I head to Omachi, in the north of Nagano Prefecture, in the Nihon Alps wine region. It’s decidedly alpine here, and we’re fringed by mountains, and the vineyard is covered by a blanket of snow. I’m here to visit Masaki Wakabayashi, who established his small winery, Northern Alps Vineyards, back in 2008.
He’s from here, and he used to teach in the swimming school just a few hundred metres away from the winery. But at the age of 25 he quit his job and joined the family business of agriculture. His ambition was to grow wine grapes and makes wine, and when he was thinking about how to achieve this he sought advice from his cousin, Eiji Wakabayashi, who is a well known sommelier.
But the project stalled when he made an estimate of the budget needed for building the winery and developing the vineyard: it came out at Y300 million, so he thought it would be impossible.
He talked to his father about starting a project together, but his father disagreed, so Masaki decided to leave for Tokyo. He began working as a computer systems engineer in 1999. Si what changed? In 2004 his uncle established a winery on a budget of just Y36 million, so Masaki thought it might actually be achievable.
Hi mother became sick and died and his father decided not to continue farming. So Masaki asked him not to sell the land, but instead he began his vineyard project here in 2008. He planted 0.8 hectares of Chardonnay and Merlot.
Now he has 3.4 hectares of vines, and the winery was established in 2015. In addition to Chardonnay and Merlot, there’s Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc, as well as a bit of Yama Sauvignon (a hybrid between Cabernet Sauvignon and a wild Japanese mountain grape, Yamaudou, which is Vitis coignetiae). Chardonnay is the dominant variety.
He borrowed the money for the winery using the land as collateral, and is now producing around 15 000 bottles annually, including some cider. Because of climate change it is now raining in September, so he’s looking for other varieties that he can harvest earlier. He thinks Pinot Gris and Sauvignon have more potential for this reason.
Northern Alps Vineyards Alter Hard Cider
Secondary fermentation in bottle without disgorging. Dry and fresh with nice bite. Crisp style with nice precision. Some tannin here.
Northern Alps Vineyards Lab Pinot Gris 2017 Nagano, Japan
500 bottles made. This is lively and characterful, with some bright citrus, a hint of grapey richness, some smoky notes and a stony finish. Dry with nice personality, and more than a hint of seriousness. I really like it. 90/100
Northern Alps Vineyards Alter Unwooded Chardonnay 2017 Nagano, Japan
Creamy, dairy nose. The palate has a creamy edge to the bright citrus fruit with some peach and apple richness. Smells a bit of soft cheese. Nice fruit though. Distinctive: I haven’t had a wine that smells of brie before. 83/100
Northern Alps Vineyards Chardonnay Oak Premium 2017 Nagano, Japan
1800 bottles made. 10 months in barrel. Fruity and lively with nice citrus fruit, some pear, and a touch of vanilla oak. Has an open, appley character with some citrus peel tang on the finish. Attractive and very drinkable. 88/100
Northern Alps Vineyards Pinot Noir Premium 2017 Nagano, Japan
Young vines. First he was thinking of making rosé from them. Faded colour. Savoury herbal, beetroot nose. The palate has savoury, beetroot and dried herb character. It’s dry and there’s a lack of fruit. Finishes savoury and a bit earthy. Some appley notes, too, suggestive of oxidation. 80/100
Northern Alps Vineyards Alter Merlot 2016 Nagano, Japan
Wild fermentation and very low SO2. Nice colour. Juicy, fresh and focused with bright berry and cherry fruits, with good acidity. A light, fresh, expressive style with nice balance. 87/100
Northern Alps Vineyards Merlot Cabernet Franc Premium 2017 Nagano, Japan
70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc. Bright and juicy with very supple, fresh red cherry, raspberry and blackcurrant fruit. A lighter style with juicy fruit, good acidity, and well integrated green notes. Very lively and expressive. This is very light but delicious. 89/100
Northern Alps Vineyards Lab Yama Sauvignon NV Nagano, Japan
A blend of 2016 and 2017, grown on a pergola system, with 25 year old vines. Powerful and expressive. This has robust blackcurrant fruit with a beetroot edge, and good acidity. Very juicy and lively, with a slight rusticity. Savoury with some bite. 86/100