Q&A with Kusunoki Winery

Shigeyuki Kusunoki is the owner and winemaker at the Kusunoki Winery located in Suzuka City, Nagano – about two and half hours outside of Tokyo by Shinkansen and local train. Mr. Kusunoki opened his winery in 2011 after a career in the aircraft leasing business and is a graduate of the Oenology Department at the University of Adelaide in Australia. The winery has 15 acres of vines and produces about 30,000 bottles of wine annually, including white wines, such as Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, and red wines, such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. This article is adapted from a discussion that he had with us during our May 9 virtual tasting featuring two of his best wines:  a 2019 Hitakihara (a Bordeaux Blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes) and his 2015 Merlot Curvee Masako. You can read our tasting notes here.

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What was your first experience with wine; did you know at that point that you wanted to become a winemaker? 

It was when I visited France when I was 23 years old. At that time, I was still a university student and I went to Paris for a six-month period to study French. I was not interested in wine at all before then.

After graduation you worked in the aircraft leasing business; did that give you many opportunities to travel abroad and did this deepen your interest in wine?

Yes, indeed. I had many opportunities to dine with financiers, airlines executives, aircraft manufacturers, and other related businessmen. We used to drink wine over a meal and at times, as the host, I chose the wines.  So, I started studying up on wines and the more I learned about wine, the more I got interested in it.

You have a graduate degree in Oenology from Adelaide University in Australia; what was the most important thing that you learned; would you recommend doing the same for young Japanese winemakers?

The most important thing I learned is the “science” behind winemaking and grape growing. And that there is never a need to “panic” during the process: whatever occurs in growing the fruit or making the wine, you can still produce a good product. I would recommend our young Japanese winemakers learn the “science” and broaden their experience with winemaking in other countries.

Yamanashi Prefecture is well known for its wines and Hokkaido Prefecture is rapidly becoming a low-cost producer of wine at scale; why did you choose Nagano prefecture over these districts as the place that you wanted to make wine?

During my studies at Adelaide University, I had a class on “Site Selection” in my viticulture curriculum. I collected and analyzed weather data from Japan to find the best location for wine grapes. I was surprised that Nagano Prefecture, where I was born and raised had the most promising profile. Yamanashi was too warm and Hokkaido too cool to successfully grow Chardonnay, Merlot, and other French varietals.

What year did you open your winery and how long was it before you were able to bring a product to market?

I came back to Japan from Australia in 2004, started growing grapes and had nearby wineries in Nagano make wine for me. I started selling these wines in 2007. In 2011, I was confident enough to open my own winery and began selling wines under my own name in 2012.

What was the biggest unanticipated challenge that you encountered in establishing Kusunoki Winery, e.g. national tax regulations; local land use policies; labor costs; climate; distribution network; consumer preferences?   

Everything was a challenge for me. But the hardest part was breaking into the market. Wine shops and consumers were not interested in wines that nobody had ever heard of. I had thought that there would be more interest in my wines, since I was not a big corporation but a winemaker with a story. But there was far less response than I had expected.

Japanese people still consume very little wine on a per capita basis and even less Japanese made wine.  Why has wine been so slow to become popular? Is it because of differences in what people eat and how they drink and socialize? Do young people in Japan have a different view of wine than the older generation?

About ten years ago, per capita consumption of wine in Japan was about two liters a year and it is now just a little over three liters. This compares with 30 liters annually in Spain.  I believe one reason for this is that the average person in Japan may think that wine is “difficult’ and that they must have an opinion about the flavor, the taste, their impressions etc. of a wine. What is more, they always worry about pairing the wine with food. It is just too complicated for the average person! 

And then, among the high-end wine connoisseurs, there is the belief that wine made in Japan does not match up to the quality of foreign wines, say from France. It is also the case that the mass media in Japan does not pay much attention to local wines, so people are just not informed about winemaking in Japan. I hope that, as more people come to know Japanese wines and how to enjoy them, they will appreciate better like our local wines and consume more.

