Hokkaido is located in the northernmost part
of the 47 prefectures of Japan, and occupies the largest area of any single
prefecture. When you visit here, you may hear local people refer to the rest of
Japan as “inland”; evidence of the rugged and independent history of the
island. Full-scale settlement began around the end of the 19th century, and
those determined early inhabitants started cultivating the vast, cold, and
empty land. A pioneering spirit still lives vividly on in Hokkaido. For
example, “Tokachi Wine” from Ikeda town, in the Tokachi area, has succeeded in
making itself a symbol of the land, even though it was originally thought that
the soil was not suitable for vines. We push North ourselves, hoping to learn
some of the secrets of a fine wine.


Wine Festival (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Vineyards of Ikeda Town Grape and Wine Research Institute (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Vineyards of Ikeda Town Grape and Wine Research Institute (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Shiny Golden Vineyards in Autumn (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

100 Years of making wine with local grapes

As soon as the clear ruby-colored liquid passes your gullet, it yields up a fresh fruit taste, and an acidity so cool that it tastes almost like mint. This refined flavor, which is unique to the cool northern country, is one of the joys of red wine made using the Yamasachi (mountain happiness) grape. If you're thinking it's weird for a cold land to make red wine, you're not wrong. This special taste comes from the s unusual characteristics of the indigenous grape variety.

Mr. Miyazawa Working at the Ikeda Town Grape and Wine Research Institute (2019)Original Source: Tokachi Wine

“Originally, in Tokachi, it was hard to grow any fruits, including grapes. We don’t have snow as much as Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, but the air has a harsh dryness, and the winters are severe, getting below 20 degrees.” So says Miyazawa and Obuchi, of the Ikedamachi Grape and Wine Research Institute, which produces “Tokachi Wine”. “So even in Hokkaido, where there are many wineries, it is only our institution that is located on the east side of the Hidaka Mountains, the big range in our prefecture.”

Mr. Obuchi Working at the Ikeda Town Grape and Wine Research Institute (2019)Original Source: Tokachi Wine

“The reason the pioneers decided to make wine in such a harsh land as this was that Ikeda Town's management was in the red and was designated as a 'financial reconstruction group'. This meant an agricultural development project, and that focused on a mountain grape, which only grows here.

As they researched a bit further, they discovered that mountain grapes could withstand severe winters and might even be suitable for wine making. Then-Mayor Marutani, now known as the “wine mayor”, made the decision and the first winery production run by a local government started in Japan in 1963”

Wild Vine (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“In Europe, they think wine making is like a grand project so they spend 100 years on it. We will follow that approach,” said the young Mayor Marutani, who had in his mind a vision of how Ikeda town might develop over the next 100 years. However, information on wine-making was very hard to come by at that time.

Old Research Institute’s Field (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Needless to say, at the start, wine-making was a challenging affair. The facility was set up in the mayor's house, and more than once the ageing process ended up giving them vinegar instead of wine.

“Some townspeople might have been sceptical about the wine making, but the turning point came as we were selected for the Bronze Award at the International Wine Convention in Hungary in 1964. It was the start of a swell of support for local wine making”, Obuchi continues.

Wine Made in the Past in Ikeda Town (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

池田町ブドウ・ブドウ酒研究所の表彰状Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The fine taste after trying 20,000 grapes

Despite this early success, Ikeda Town's challenge had really just begun. Mountain grapes were the best varieties for Tokachi because of its excellent frost and disease resistance, as well as their early maturity, but they had the disadvantage of being unstable and difficult to mass-produce.

Consequently, after a bit of research, the area developed a variety called Kiyomi. Later, two original Ikeda varieties, Kiyomai and Yamasachi, were created by combining the best of both powerful wild mountain grapes with the more delicate Kiyomi. About 20,000 grape varieties were tested, but only these two varieties now remain.

