Toyota, Aichi Prefecture – When Daisuke Suzaki visited one of the legends of the Japanese wine world, Akihito Kido, with a passionate cry for help with his winemaking dreams, he was initially greeted with bewilderment.
A cellar in Toyota? Home to the headquarters of Japan’s largest automaker, adjacent to Nagoya, the country’s fourth largest city?
As a native Toyota son, Kido (from the eponymous Kido winery in Nagano) was sympathetic to Suzaki’s ambitions. But with first-hand knowledge of the scorching heat afflicting the city, he also found his visitor “a little strange”.
Despite this, Suzaki and his wife, Azusa, have established the Azucca e Azucco winery in Toyota and have been so successful that their wines – from Pinot Noirs to Chardonnay-Gewurztraminer blends and sparkling red lambruscos – sell out immediately after release, and feature on elite wine lists in Tokyo and Osaka.
The winery points to the surprising diversity of a transformation in Japanese winemaking that began with Kido and a handful of other winemakers around 2000, and spread from Hokkaido to Kyushu. Much of the pleasure of discovering the wines of Japan is each vintage’s expression of a distinctive local environment, or perhaps fûdo – a cherished Japanese term for natural characteristics that carries spiritual connotations.
“Azucca e Azucco produce wines that recall the landscape and the warmth of their fields,” explains Shuhei Okubo, who serves Suzaki wines at his Franco-Japanese wine bar Level in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka district. “There is sparkle and character in these wines that bring to life the special conditions in which they are made each year. “
For Suzaki, it’s only natural: “I was born here, and I can’t help it. Through invention and ingenuity, we want to express Toyota’s unique terroir.
Inspiration in Italy
Suzaki overcame Kido’s skepticism, persuading him to welcome him as an intern by telling him about the three years he studied enology in Sicily and Tuscany. While Sicily is known for its extreme heat, Tuscany is also far from the ideal wine-growing terrain that people imagine.
“Especially on the Tuscan coast where I trained, it’s hot and inhospitable, and the temperatures don’t drop enough at night,” explains Suzaki. “This is always where Sassicaia, one of the great wines in the world, is produced.
The experience of seeing “stubborn old folks” deploying technique, invention, wisdom and cunning to make great wine under difficult conditions inspired Suzaki to try the same at Toyota. “I didn’t see the point of going in search of the ideal land, in a place where I had no personal connection,” explains Suzaki. “The fun was overcoming the challenges to make wine where I was born and raised.”
The first turmoil of this mission came when Daisuke and Azusa were university students in Tokyo. Inspired by the boom in Italian food and wine in Japan in the 1990s, they backpacked Italy, visiting countless wineries in highly contrasting environments.
“What I loved during these backpacking trips is seeing vineyards clinging to the alpine slopes, then next to the beaches where people bathe in the sea,” he recalls. “It taught me that there is no such thing as a ‘best’ wine country: every region in Italy has its own appeal and character.
“I also learned that grapes are an extremely strong life form. The grapes overcome drought, heavy rains, frosts, ”he adds. “Looking at the different conditions under which they thrive in Italy has convinced me that we can also be successful at Toyota. “
Pass the torch
Suzaki’s story closely mirrors the philosophy of Kido’s own mentor, Usuke Asai, who pursued a solitary mission in the ’80s and’ 90s to prove that Japan could make great wines. Asai succeeded through intense research and trial and error, but the transformation he led was first a mindset revolution.
For generations, the conventional wisdom was that Japan was just not a suitable place for wine making. Heat, humidity, seasonal rains and acidic terrain, it was believed, all condemned Japan to produce only sugary drinks made from table grapes.
Asai scoffed at the idea that Japan’s winemaking was “doomed” to failure, while questioning the equally ingrained idea that regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy were somehow “blessed” by. greatness.
“It is not blessed lands that create great wines,” Asai said. “These are lands where people create great wines that are considered blessed. … Wine is not a gift from the gods. It is the humans who work hard to cajole nature, over the generations, who produce great wines.
Asai proved his theory by making a famous Nagano Merlot. His greatest legacy has been to mentor Kido and a host of other young winemakers on a journey of winemaking excellence – spilling nearly a century of resignation over plonky predestination.
Suzaki perpetuates this state of mind – with an Italian touch. “Asai spoke of fate. And there are different types of fate. What I have seen time and time again in Italy is that people are born in a country and have to live there. They don’t have a choice, so they make the most of it, ”says Suzaki. “Like those Italians I have met, I too have no choice but to love this land and make the best wine I can make. It’s my destiny.
The charm of each vintage
Suzaki greets visitors wearing a jersey from Italian football club AS Roma. He loves the team because he and Azusa were in Italy at a time when his captain, Francesco Totti, delighted fans with an imaginative game that made him a top. fantasy – or creative playmaker.
One of Azucca e Azucco’s delicacies is the whimsical fantasy with which the husband and wife team creates a narrative around the grapes they carefully raise. Their amphitheater-shaped vineyard is a theater (theater) for burattini (puppets) that come to life – with a unique personality – every year on the vines like grapes.
There is also wit and charm in the name and art of the label of each outing. These change with each vintage according to the evolution of the grapes, as if they were children. (A recurring name, however, is In Bocca al Lupo! [into the wolf’s mouth], Italian for good luck.)
“The names and labels express how wine is not an old product, but a different handcraft every year,” says Suzaki. “Each vintage tells about what we thought that year, how we felt and how the grapes developed.
“This sense of progress in our lives together, told through our wines, is something very interesting and very precious.”
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