Sunday, May 6, 2012

Field Trip! - Coco Farm and Winery, Ashikaga, Tochigi

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

After hearing about it on the weekend Master of Wine course at Temple University in Azabu Juban (much fun and learning to be had, highly recommended btw), we took the opportunity this Golden Week to pay a visit to Coco Farm and Winery in Tochigi prefecture. It was beautiful weather.

Golden Week is Spring Vineyard Week (information in Japanese) at the winery which, unlike the larger Harvest Festival coinciding with an actual vineyard life-cycle event, seems to be an event thrown just to make an excuse to visit. Not that I needed much persuading. I’ll preface by saying that I’ve had a pretty poor experience with Japanese wines to date - I was disappointed when the house wine at brunch at Beacon was koshu, as I find it just tastes like faintly alcoholic water. However, I had heard very interesting things about Coco - the wonderful back story of how students with learning disabilities and their families had started a farming endeavour at the site in the 1950s and now produce quality wines, and the intriguing input of technical knowledge and artisanal tuning of the product over the years under the guidance of master Californian wine maker Bruce Gutlove (nice article there) who moved to Japan to join Coco in 1989, and stayed. This article in CNN World describes how Coco operates through sales of wine, government grants, donations and tuition fees from the students, and that over 100 developmentally disabled people work and thrive there. We didn't get to meet the students on our visit, but passing through the residential area ahead of the winery there were a couple of heartily shouted greetings of konnichiwa! and waving hands from inside houses which makes me inclined to agree the students must be happy and doing well.

Overhead trellises

Japan does not have a good climate for growing wine grapes. I understand that humidity is the main problem, then there is the summer heat, and the typhoon season. The vines at Coco are trained along trellises above head height to help combat the humidity, and I heard that each bunch of grapes is wrapped at a certain time in the cycle for further protection.

Painstakingly trained to the trellis by hand

Varieties grown have also been selected for their relative suitability to the Japanese climate. Looking around you can spot plates with the names of the varietal planted, the one nearest me was ‘Petit Manseng’ a grape from the South of France that I hadn’t heard of. Among others I wasn’t familiar with were Norton, Tannat and Riesling 'Lion', one I was very excited to try being a Riesling fan since my conversion to German wines during blind tasting on the wine course.

For the vineyard week, a covered area beneath the 2nd-floor restaurant was arranged as an alfresco tasting area. There were light meals available here and 3 flights of 4 wines to arrange on your semi-circle tasting tray, with more wines available, including the sparkling ones, to try by the individual glass.

Our Coco, Yama no Chardonnay, Koshu F.O.S., and Tannat-Norton

Bread made on site with wild yeast

Here came my first epiphany of the day. “Our Coco” あわここ (awa in Japanese means bubbles, hurrah for more cross-language punning!). It’s a cloudy (likely to be less filtered and over processed = more character), pleasantly acidic slightly spritzy wine, made with koshu grapes. My pet-peeve grape, and I loved it. It is 2,000 yen a bottle, and comes with the pre-corking beer-cap style top, that is used for the duration of the initial bottle fermentation when making champagne. The Tannat Norton was also surprisingly robust compared to the experience I have generally had with Japanese red wine.

My second epiphany was with the Novo. This is their star wine, with a matching price tag - the brut and demi sec bottles are 7,500 yen each, there is also a 1998 Grand Cuvee brut that is made with Californian grapes in the traditional champagne method that sells for 8,500 yen. The wine I tried was the Novo Brut made with domestic Riesling Lion grapes. Crisply acidic, with a remarkable sherry nose and a mineral finish, it was extremely elegant and yes, all Japanese! I'll just add here that I need to do the distance test on these wines - a friend told me he used to visit Coco often and have a great time sitting amongst the vines drinking with a big group of friends, rolling empty bottles down the hill, and the wine tasted excellent. Then you'd buy a couple of bottles to take back, but once you tried them at home out of the context of the winery, they paled against non-Japanese wines you could buy in Tokyo for the same price. As a serious student of quality and taste I pledge to look into this alleged phenomenon further, though it will, naturally, involve the drinking of more wine. ;)

Though Coco used to buy some grapes from Cline Cellars in California, the wine currently produced there is all made from domestic Japanese grapes, with much of the harvest coming from other, less humid regions of Japan - Hokkaido, Nagano, Yamanashi prefectures. The dramatic slope at Coco Winery makes up about 2 the total of 5 hectares of vines they have in Tochigi, from which they harvest between 15-20 tonnes of grapes.

