time to ripen and late in the seson it was damaged by insects. Also Cabernet Sauvignon doesn't stand winter here in Yamanashi, he lost half of the surface to frost and replanted, but now he gives up, he'll work with the varieties that adapt to the weather.
The area is a real small farmer region like I feel it's typical in Japan, Eishi-san's parcels being separated by narrow fields of vegetables and orchards (apple trees particularly). There's also a chestnut tree standing alone along the grass road. Junko already visited the vineyards but last time it was at the warm season and with the foliage it looked much different. Eishi-san says that last august they got hail storm damage here and he lost some grapes, half of them on some parcels, it was the first time his vineyard suffered from hail.
Actually Eishi Okamoto works on something that concerns all of agriculture, not only viticulture. At the beginning he saw this chaptalization issue, the mainstream wineries resorting to sugar addition on a large scale, then the other unnatural ways to run a farm, and all the fair-trade aspects of agriculture, and as a result he wants to embrace ans share a farming philosophy that can touch all farmers, not only winemakers. In order to get funds for his Butterfly project he produced a CD of music titled Pinot Noir, with the goal to gather people from different walks of life and change the world. I didn't have the opportunity to listen to this CD but you can listen some samples on this page at mid scroll, it's soft piano, guitar and Argentinian-style music.
I asked about the rootstock he uses here and he said it is 101-14, he chose it himself because with this type of rootstock the vine grows gently and moderately. He says that at the beginning he tried to kind of use the French viticulture management here but because of the high humidity of the Japan summer it was not really adapted and he changed his ways. For example he stopped looking for a high-density planting which is regarded positively in France, because in Japan a high density with rows close to each other keep the humidity trapped, which in turn brings more disease.
We passed this orchard between Eishi Okamoto's parcels and I can't resit posting this picture although it's not his own : this looks so Japanese with all these apples neatly lined on a sheet with no one around, waiting for the shipping staff I guess or just for a few more hours of sun, they'll be possibly wrapped individually and reach astronomic prices on the shelves in Tokyo... I don't know if these vegetable fields and these orchards are organic but they don't look desertified with herbicides and all these small fields certainly bring some sort of diversity with insects and microbial activity. Some of these plots are protected with a fence, not against thieves (you're in Japan) but against rabbits and the wild boars.
On this short video you can see the interesting topography along the parcels. Eishi Okamoto says that he made many trials to see which grape variety behaved best on such or such terroir. Here he shows the steep valley along several of the parcels, this is of a great help at the rain season because the water is drained and the roots of the vines get less of it. I guess the sudden drop in altitude also brings a breeze which helps ventilate the foliage.
You'll notice that there's grass under the vines : Eishi Okamoto applies some sort of permaculture, he never plows and of course doesn't use herbicides or fertilizers.
I had the priviledge along with Junko, John and Mr Goda to taste a couple of bottles, and knowing the limited production at Beau Paysage I am very thankful of that, I'd have understood if Eishi-san just had told us that he had presently no wine to taste.
Eishi Okamoto opens a bottle of Tsugane Chardonnay, a wine with a relatively dark gold color which is not brought by wood but by the skin contact he says. It did have some élevage in wood though including 30 % of new oak, the other casks being older. On the nose, freshness and vividness. Tastes good, pretty intense with nice vibes along the palate and energy, a refined wine not overtly rich or opulent. It makes 12,5 % he says (reads 12 % the label, this is very reasonable. I know how whites from southern latitudes can be heavy and too rich, and given the hot summers in Japan this wine stands out for its vividness and freshness.
Junko says that with the combined acidity and ripeness permitted by the high-elevation's cool climate she get's a dashi taste (mouth feel associated with umami in Japan) which she loves particularly here. The yields for this wine is between 30 and 40 hectoliters/hectare.
We didn't speak about the prices but I see now on this page that the vintage 2011 for this wine sells for ¥ 5349 or 40 €
__ The next bottle was a red, Tsugane La Montagne 2012, a 100 % Merlot made I guess with his first parcel. Unfiltered wine, no fining. The nose is very refined with complexity and red fruits, what a grace, the mouth is similarly delicious with aromas of faded roses going down the throat with a thin tannic texture. No need to say this goes down very easily. Yields here are 3000 liters/hectare (30 ho/ha). The empty-glass test blows the ceiling : terrific aromas !
From what I understand Eishi Okamoto uses the free run juice foremost along with the mid-press juice for this cuvée (as for his main cuvées in general), and the press juice goes into another cuvée (supposedly of lesser quality) named Private Reserve. Eishi-san says that his basket press is doing a very gentle pressing on the grapes, he remembers in comparison when he worked for a large winery a few years back, the press was so powerful and they tried so much to take out all the juice they could, that at the end the must was reduced to some sort of crushed pasta or powder, you couldn't recognize the grapes... Asked about the size of his press (I saw the one in the white-wine vat room) which seemed to me a bit small, he says that given his containers make typically 900 liters, it's the perfect size for the press. Exactly as we were speaking about the pressing, we saw tiny snowflakes falling, it just lasted a couple of minutes but these were the very first of the season...
This wine sells also for about 40 € in Japan according to this page (here the vintage 2011).
Take note of the back labels of Beau Paysage, there are a couple of sentences (in both English and Japanese) with a John-Lennon touch that can apply to all these artisan wines we love : A glass of wine can change the world. Yes, we can change the world, if we change our daily food and drink. You may think I'm a dreamer. But I hope someday you will join us
At the end of our visit Eishi-san gave each of us a bag of beans (mame) he grew in his own garden and we'll prepare them with special thoughts.
Eishi Okamoto is of the few Japanese winemakers taking part to the yearly feast and natural wine fair at Festivin. He doesn't need the fair to sell his wine but it fits perfectly with his own approach and philosophy, and the event is also a good opportunity to rub elbows with the crowd and taste many great wines (which he's doing above) made by fellow winemakers, so many being gathered in a single day.