Domaine Takahiko & Takahiko Soga
Takahiko Soga’s wines are a phenomenon in Japan. The wines from his tiny domaine -at the northern tip of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido are among the most sought-after and hardest to find at Japanese restaurants and wine stores. Hundreds of volunteers from all over Japan come to the domaine to participate in the harvest, all drawn by the unique wines and unique philosophy of the domaine’s founder - and the incredible quality of his natural wines. And Takahiko’s influence extends beyond the interest in his own wines, as a community of former apprentices and current acolytes continues to grow around him and his farm in Yoichi. All are drawn in by his delicate, savory wines, his simple and unpretentious approach to winemaking, and his committed, diligent regenerative farming practices.
Takahiko Soga founded Domaine Takahiko in Yoichi, Hokkaido in 2010. His parents operate the Obuse Winery in Nagano, and wine has been a part of Soga’s life since childhood. Trained as an oenologist and microbiologist at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, his work in the wine industry began as the farm manager of Coco Farm Winery where he immersed himself in the culture of wine, visiting producers across the globe and finding particular inspiration in the Jura and Burgundy in France. After 10 years he decided to establish his own farm and winery devoted to Pinot Noir. To do so, he embarked on a quest to find the perfect place to grow that temperamental variety. Visiting numerous sites across Japan, he finally chose Yoichi as the site to establish his own domaine.
Domaine is an important word for Takahiko Soga. French in origin, it might seem a bit out of place for a project that is very identifiably Japanese in its sensibility. The choice of Pinot Noir as the winery’s primary grape does reflect the influence of French wine (and, especially, the Jura and Burgundy) on Soga’s project, but ‘domaine’ also expresses the limited nature of the project and close identification with farming and the land itself. The Domaine Takahiko wines are expressions of the unique terroir of Yoichi. And Takahiko Soga sees himself primarily as a farmer and regards his work as primarily agricultural. He shares this identity with his neighbors in Yoichi, whether they grow potatoes, apples, cherries or grapes.
Yoichi is located at base of the mountainous Shakotan Peninsula on Hokkaido’s northern coast. Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, is generally characterized by humid, warm-to-hot summers and freezing winters with abundant powdery snow. The island’s soils are dark, soft, and highly fertile and Hokkaido’s produce - potatoes, grains, flowers, fruits, herbs, and vegetables - are renowned for their quality throughout Japan. In a country that is largely inhospitable to Vitis vinifera due to heat and humidity, Hokkaido is also uniquely well-suited to the growing of grapes and the making of high-quality wines without interventionist farming practices. Yoichi, sheltered from the extremes of Hokkaido’s climate by mountains and characterized by hillsides of well-drained gravels and sands, is especially auspicious for viticulture.
Domaine Takahiko consists of a single 4.6-hectare vineyard of Pinot Noir vines at roughly 60 meters above sea level on a hill above the Yoichi River. The vineyard, called Nana Tsu Mori, is the source of all of the wines labeled Domaine Takahiko. The site was at one point a cherry orchard. Today, it is planted to Pinot Noir from 13 different clones from France, Germany, and Switzerland. The soils are sand and gravel over soft, dark volcanic clay; the bedrock is andesite, a finely grained dark stone of volcanic origin. The soils and the bedrock provide good drainage for the vines, which is vital in an area with relatively high precipitation year-round. Takahiko notes that the area’s ground water and rains are particularly pure and soft, free of dissolved minerals. All these elements, carefully considered in Soga’s choice to establish his domaine in Yoichi, are vital to the character of the wines that he produces.
This is not to say that there are not unique and specific challenges involved in cultivating grapes in the area. To achieve such successful wines requires enormous focus, diligence, and attention to every detail. Blanketing snows limit access to the vines for much of the year (although the same snows protect the vines from frost and freezing temperatures). The bountiful forests that thrive on the soft, rich volcanic soils around the vines also host insects and other pests (who, in their potentially damaging trips to the vineyard, also carry the wild yeasts that lend the wines their character and microbes that enliven the soils). And summer and fall humidity create ideal conditions for Botrytis cinerea or Noble Rot.
