We’ve all felt trembles inside while tasting very special wines, but experiencing an earthquake as I sipped a world-class Pinot Gris was a new thing for me.
In Japan, of course, earthquakes are a fairly common occurrence. It’s an island that is harsh to inhabit in many ways, and it’s certainly not the easiest climate for growing wine grapes.
Given the intense humidity of Japan, hybrid grapes are very popular. The red grape Muscat Bailey-A is the most planted grape in Japan; you’ll also encounter the white grape Koshu, perhaps skin-fermented, as well as the North American hybrid Niagara and Kerner from Germany. Still, there’s strong enthusiasm for European vitis vinifera across the country.
In Yamanashi prefecture, the main wine-growing region of Japan, the winemaker Eishi Okamoto farms 3 hectares of French varieties and produces wines of elegance that will stir something inside you, even if there are no tectonic plates moving below when you try them. His label is called Beau Paysage.
We visited Eishi on a very warm and sunny early August day. First, we stopped into the vineyards, in a town called Tsegane, which is a plateau sitting at 800 meters above sea level, surrounded by the mountains known as the “Japanese Alps.”
Eishi, who is a trim man probably in his forties, and quite shy — later in the day, after many glasses of wine, he laughed open-mouthed, but until then he was very reserved — pointed out the varieties as we passed through the rows, which as you can see are trellised with the vertical shoot system.
The vine canopies were carefully hedged on top, work Eishi does by hand. He never plows, just lets the weeds grow in between the rows. There was primarily Merlot, as well as Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Pinot Blanc (and a mutation that produces yellow grapes, which Eishi has dubbed Pinot d’Or), Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Much of the vineyard is volcanic soil. Eishi planted these vines in 1999-2000.
The farming in Tsegane is primarily organic. However, since 2011 Eishi has resorted to using a synthetic fungicide in the vineyards to combat something called “banper” disease, which he says would cause absolute destruction.
The rest of the day was spent leisurely tasting Eishi’s wines and discussing them, as well as natural wine more generally, with the help of our mutual friends, the natural wine distributor Lulie Cross and the natural wine journalist Junko Nakahama, who translated back-and-forth. Eishi’s wife served us some homemade egg-and-veggie sushi, as well as cold soba. Their young kids came in and out of the kitchen and at one point I curled up on the couch with them to let the older one read to me from their picture books.
We listened to classical and jazz — in fact, Eishi has commissioned a few albums of music compiled to match his wines, but it’s not just an aesthetic project, he sells the booklets that accompany these albums as a fundraiser to create awareness about the prevalence of sugar being added to wine throughout Japan. Eishi explained that this sugar is sourced from places like Brazil, where its growth contributes to the destruction of rainforests. I’ll admit, the connection between classical music and sugar monocropping might not seem obvious — but I know that it can feel impossible to make any political statement within the culture of wine, so I admire the effort.
One other interesting thing Eishi said was regarding sorting the grapes upon harvest — something he does not do, which surprised me given his seemingly meticulous nature and the tidiness of his sparse winery. But Eishi asked us to “imagine a movie theater that only allowed in the young and healthy…” If he made wine like this, Eishi said, it would be “too uniform.” He “prefers harmony.” I thought that was such a lovely explanation.
We briefly saw the winery, although not much was going on. If you want to learn more about Eishi’s winemaking, including his very special bottling technique, definitely check out this post by the veteran natural wine blogger Bert of Wine Terroirs — he visited when the winery was more in action.
Eishi doesn’t see Beau Paysage as a beacon of natural winemaking — in fact, he wasn’t even aware of the concept, and simply felt he was working within a tradition of Japanese craftmanship, until an influential Tokyo-based wine bar owner and importer, the recently passed Shinsaku Katsuyama, visited Eishi’s winery with a bottle from the Alsatian winemaker Bruno Schueller. That wine and that encounter showed Eishi how natural winemaking was a global movement, and pushed him further in the non-interventionist direction.
Below are my impressions of the wines we tasted at Eishi’s house, surrounded by rice paddies. Note that recent vintages have been made without sulfur additions. We also had the pleasure of trying the 2014 Chardonnay a few days earlier in Tokyo, and it was a wonderful bottle, elegantly balanced between round and mineral aspects, with stonefruit and citric notes in harmony. It was aged with some new oak, which is a practice Eishi employs largely because of the lack of neutral oak available in Japan. The new oak didn’t bother me too much although it was noticeable. If you find the bottle, I recommend cellaring it.
- 2017 Pinot d’Or – Eishi managed to produce 15 bottles of this varietal anomaly! We really liked it — 11% ABV with a slight orange hue from three weeks’ maceration; with notes of fresh-cut grass and white peach and a warm, inviting texture. Since he had a very small amount of Pinot d’Or grapes, Eishi put them on top of Chardonnay must in the basket press he uses for all his wines (you cannot get enough leverage to press if the amount is too minuscule). The wine was aged in large sake bottles (very practical!).
- 2015 “A HUM” Sauvignon Blanc – I was so interested to find out that Eishi’s whites are named “A HUM” after the full pronunciation of the word many yoga practitioners know as “OM.” This wine also received three weeks of skin contact — all of the whites ferment and age in stainless steel, by the way — he has these nice 225-Liter stainless drums. It had a nose of lemon drops and yellow peaches, and the wine had a stunning balance of minerality, notes of yuzu and blood orange, and a soft but lasting finish. I really liked this one. (Note that the A HUM white wines are distinguished only by the color of the words on the label!)
- 2014 “A HUM” Pinot Blanc – Most people don’t think of Pinot Blanc as an exciting variety, but Eishi would prove them wrong! This was a floral wine with incredible texture, balanced acidity, overtones of hazelnut, and a quite serious structure. Three weeks of maceration. My favorite of the whites.
- 2013 “A HUM” Pinot Gris – A reddish, darker hue than the other whites. This wine struck me as quite Friulian (indeed, Eishi is a fan of Vodopivec‘s wines, which are from the general area near Friuli). Lower in acidity than the other whites, with soft fruitiness, I found it lovely.
- 2003 Pinot Noir – This was the second vintage of Beau Paysage Pinot Noir. You won’t find it on the market, we were lucky to taste! The nose was crushed roses and burnt caramel, with a richly textured palate of dried orange peels — very complex. Beautiful.
- 2014 Cabernet Franc “La Bois” – Tannic, dark cherry, fresh boysenberry. The reds are aged in small oak barrels, and maybe some stainless, too. I liked the Cabernet Franc I’ll admit that the whites impressed me more.
If you want to read more about Japanese natural wine culture, stay tuned for Pipette Magazine’s forthcoming Issue 4, where I’ll feature several of Tokyo’s best drinking and dining establishments as well as more insight into natural winemaking in Japan. The Issue (print-only) will be available for pre-order on the magazine website in September, as well as via stockists around the world in early October.
Thank you to Eishi and his wife for the visit and to Lulie for arranging the trip. Japanese viticulture and winemaking are going to become more and more exciting as the years carry on. I hope some progress can be made in terms of finding ways to farm organically despite the climate.