What is the most popular grape in Japan? Do you see this changing? Do you think that more winemakers will move to blending their wines so they can produce a more reliable product and expand the variety of wines available to consumers?

In general, the most popular red wines in Japan are made from Concord and Muscat Bailey A grapes and for whites, Niagara, Koshu and Delaware grapes. They are all quite sweet. Among the European grape varietals, the most popular are Chardonnay for white wines and Merlot for red. But this is changing. Many wineries are trying new grape varieties like Petit Manseng, Albarino, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, as well as Malvasia. I feel that blending and the increasing introduction of new types of grapes are the future direction for the market here.

Japanese wines are relatively low in alcohol content. Why is this so and how does this affect the taste of Japanese wine?

Lower alcohol level of wines in Japan are due to the lower sugar content of grapes and the generally humid weather conditions. The alcohol level of wine reflects the sugar content of the grapes and the sugar content depends on the ripeness the grapes, which is related to the weather, i.e. hours of sunshine, diurnal range, rainfall, and other factors during the growing season. In Japan, we have fewer sunshine hours and a smaller diurnal range than found in other major wine producing countries. Consequently, we have less sugar content. Additionally, the weather can be very humid, particularly during the September typhoon season. Since many grape growers in Japan opt to harvest in early September to lessen the chance of weather-related damage, grapes here have a relatively lower sugar content.

As a result, Japanese wines, generally, are lighter and less alcoholic, reflecting the nature of Japan’s “terroir.”  We believe that this lighter and elegant style goes very well with Japanese food. Japanese cuisine is light and sophisticated with subtle differences of taste. For this reason, most wine drinkers in Japan would not likely prefer higher alcohol content wines. Higher alcohol content will also need greater acidity to balance the taste and at least for me, while the first glass of such wine may be good, the second glass is a bit too filling and tends to overwhelm the food. 

The Nagano appellation system is meant to build consumer awareness of the variety and quality of wines available in the prefecture and to encourage greater production of wines from Nagano grown grapes. Is the system working and how it could be improved?

The system is meant to help improve the quality of Nagano wines, especially at this early stage of development. However, the system does not yet have significant awareness among consumers even within the prefecture. We need to do a better job promoting understanding of the appellation system. Moreover, another discouraging aspect of the system is the extensive documentation require to be certified. The time and effort required is much larger than the practical results so far.

What are areas where Japanese winemakers still lag behind winemakers in France, the United States or Australia; are there techniques and practices that Japanese winemakers can teach the rest of the world?

Japanese winemakers need to deepen their understanding of the “science” of winemaking. The big companies like Suntory, Manns, and Chateau Mercian will send their staff to France or the United States for training, and they even own and operate wineries in these countries. But for most middle to small size wineries, there are few opportunities for winemakers to gain systematic training in wine making beyond what they learn on the job. It is not difficult to ferment grapes, but it is another story to grow good grapes and make good wines. It is said that “winemaking is an art based on science.” We need more scientific education and research on grape growing and wine making in Japan at the universities and elsewhere.

What is our wine message to the world? We want people to know that Japanese are making tremendous efforts to grow grapes and make wines under difficult environmental constraints. We will never give up the goal of making the best wines that we can.

Are there enough opportunities for the exchange of best practices between Japanese and foreign wine makers; are there ways to increase this kind of exchange?

No, there are not enough opportunities. Winemaking is not a big business in Japan.  While there is some support provided by local governments, there is not enough funding for international exchange opportunities. It would be great if a governor or other senior political official would give more attention to winemaking.

Japan arguably makes the best whiskey in the world; will Japan someday make some of the best wine in the world – and will that wine come from Nagano?

No doubt about it, but we don’t know when. We are putting a lot of effort into grape growing and winemaking and we are confident that the day will come when Japan Wine like Japan Whiskey is considered among the best in the world.  Will it be from Nagano?   I want to say “yes” and we are working toward that goal, but there are also many other good producers of wine in other areas of Japan, such as Hokkaido, Yamagata, Yamanashi, Toyama and even Kyushu.

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