This is a quick translation of my article on Forbes Japan (original article is here).
Japanese wine continues to increase its production and presence. In recent years, Japanese wines have become more diverse and its quality has been rising. They have attracted more audience especially domestically than ever before.
Originally, Japan was not considered as an ideal place to grow grapes for wine because of its climate, however growers and producers who have worked hard to overcome these disadvantages have been pushing it forward.
The world's top-class wine producers have also begun to pay attention to Japan. This article introduces the wine project that Monsieur Etienne de Montille, a prominent producer in Burgundy, France has initiated in Hokkaido.
Burgundy is probably the place that many wine lovers are dreaming of. It is a special place where some of the world's very best wines are produced from Chardonnay grapes for whites and Pinot Noir grapes for reds.
Domaine de Montille is a prestigious Burgundy wine domaine based in Volnay, with a history of about 300 years. They produce top class wines from some of the greatest terroirs of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards.
Etienne de Montille took over his family estate after a career as a lawyer and an investment banker. His decision to return to Burgundy was triggered by his growing interest in wine after living in the San Francisco Bay Area for a year when he was 19 years old. Growing up in a traditional wine region and encountering the liberal spirit of California might have influenced his later life and career.
In Burgundy, where there is a high demand for limited vineyard areas, the price for the vineyard have skyrocketed, and it is very difficult to newly acquire a Grand Cru or Premier Cru rated vineyard. Under such situation, Etienne de Montille has shown his talent and has steadily grown the family domaine by acquiring excellent vineyards such as the vineyard of “Les Malconsorts” in Vosne-Romanée with a new transaction scheme, and also by acquiring "Chateau de Puligny Montrachet".
In the vineyards, further improvements have been done by adopting organic and biodynamic farming practices. Vinification has also been changed to be in line with the more modern style which makes wine more open and enjoyable in its early life.
One day, his Japanese friend offered Etienne the opportunity to taste some Japanese wines. It was not wines made from indigenous grape varieties unique to Japan, but were made from international grape varieties that expressed the terroir of Japan. He recalls this tasting, "I felt the strong individuality of the wines and thought the idea was very interesting.”
He then visited the wine-growing regions in Japan. While the infrastructure for winemaking was not yet in place, he met people who were trailblazers with the diligence, precision, and hard work which he felt are typical of the Japanese. He respected those people and found the potential of Japanese wine. He was also attracted to make wines as a pioneer, which he will not be able to experience in Burgundy where the winegrowing has already established.
Etienne says, “Burgundy is a wonderful wine-growing region rooted in rich tradition and history, but there is little space for innovation. On the other hand, Japan's lack of tradition and infrastructure is interesting to me. I was also attracted to the idea of creating something out of nothing."
This is exactly what I felt when I met Etienne --- “pioneer spirits”.
Etienne has the entrepreneurial mindset to challenge new things based on his curiosity and flexible thoughts, as well as the generosity to share his knowledge and experience, and the ability to accomplish things through teamwork, which I find the same in people of Silicon Valley.
The timing also matched. He had grown his own domaine in Burgundy as stated above, and he was looking for his next step and new challenge.
Etienne chose Hakodate after visiting a number of Japanese wine regions to determine the suitability to grow Burgundian grape varieties. After researching and analyzing the soil and climate, he found what he considered to be a suitable site and began growing grapes.
Starting from scratch on an empty plot, the project was launched in 2016 and the first vines were planted in 2019. When I visited there in early summer in 2021, I saw the viticulture team working diligently to plant vines and farm the vineyard in a place of approximately 38 hectares. Currently, about 10 hectares are planted with vines, and they plan to gradually increase the area under vines.
The brand name is “De MONTILLE & HOKKAIDO”. The Team has organized with Hayuru Yano, who has a long and deep experience in the wine business, appointed as general manager. Baptiste Pagès, head of viticulture and winemaking, has joined from De Montille in Burgundy and Kaori Ishiguro has taken on the role of connecting Japan and France as executive officer.
Etienne is convinced that he can create something unique and interesting by combining his winemaking experience in Burgundy with the understanding of the terroir and place by Japanese, local people. Although it was not easy with many obstacles, seeing his sincere efforts, people have gathered one by one.
Etienne says that he shares the same passion and cooperative attitude with his Japanese friends who all desire to help boost the region. "I have received advice and inspiration from the pioneering wine growers who make wine in Hokkaido.”
With grapes from his friend grower, he has started making wine from Hokkaido grapes in 2018. He plans to start producing wine from his own vineyards, planted in 2019, in 2023. Also, a winery facility is being constructed within the site with a spectacular view.
This project and Etienne himself will surely make an imprint in the history of Japanese wine. I look forward to the day when I taste the unprecedented wine that is made through a fusion of the strengths of France and Japan --- combination of the unique place of Japan and the world's best talent.