We learned this and more on a tour of the winery, the first winery tour I’ve been on, as our friendly guide showed us how the wine making process takes place at Coco.

Fermenting white wine

Fermenting red wine

Explaining the méthode champenoise

It was surprisingly small scale - lots of manual labour involved, tending the vines and trimming leaves, scaring off crows, unloading and sorting bunches by hand. The bunches pass by on a conveyor belt as the bad berries are picked out, then the remainder fall into a machine with a large corkscrew-shaped device that pushes the them into a metal tube with holes for the grapes to fall through, separated from stems. The grapes are then ready to be pressed. It was explained that any kind of pressure, such as that used in many wineries to pump the grapes/juice to different parts of the process can stress the product undesirably, and so as much as possible is done fairly manually, or with the aid of gravity rather than pumps.

Bottling the wine

Labeling the bottles

Here we’re coming back to the small farm conundrum - that it’s endearing and laudable, but is it the right thing, for Japan and the global future of food production to cling onto the small less efficient farms? The staff explained that the usual yield from a hectare of land would be 10 tonnes of grapes, and that at Coco they produce up to 4 tonnes per hectare. Coco's 5 hectare size also contrasts sharply with the 10-100 hectares of "medium size" Californian vineyards. On the other hand the small scale certainly allows for a more artisanal approach - on the main 2-hectare slope of Coco Winery at least 8 different varieties of grape were pointed out to us. The winery also uses only wild yeast from the skins of the grapes for their wine making, all apart from the sparkling wines whose second fermentation uses added yeast. Then there are the people you meet there - the people who work producing the wine are not only knowledgeable about their product, they are interested in it, and excited to share their enjoyment with you. One of the pourers at the tasting area was telling me he was looking forward to the chance to visit England to see how the UK sparkling wine industry is blooming. They really seem to care about what they are doing.

Coco is clearly doing much more than mass producing a consistent standard of marketable wine, aside from the fantastic environment they have created to enjoy the wine in, there is an educational component, and a humanitarian core to the enterprise. It's a business and a school, a community and quite an experience to visit. "Coco Farm and Winery - Product of sun, soil and sincerity"

Clearing the slope

The spring Vineyard Week was not an overwhelmingly busy time to visit, which was perfect for me, preferring a leisurely pace and a bit of space. There were generally spots available in the ground-floor tasting area, I'd advise making a reservation for lunch though if you're thinking of eating at the restaurant (they do wines by the glass, decanter and bottles), to avoid having to queue. Harvest Festival time sounds like the most popular time to go, so if you prefer bustle and activity then you might prefer to go in the Autumn.

You can also buy their wines to be delivered inside Japan here, in Japanese. Here is a list of establishments in Tokyo stocking Coco wines, including Meidi-ya stores in Roppongi, Hiro and Marunouchi.

---- Update! ----

I'd like to report back with the first results of the off-farm context taste testing that I've selflessly subjected myself to (the idea that the wine tastes great because you had it at Coco, but then pales in comparison to other wines when you get it back home):

We opened our bottle of Our Coco the other day and had it with grilled swordfish (and fries). It performed admirably off-farm, and put me in the mind of a good cider, with its subtle spritz and light fruity flavours. One thing I hadn't been expecting however was the smudge of peanut butter-like sediment in the neck of the bottle. I understood it to be the natural yeast, the product of the wine making process, and not a fault, but how best to deal with it? Do you strain it, wipe it out, just ignore it?
I contacted Coco and got a very kind reply explaining that the sediment is called "lees" - residual yeast, and is still active. I guess this is the stuff that is frozen in the neck of the bottle and disgorged when making Champagne, and accounts for the cloudiness I mentioned above. The lady from Coco Farm went on to explain that Our Coco is made very naturally, without added sugar or sulfur, which are common ingredients in wine making. She assured me that the sediment is not harmful, and rather desirable in that it can lend complexity to the flavours. Here are her instructions for dealing with the sediment:

"Before you drink Our Coco, please keep the bottle stood up so that lees will be collected on the bottom of the bottle. After a while, the upper part of the bottle will be clear then lower part will be cloudy. Now, you can enjoy both flavor, freshness and complexity."

Methinks I'm going to need to 'test' this one out again... ;)

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