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How science and technology are helping a Japanese winery create a quality product for a global reputation

Japan Cabinet- Takayama winery
Shinsu Takayama Winery is among a new breed of independent wine producers in Japan.

  • Shinshu Takayama Winery in central Japan has been using technology to monitor and manage its vineyards and improve the quality of its wines.
  • Farmers are harnessing scientific data about climate and soil condition to determine when to harvest or use fertilizer, depending on the variety of grapes grown. 
  • The winery is trying to establish wine-making as a new industry for the region and ultimately gain international recognition for its products.

The village of Takayama is tucked away in the foothills of the picturesque Japanese Alps in Nagano prefecture, also known as Shinshu by another name. Traditionally the area has been known for skiing and its apples which are highly regarded both within and outside the prefecture. But now it’s grabbing global attention for another reason – its wine.

Shinshu Takayama Winery, which opened in 2016, is part of a new breed of small independent producers leading the way. It’s a collective enterprise, founded by a pioneering group of 13 local farmers who saw the potential in creating a new wine region from scratch. Today, not only have more farmers come on board, but other local businesses interested in developing wine tourism opportunities have invested as well – from guest lodges and liquor stores to restaurants. 

The first step was a simple desire to keep their community alive. Takayama village was struggling to survive as younger people are fleeing to the cities – leaving a lot of farmland abandoned. In order to revitalize the village, it was necessary to create new specialty products and make effective use of abandoned farmland and orchards. This led to the wine grape cultivation, which the village is particularly suited to due to its soil and climate, and which is relatively easy work for the elderly, as well as a value-added and attractive agriculture for the young. As the grapes and wine produced in Takayama Village has gradually gained a recognition, the number of abandoned farmlands has steadily decreased.

Takano Eiichi, managing director and winemaker of Shinshu Takayama Winery, says, “Happily, young people are moving to the village because of the good reputation of viticulture and wine.” He says, “Some of them are even newcomers to wine grape cultivation. We are lucky that people who are interested in agriculture and viticulture are attracted to this land.”

Taking it to the next level

Shinshu Takayama Winery’s wines have certainly benefited from its location: The vineyards lie on the right bank of the Chikuma River, which has well-drained volcanic soil, and a gentle climate serving up light annual rainfall and plenty of sunshine – all ideal conditions for producing good quality wine.   

The rugged village landscape also has an unusually large altitude range, creating a distinctive set of micro-climates. In fact – remarkably for such a small area – four out of the five main climate regions for wine-growing flourish here. These conditions make it possible for the village of Takayama to produce a diverse range of grapes, from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot Noir and Merlot-Cabernet.

Now that wine-making is starting to establish itself as a local industry after more than 20 years of efforts, Shinshu Takayama’s next challenge is to refine the quality of its wines to be on par with famous overseas regions. This fine-tuning process runs alongside new initiatives to deal with disease and pests, so that the young vines of Takayama village can grow into fine vines that produce high quality wines.

Harnessing cutting-edge technology

Takano speaks passionately about the potential of his region’s wines to make their mark on the world stage. He gained his knowledge working for nearly 30 years at Mercian, one of Japan’s biggest and oldest winemakers. He has also spent time in Bordeaux, France, for three years from 2005 until 2008, where he saw the benefits of using the latest technology.

Shinshu Takayama Winery introduced technology from the start. The winery has been collaborating with a Tokyo-based agritech startup company called “Vegetalia,” and installed remote observation devices called “field servers” throughout the village. This records various conditions such as solar radiation, temperature, and humidity.

Previously, farmers only had data from the Japan Meteorological Agency. However, these readings are taken 1.5 meters above the ground and not in the actual vineyard environment, leaving gaps which the winemakers had to fill in using their own intuition and experience.

Japanese winery
“Field servers” to monitor the vineyard’s conditions.

“Now, thanks to this new technology, they can also monitor actual soil conditions. It’s easier for farmers to determine the best timing to harvest or use fertilizers by keeping closer track of the increasingly variable weather conditions,” Koike Satoshi, president and CEO, Vegetalia, says. “We even have sensors on the leaves that detect moisture and predict diseases such as downy mildew via an algorithm.” 

By leveraging technology in these ways, it is possible to accumulate detailed cultivation data that would be impossible to collect by hand. The immediate benefits it brings is making cultivation more efficient, and in the long term, the accumulated data which delivers deep insight into the health and growth of the vines, will further improve the quality of the wine. 

“It’s something we can pass on to future generations to help them manage cultivation and make decisions more quickly and accurately,” Takano says. 

Looking ahead to a rich and full-bodied future

Japanese wine

Meanwhile, the local government is helping to make it easier for the winery to acquire technology – and is also actively promoting its products. “A lot of effort is being made to expand the wine industry and make it a thriving new sector in Nagano prefecture,” Takano says.

He says his goal is to gain recognition for Takayama as a quality wine region, and to keep laying the groundwork for global expansion. Alongside its winemaking, Takayama Village has also placed a strong emphasis on the promotion and brand building of its products.  Among domestic retailers and consumers, they have already gained a good reputation for its high-quality produce. Takayama village will further advance its efforts to strengthen its approach in marketing and promotion at a global market level.

“To build a good wine region you need three things: good people, good products, and good drinkers,” he says. “Once we become a good wine region, the reputation of the winery will increase, just like the happiness of the people involved in this project. Looking ahead, I really believe we can make a positive impact.”

Find out more about how Japan is revitalizing its regional economies by agriculture reform.

This post was created by Insider Studios with the Government of Japan.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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