Making Wine the 19th-Century Way

On Sunday, September 16th, 2018, my daughter and I participated in a traditional winemaking event at Lumiére Winery in Fuefuki City, Yamanashi. The event culminated in an extremely rare ishigura ( stone tank) winemaking experience. The event occurs only once each year at Lumière Winery. The granite tank, which is 117 years old, is the only stone fermentation tank still in use in Japan.  The following is an account of the experience.

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Before the event could begin, a traditional Shinto blessing was performed in front of the stone tank. I do not intend to make light of the proceedings, but the head priest immediately reminded me of Yoda from the Star Wars saga. The way he shuffled to the alter in his priestly garb was identical to the way Yoda moved.

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Here is the priest in his purple robe.

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The attendees of the event then walked about 300 hundred metres to a nearby pergola (trellised) vineyard where we learned about the art of winemaking. Due to the high amount of rainfall, which can cause rot, pergola-style vineyards account for 95% of the vineyards in Yamanashi. Only recently have vineyards been planted using the guyot (vertical shoot positioning) method.

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We then proceeded to pick the grapes, Muscat Bailey A, to make the traditional stone-tank wine.

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Apparently, we picked enough grapes to make more than 8000 litres of wine! If you look closely enough at the crate in the back of the vehicle, you will see my last name (エリス) written on a blue sheet of paper. Japanese katakana script does not allow for true English pronunciation, so my last name becomes “Erisu” instead of “Ellis”.

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We then returned to the fermentation and storage facility to hear more about the winemaking process. Immediately behind the speaker you can see 500-litre barrels of wine. Many of the barrels contained wine that was still fermenting, so the air was heavy with the unmistakable sweet smell of wine.

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Next, we all went upstairs to begin the process of destemming and pumping the grapes into the stone tank. Here I am pouring my lot into the destemmer.

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Once everyone had poured in their grapes, the tank was filled to about 80% of its total capacity. At this stage of the process, the stems were added on top of the grapes in order to make the taste as authentic as possible to the wine that was produced here over a century ago. In the past, there was no destemming machine, so everything was dumped into the tank as is. Now, even though they have a destemmer, they still insist on adding the stems at the end to keep true to the original recipe.

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Here is one of the employees adding the stems on top of the grapes.

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Finally, bamboo sheets were spread over the grapes and wooden poles were used to apply constant pressure on the grapes. After three weeks of natural fermentation, they should have their stone-tank wine!

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For those of us who couldn’t wait three weeks, the employees made fresh-pressed grape juice. Yummy!

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If everything goes according to plan, 2018’s wine should be available at the winery shop in a couple years. As I am completely impatient, I had to make do with their 2016 vintage.

Visit my detailed blog post describing local transport and accommodations.

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