Takahiko Soga’s response to the annual struggle with Botrytis demonstrates the thoughtful, perfectionistic nature of the Domaine’s viticulture. Botrytis cinerea attacks the skins of the grapes, damaging them and causing the water within to evaporate. This can have different impacts: it can be purely damaging (known typically as Grey Rot, and most common in consistently wet conditions) or - when dry weather follows the wet period that facilitated Botrytis’s arrival - the infected berries can raisinate, yielding grapes that, having shed much of their water weight, have highly concentrated levels of sugar and acidity. The grapes become intensely aromatic and can yield dense and sweet wines like Tokai, Trockenbeerenauslesen, or Sauternes. Notably, these wines are exclusively red, as the damaged skins are basically unusable.
Standard responses to botrytis might be intensive fungicide usage (which is counter to the philosophy at Domaine Takahiko) or an attempt at making a sweet wine, which did not interest Takahiko Soga. Instead, seeing that the Botrytis infection arrived each year, Soga endeavored to make a dry wine using these grapes. Using blowers in the vines, he controls the extent and severity of the Noble Rot and harvests those berries that are affected separately. From them, he produces the Domaine Takahiko Nana Tsu Mori Blanc de Noir: the infected berries are pressed directly after harvest, and the juice ferments dry (or nearly dry) every year. The wine, rather than redolently aromatic and sweet, is deep and defined by its savory, umami notes.
Umami, a Japanese term for savoriness that dates to the beginning of the 20th century, is an important aspect of Domaine Takahiko’s wines, philosophy, and sense of terroir. Takahiko Soga and his wines are Japanese - and Soga’s concept of his wines and his project connects to Japanese tastes and Japanese foodways. Rather than fruits and flowers, Soga references dashi, forest-floor, mushroom, and the fermentative notes of shoyu, sake, and miso to describe the aromatics and flavor profiles of his wines. Partially, this delicate and savory aspect of the wines must come from the cool, wet, forested, and biodiverse place that produces them - but he believes strongly that these traits also emerge from his approach in the cellar.
Takahiko works with whole cluster fermentations in his wines, and this is also a decision arrived at partially with the character of fermentation in mind. The stems and skins are the main microbial environment for yeasts on the grape vine - their inclusion in the fermentative process encourages a lively culture of yeasts and an active fermentation that successfully completes without additives. For Takahiko, the choice to include stems also encourages the presence of savory, umami flavors in the wines. The focus on complete fermentations has also enabled him to largely reject post-fermentation additives. Sulfur is never used until bottling, and then only as necessary: in 2019, the Nana-Tsu-Mori was made without SO2 addition, while in 2020 10ppm were added at bottling; in 2021, no SO2 was used. The bottlings labeled Takahiko Soga see similarly limited amounts, while the Blanc de Noir has 50-80ppm added at bottling.
Other decisions made in the cellar are done in pursuit of simplicity: he eschews complex tools, new and expensive vessels, and active interventions in the process. Partially this choice expresses his belief that complex tools do not produce better results; equally, Takahiko is committed to affordable and accessible methods that can be adopted without excessive investments by his apprentices and those seeking to make wine in similar ways to him. Fermentations are done in large, neutral tanks made of resin, and the wines are aged in oak barrels, about 15% of which are new.
In addition to the Domaine Takahiko wines, Takahiko Soga works with grapes from vines that belong to other growers in the area, including some that are worked by former apprentices of his. From these grapes he produces the wine Yoichi Nobori, a Passetoutgrain in the style of Hokkaido, employing Zweigelt and Pinot Noir (rather than Gamay and Pinot Noir) as plantings of cold-climate-adapted Zweigelt are common in the area. Takahiko also makes another single vineyard wine from a special vineyard of Pinot Noir, Clos Da Descion, owned by Takahiko Soga’s right-hand-man Keiichi Murakami and Keiichi’s wife. Only wines made with fruit from Takahiko Soga’s own vineyard are labeled Domaine Takahiko; wines made with purchased fruit bear the label Takahiko Soga.
Photos courtesy of Alice Feiring.