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.
Yotsuya (east of Shinjuku), Tokyo
Wine importers have been playing for a long time an important role for the development of wineries and domaines, but for the segment of natural wine producers a few wine importers were certainly of strategic importance, particularly in the 1990s' when the nascent non-interventionist winemaking movement was still short of a strong domestic market for its wines. At that time when the future was still
uncertain for the vignerons leaving the "security" of conventional winemaking for the unchartered waters of real wine, a few importers were certainly of great help, and Mrs Yasuko Goda of Racines was certainly one of them. The Japanese wine lovers, or at least enough of them, turned to understand very early the appeal of these wines that departed so much from the norms of what was done at that time, and they put their money where their mouth was, giving a decisive boost to many vignerons who were also encouraged by this sign of appreciation coming from so far away. Mrs Goda's name bounced back to me along the years as I was visiting all these artisan producers, along the one of Mr Ito, another big and early player in the field, and I decided to at last visit her and her business partner Masaaki Tsukahara in their offices downtown Tokyo.
Mrs Yasuko Goda's inspiration for her future career probably needed a French episode and it materialized when in the late 1980s' her husband (who had just spent 3 months in Europe for his job) suggested she takes a year off in France with their 2 young children and find something to do that she'd like, the children were young enough so that she could move with them, and if she waited more they'd be stuck with the studies. She left for France and enrolled at the University of Bordeaux [you see it coming] to learn French and there she found tasting courses that were given by a few people including Denis Dubourdieu and Emile Gaillon. She says with a laugh that she didn't understand much to these courses, it was pretty hard but she got the beginning of her wine education there.
The yearly wine event Festivin just took place in Tokyo a few days ago, it's a smoothly-functioning wine-tating fair taking place in two sessions in a single day on the last sunday of november. It has such a success among wine lovers in Tokyo that the tickets are sold well in advance. I attended my first Festivin wine fair in march 2014 but it was kind of a minor-key version of the real thing because there had been issues back then on renting the usual exhibition space. This was already a great tasting event, even though like usual I could taste few wines considering the time I spend at each table plus the time spent looking at people, listening to the music and shooting pictures... This Festivin 2015 was in line with my first experience, add to that a music entertainment that was by itself worth the
ticket even if you had been a teetotaller, the credit for that great music part goes of course to our friend François Dumas, the French
Tokyoite and wine importer who also has a long experience and good taste in music shows. François Dumas is pictured on the right with John Wood, a New-Zealander who spent years working in Tokyo (moved recently to Melbourne for the studies of his children) and who worked several years as staff for Festivin.
The wine tasting even took place at Ebis303 which is a convention & exhibition centre in Ebisu, a trendy area on the south-eastern edge of Shibuya. That day was very sunny and mild (few people know Japan has great weather in november) and I walked all the way from Ikebukuro, where I was staying, and Ebisu, spending time in Takadanobaba, Shinjuku, Harajuku & Shibuya on the way, great stroll and a great way to discover a city by the way, even when the walked-through neighborhoods aren't of touristic value.
The entree fee was high on Paris standards where tastings are often free or charged a symbolic 5 € (which usually pays for the glass), but I was willing to pay the ¥ 7500 (56 €) asked for the 4-hour session because that's really a way to feel the beat of natural-wine in Japan and have a glimpse on its public. As an introduction while we were beginning to enjoy the wines we had a speech by Shinsaku Katsuyama, the core organizer of the event who sported for the occasion a hat made of corks (pic on left). Katsuyama-san is a pioneer in natural wine in Tokyo and he is the founder of Shonzui, now an institution for natural wine and great food in the Japanese capital.
A few weeks ago B. brought back this copy of News Digest magazine from the Japanese quarter near Opéra in Paris; you may know that there are a few streets near the Métro Pyramides and the rue Saint Anne where there's a high concentration of Japanese businesses, offices and venues, and in many of these places including the restaurants you can pick one of the several free Japanese magazines catering for the large expat community living in Paris.
I reported a couple years ago about 33 Vin, another free magazine that helps the Japanese expats discover wine with great pictures, in-depth reports and also this knowledgeable interest for natural wines. Here although I don't read or speak Japanese I was intrigued by a long wine subject where it seemed that outstanding Japanese chefs living in France were asked to pick a wine of their choice. This was another illustration of the high regard for fine wine among the Japanese, with an approach that goes beyond the prestigious labels and Chateaux.
Time for a few more vintage scenes involving people sharing a glass of who-knows-what (not always wine but let's be tolerant...). All these anonymous actors may be gone by now and that makes the contemplation of these scenes more nostalgic. As you know I find these pictures on flea markets and brocantes, vides-grenier (neighnorhood-street flea markets), they've been recovered presumely when an elderly person died and there was no one to collect her papers and family pictures. I often come across great pictures with this excellent quality of black & white prints showing sharp, crisp scenes which are a useful tool to get to feel the way people were living and experiencing their daily life. Inspiration is somehow a more efficient tool to decipher History and understand our elders' reality, and it certainly help us reassess our values and what we should consider really important.
As usual when there's some info with year written on the back of the picture I'll note it, otherwise I'll put the estimated year (may be off target but at least I tried).
Thésée, Touraine (Loire)
Another important practice of biodynamie is the preparation 500, shortnamed usually as the 500, it involves manure that has spent the winter in cow horns disposed underground on the farms's land. This page by Biodynamie Services will get you the essentials of this preparation. This farming practice is even more controversial for
conventionally-trained farmers (and for the general public at large raised on public-school Cartesianism),
just think about it a second : filling cow horns with manure and burying them a couple feet under for a few months, just for the purpose of using the manure for a dynamized-water preparation to be sprayed on the vineyard, the fields and the vegetable garden...Not really easy to explain to the regular guy.