Tasting Wine (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“Kiyomai ‘s mother, Kiyomi, is a difficult variety to grow. For example, to protect the vines from the cold in winter, they must be completely filled with soil, and the soil must be removed in the spring. It would be rare in the world to spend that much effort on a vine. On the other hand, Yamasachi grape inherits the astringency and depth of its father, the wild mountain grape. Like Cabernet Franc, it is characterized by its dark color. All of these unique varieties are aged in French oak barrels. Tokachi is actually quite well suited to wine cultivation, if we could somehow eliminate the winter. The temperature difference between the morning and night is intense, and there is so much sunlight that we have a term for it here - Tokachi bare [Tokachi Sunshine]”. The wine of a good vintage year can be recognized by the scent while making it. I want us to keep making the most of these unique, interesting conditions and circumstances ''

List of Barrels in the Aging Chamber for Wine (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Ikeda Town Grape and Wine Research Institute, Which Is Commonly Known as “Wine Castle” (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The wine's biggest fans stay close

Ikeda Town Grape and Wine Research Institute is known as the “Wine Castle” to the locals. It produces not only wine but also ice wine, brandy and liqueurs. “The harvest of grapes for ice wine is harsh, but please do come and join if you can”, Miyazawa smiles.

In fact, Tokachi restaurants are big consumers of the bottles that emerge from the Ikeda Town Grape and Wine Research Institute. On the menu are such novel means of consumption as Rose Rock, rich rosé wine with ice, and Bra Ball, a “high-ball” drink made with brandy. It tells you how much the wine institute is a part of the town.

Harvest Grapes for Ice Wine (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“We harvest two or three times in December, when it's dark almost all the time. The harvest doesn't even start until it falls below -10 degrees. I sometimes feel -9 is just about OK but Mr. Obuchi, who's in charge of the wine making, doesn’t allow it", he laughs. "In the normal mid-October harvest, a lot of local volunteers, including junior high school students, also come. Also, we keep our wine for 20 years and give the birthday vintage wine to children at Seijin Shiki [a national ceremony celebrating when children become adults, at 20 years old]. Even though we conduct our research with the helps of the Furusato Nozei - the tax donation system for local councils - and cloud funding, we are local government after all, so the understanding and support of the local people is essential.

Wine and Brandy made at the Ikeda Town Grape and Wine Research Institute (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Tokachi’s wine is also an influence on the food culture of the land. Pairing indigenous grapes with local ingredients is a key concept when seeking to complement wine. At the annual autumn wine festival, more than 5,000 visitors come to appreciate Tokachi gourmet.

“Tokachi is a farming town with great vegetables, a thriving cheese and dairy industry, and also beef, pork, and mutton. All of which are perfect for wine, aren't they? Through its wine and food culture, many Tokachi people are proud of their home town"

Aging Chamber for Brandy and Large Barrels (2019)Original Source: Tokachi Wine

The 2008 Nouveau Festival‬ (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The situation around “Tokachi Wine” is in the process of changing - it was designated in 2018 as a “GI (Geographical Indication) Hokkaido”, under a system created to properly manage the characteristics of the production area. In terms of taste, light sour wine, which goes well with refined food, is popular at the moment, but wine with a strong personality like Yamasachi seems likely to gather more converts, as the wine tastes of the public broaden. In addition, Tokachi may soon be able to grow international varieties, such as Chardonnay and Merlot, due to climate change. However, no matter what the future holds, there is one thing that seems unlikely to change: the pride that the people of Ikeda town have in their local wine.

Even as the generations turn, the vines will remain strongly rooted in this blessed land, and the townspeople will continue to look forward to the beautiful harvest.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Ikeda Town Grape and Wine Research Institute

Reference material:
"Tokachi Wine Genesis-Ikedacho Grapes and Wine Institute Genesis Story" (Ikedacho Grapes and Wine Institute 2013)

Photo: Misa Nakagaki
Text: Makiko Oji
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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