‘Ex­treme’ Ja­panese wine­maker is a nat­u­ral

For­mer chemist makes most or­ganic prod­uct he can

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - TASTE - By SAN­DRA LAFFONT in Cor­nas, France Agence France-Presse

Hiro­take Ooka does not do any­thing by half. For nearly two decades the for­mer Ja­panese chemist has been on a quest to make the very best and most nat­u­ral French wine pos­si­ble.

But he hasn’t made it easy for him­self.

His mod­est vine­yards on a hill near Cor­nas, where the moun­tains of the Ardeche drop into the Rhone val­ley, is not so much steep as ver­tig­i­nous.

Which means not only that his grapes must be picked by hand but that he and his pick­ers are of­ten forced to per­form the back­break­ing task on their knees, grape by grape.

With most parcels of land in this dry cor­ner of south cen­tral France passed down from fa­ther to son, Ooka had to carve his vine­yards out of a wooded hill­side, be­fore plant­ing his syrah vines in the gran­ite soil.

But it was per­haps destiny that Ooka should land there — his sur­name means “big hill” and he duly named his es­tate “Do­maine de Grande Colline”.

An old French maxim has it that to make good wine, the vines must strug­gle.

And just like them, Ooka has suf­fered in his al­most fun­da­men­tal­ist pur­suit of vin na­ture, the most or­ganic wine pos­si­ble.

Yet de­spite the worst that na­ture could throw at him — he lost 90 per­cent of his har­vest in 2013 to “black rot” and nearly two-thirds this year to mildew — Ooka has be­come one of the most re­spected nat­u­ral wine­mak­ers in France.

“My phi­los­o­phy is to make a wine just with the grapes, with­out yeast, sugar or sul­fites. In the vine­yard as well, I like to do the most nat­u­ral things pos­si­ble,” he adds, let­ting the grass grow un­der his vines and en­cour­ag­ing as much bio­di­ver­sity as pos­si­ble.

Lashed to a har­ness

Part of his quiet, ma­ni­a­cal ded­i­ca­tion to the pre­ci­sion and au­then­tic­ity means he crushes his red grapes him­self with his bare feet, lashed to a har­ness in case he drowns in the vat.

“Crush­ing them with my feet I learn a lot about their aroma, tem­per­a­ture and the speed of fer­men­ta­tion,” he said.

“I wear the har­ness be­cause it’s dan­ger­ous with all the car­bon diox­ide that es­capes — it would only take a lit­tle for me to pass out and drown.”

Ooka, 42, dis­cov­ered wine on his first visit to France 20 years ago. “In Tokyo I drank beer, I thought wine was too snobby,” he says.

But his road to Da­m­as­cus came with the open­ing of a bot­tle of claret he bought for his fa­ther.

He re­turned to France and trained to be a wine­maker among the great winer­ies of Bordeaux.

But he soon re­al­ized that the wine he wanted to make was not pos­si­ble amid the mono­cul­ture of vil­lages given over to­tally to wine.

He wanted his vines to ben­e­fit from the bio­di­ver­sity of be­ing next to trees and veg­etable patches.

“He is a lot more ex­treme than us in the way he looks after his wines — he’s a real non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist,” says Thierry Alle­mand, one of the pioneers of the vin na­turel or vin na­ture move­ment, with whom Ooka also trained.

Some of the other lo­cal wine­mak- ers “do not un­der­stand his way of do­ing things”, Alle­mand ad­mits.

But few dis­pute the qual­ity of his wine. Alle­mand de­scribes it as “very well made, fresh and long in the mouth”, even if Ooka is still search­ing for the per­fect equi­lib­rium after only five har­vests at Cor­nas.

Half of the 30,000 bot­tles a year he pro­duces are ex­ported to Ja­pan, al­though with this year’s poor har­vest he is hav­ing to buy in some of his grapes from his or­ganic neigh­bors in Saint Peray and Saint Joseph.

Ooka is one of just a hand­ful of Ja­panese wine­mak­ers in France, with the young Ken­jiro Kagami also be­gin­ning to make a name for him­self — also with vin na­ture — in the Jura re­gion.

But his suc­cess has also come at a per­sonal cost. His wife and three chil­dren are mov­ing back to live in Ja­pan, al­though he in­tends to di­vide his time be­tween the two coun­tries.

And one day he hopes to found his own do­main in Ja­pan.

But un­til then his com­mit­ment to mak­ing his wine in France is to­tal. When he first de­cided to give up chem­istry for wine­mak­ing, he ini­tially thought about go­ing to Cal­i­for­nia.

“But the Amer­i­cans learned how to make wine from the French, so I de­cided to go straight to France, even through I didn’t speak French,” he says.

“All the great wines are there and it is beau­ti­ful too.”

PHO­TOS BY PHILIPPE DESMAZES

Ja­panese wine­grower Hiro­take Ooka works in his vine­yard in Saint Peray near Va­lence in south­east­ern France.

From left: Hiro­take Ooka tastes wine in his cel­lar; Ooka presses grapes in a tank.

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