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Luxembourg, a Model for Japanese Winemakers

One is a tiny country with an age-old winemaking tradition – the other a global heavyweight which only started to discover its passion for wine a few decades ago. A priori, it seemed highly unlikely that a corkscrew would help Luxembourg and Japan find common ground and yet, it is precisely these differen

ces which have brought them together.

There is a long history of economic and trading relations between the two nations. Just to take wine as an example, three estates are already exporting to the Land of the Rising Sun: Cep d’or, Berna and Ruppert. In Tokyo, the Luxembourg embassy has put gastronomic diplomacy to good use to pique Japanese curiosity for the Grand Duchy. And to get to know one another what better calling card could there be than wine – synonymous with know-how, sharing and conviviality? So Yuriko Matsano, Executive Director of the Luxembourg Trade and Investment Office (LTIO) in Tokyo, has been busy developing contacts to promote Moselle wines.

Her hard work has sparked interest from the Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) and winemakers from the Tohoku region, in the northern part of Honshu, the archipelago’s largest island. Considered as Japan’s granary, everything here revolves around agriculture but the tradition of making wine is still in its infancy. Although vines have been planted, they are grown primarily for table grapes. However, a few estates, often established only very recently, have started producing their own wines. And it is these estates which have shown great interest in Luxembourg’s expertise.

 

The first exchange took place in July in the Moselle. A Japanese delegation came to study how wine is made in Luxembourg and visited several estates, as well as the Institut Viti-Vinicole in Remich (IVV – the Ministry of Agriculture’s local office in the Moselle). They saw how fermentations are carried out, the method used for making crémant (which they don’t yet produce) and the services provided by the IVV and so on. There was a huge range of questions! The delegation even met Fernand Etgen, the then Minister of Agriculture.

André Mehlen, Josy Gloden and Arno Bauer as envoys

If coming to the Grand Duchy had given the Japanese winemakers an opportunity to observe how Luxembourg winemakers work and the equipment they use, the Japanese also wanted to invite their Luxembourg counterparts to their own estates to offer them advice on their home ground. From 10 to 17 November, three representatives for the Grand Duchy’s wine industry boarded the plane for Tokyo: André Mehlen (IVV Wine Inspector), Josy Gloden (winemaker and chairman of Domaines Vinsmoselle) and Arno Bauer (cellar master for the Krier Frères, Gales and Saint-Martin estates).

 

For all three, this was the first time they had travelled to the Land of the Rising Sun. After Tokyo, they were back in the air to fly 1,000 km to Hokkaido in the north of Japan. From there, they worked their way back down to the capital, stopping off several times in Tohoku as they took the famous bullet train (Shinkansen). Every time the train stopped, a tight schedule was organised to allow the Japanese winemakers who wanted to meet the experts from Luxembourg to do so in the time available. Although they all agreed on what advice to give, the trio from the Moselle divided the work among themselves. André Mehlen answered questions about general organisation for the sector, Josy Gloden spoke about work in the vineyard and Arno Bauer shed light on work in the cellar.

Giving the sector a structure

For the men from Luxembourg, this journey into unknown territory was full of surprises. First and foremost, Tohoku does not look like any winegrowing area in Europe. With its slightly undulating hillsides and rich, heavy soil, it’s quite the opposite of what is found over here. There the winters are harsh as temperatures may settle at around -20°, which can be borderline for vines.

And then, this is not an area that can boast a great winemaking culture. “Some estates, such as Edelwein, are very well equipped, already have substantial experience and produce really good wines; however, there are others which only have a few vats in a garage and were producing wines … that were strange!” Josy Gloden says with a smile.

André Mehlen was surprised to find that there is no structure to oversee and provide leadership for the region’s wine-making industry, as the IVV does in Luxembourg: “They don’t talk to one another,” he explains. “Yet, if there was more communication, they would all benefit by avoiding making the mistakes that others have made.” The men from Luxembourg were also astonished not to find any overall strategy for the sector. “For example, they are unable to provide yields because they make wine from those grapes that are not presentable enough to be sold as table grapes,” André Mehlen points out.

In spite of all this, the trio were impressed by the Japanese winemakers’ rigour (in particular with regard to hygiene) and their determination to improve. If it might prove easier for them to ask for help from Luxembourg than from their neighbours, then our men from the Moselle are more than willing to lend a helping hand!

“Our wines are popular there, that’s for sure”

André Mehlen, Wine Inspector at the Institut Viti-Vinicole in Remich, reports how Luxembourg wines went down well in Japan.

This opportunity and invitation to visit Japan as an expert, did it feel like a great endorsement?

André Mehlen: If someone had said to me that one day my work would take me to Japan, I would never have believed them, and especially to go there as an expert! It’s wonderful to see our expertise being endorsed on the other side of the world. When we were there, we were aware that many estates did not have a great deal of experience making wine, unlike those in Luxembourg. And the Japanese particularly appreciate the fact that winegrowing is so long-established in Luxembourg [just shy of 2,000 years].

Are these exchanges likely to continue over time?

This is not for us to decide since these trips were organized by the Japan External Trade Organization and the Luxembourg Trade and Investment Office in Tokyo. However, speaking personally, I’d be delighted if they did: gaining insight into another wine culture is really exciting.

Do you think that Japan could become an export destination for Luxembourg wines?

Our wines are popular there, that’s for sure. At the three tasting sessions which we ran, the reaction was always very positive. Our white wines have a pronounced mineral quality which complements their fish-based, sauce-free cuisine terribly well. When the Japanese eat, they want to be able to really taste their food. They look for wines which aren’t too heavy and can bring out the flavour of their produce and for this our Luxembourg wines certainly do the job. We could also see that our crémants went down very well. Now, it’s up to the winemakers to have a go if they so wish. Making inroads into a country that is located so far away is never easy, but some estates have managed it already [Cep d’or, Berna, Henri Ruppert]. What’s more, there are bilateral agreements between the European Union and Japan to avoid VAT payments. So why not give it a go?

There’s interest in vine stocks from the Moselle, however…

The vine types the Luxembourg men came across in Japan are not known in our part of the world. White wines are made from Koshu, a grape variety used mainly for table grapes, but if carefully crafted, it can produce nice muscat-flavoured wines. Japanese red wines are mostly based on Steuben, a spicy grape variety created in the United States in the second half of the last century. Although both varietals are of some interest, they are not well known for producing great wines.

So one of the first questions the Japanese winegrowers asked was whether it would possible to import vine stocks produced in Luxembourg. In theory, this shouldn’t be a problem. In Wellenstein, Carlo Faber’s vine nursery grows more than fifty or so different types of vines, including the leading varietals used in the Moselle.

However, exporting to Japan is extremely complicated. There could not be any trace of earth on the vine stock roots and under these conditions they would not survive the journey by boat as it takes too long. They could travel by plane, however, if they had to wait too long in containers in the heat of the sun that would be just as fatal… And if against the odds, the vines did survive, they would still have to spend one year in a greenhouse before being certified as completely healthy… A vine grower would have to open a subsidiary on Japanese soil, but there’s no way that sort of business could possibly be profitable.

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