You may know in your own field how it's difficult to go against the mainstream narrative, we humans often behave like sheep and prefer to brush off unsettling concepts that don't fit in our agreed-upon model. I guess many farmers who were tempted to at least give these farming practices a try have been put off by the anticipated uproar in their community. Today in 2015 it's easier of course, the thing may look as weird but so many farmers and growers embraced it (some being top-tier domaines) that at least you can take virtual protection from their own time-proven experience (and wine-rating success) against the mob of critics.
If Biodynamics lacks in recognition in the mainstream farming milieu it can compensate with the generous sharing and emulation culture of its followers, this session was as much to learn the basics of making a preparation than exchanging freely one's own thoughts and experiments, be it in a private vegetable garden or in a vineyard.
this workshop took place in a beautiful day in october.
Pouillé sur Cher (Touraine, Loire)
Biodynamic farming is a growing phenomenon among the organic farmers and growers, we begin ourselves non-farmers to hear about 501 and 500 which we vaguely know are sprayings made on
the vineyard at special times along the year, but we don't have often the opportunity to really see how
it's done and have a direct experience of these practices. In France a few years back nobody knew who Rudolf steiner was (except in Alsace), and as a firm believer in my youth I had to explain his visionary to friends who were unsettled if not suspicious by his approach to human history and his cosmogony. Today, thanks to Steiner's small agricultural part in his teaching, thanks to a few daring French growers he has become very well respected in this country if not yet mainstream.
Biodynamics is more than just organic farming, it's a holistic approach on the soil, the plant life and it connects to the whole universe. Rudolf Steiner's work, and not only the one related to agriculture, is precisely on this level, tapping into forces unknown to the modern man but that encompass the energy of the cosmos.
With biodynamie you do things that don't seem to make sense in the square Cartesian thinking and reasoning we've been brought up with. And the odd thing is that many growers who once decided to try biodynamics say they didn't really believe it themselves either at the beginning, but they saw obvious results not only in the plant life but also in the wine, and they invested themselves more deeply into it, even though they still could have trouble to grasp the cosmology and spirituality of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner's understanding of the world is of the level of inspiration, like what Goethe did in his Theory of Colours, both visionaries possibly decried in their time by official science but plebiscited by reality.
I had the chance to witness the making of a 501 preparation and its subsequent spraying on the parcels, as such a preparation must be spread over the foliage and the vineyard in the following hours. This all took place in Pouillé-sur-Cher, the vineyards being the ones formerly owned by Clos Roche Blanche and now farmed by both Julien Pineau and Laurent Saillard
Vauxrenard, Beaujolais Michel Guignier is making wine in a remote valley near Vauxrenard, in a farm bordering protected woods and wild life. You drive through a mountain pass near here, it's like you're still in the Beaujolais but almost edging on the first mountains of the Massif Central. The
surrounding of the wine farm is so beautiful
and peaceful, you'd almost feel like in an Alpine hideout complete with its woods, cows and prairies, and by the way Michel is a real farmer, raising meat cows and other animals along with tending his parcels and making wine.
When I reached the isolated farm at the end of a dead-end road at a good distance from Vauxrenard on my motorbike, I walked around, saw first his mother then his wife, and they helped me find him, he was either, they said, in the parcel right next to here or in the chai, you really felt like in a real old-time farm with the view over the Beaujolais and the bunch of ruminating white cows enjoying the sun.
Michel Guignier has a long lineage of winegrowers-farmers behind him in his family tree, when he was a child he'd walk to the elementary school in Vauxrenard, no less than 3 kilometers one way using a shortcut through prairies and parcels. He is a man with a passion for authenticity and non-interventionist winemaking. His vineyard is organic since 2000 (at the time there was only a handful of organic growers in the Beaujolais) and it is now farmed along biodynamics. I felt in him a deep commitment to Rudolf Steiner's understanding of the need for a farm to be a living organism by its own.
Morgon, Villié-Morgon (Beaujolais)
The Domaine de la Bonne Tonne now headed by Marcel & Monique Grillet is a family wine farm that has been growing grapes for 6 generations. Marcel's elders worked on a small surface like 3 or 4 hectares, doing some vegetables and a few cows on the side too.
Marcel Grillet who will be succeeded by his son Aurélien works on about 4 hectares, his philosophy has never been to grow his surface
but keep quality terroirs and work them well.
is interesting not only because it is now organic since 2006 (it started its conversion in 2003) but because well before that time it had already taken a qualitative approach on its own. What made him decide to farm organic back then was that he wanted to return to the real values of farming, initially it was not even to be organic certified but he just wanted to plow his vineyard and stop dumping all this herbicide. Even at the start of the domaine from 1975 to 1978 he was not using herbicide, the first year he used some was 1978, but he never felt at ease with this spraying, and later, even before he started his conversion to organic, he began to plow his vineyard instead of spraying the weeds. Then later he thought he might farm organic altogether and began the conversion. He has to make 5 runs with the tractor to control the grass, which is not that difficult actually, and his vineyard is in much better shape. Given that he has some surface on Côte du Py, Aaron asks how many other vignerons are farming organic on this terroir, he says just Foillard and Lapierre. Again it is surprising how few growers on the best terroirs in the Beaujolais have common sense and do a respectful work.
Pictured on left : Mélisse, the cute and discreet domaine's dog. Mélisse is also a plant, and Marcel Grillet says with a laugh that he always names his pets along a plant.