Nobutaka Hatano started his career as a chef, and he fell into winemaking almost by accident. He applied for the chefs job at Villa d’Est in Nagano, but there were too many applicants, and he was instead offered a job in the winery. At the time, he had a low regard for Japanese wine. ‘I didn’t think it was high quality,’ he says. But when he first tried their Chardonnay and Merlot, he was surprised how good they were.
Because of the complexity of wine, and the fact that you only have vintage once a year, he realized that it takes a long time to understand it properly. So Hatano worked for seven years at Villa d’Est, and because at the time there were only three employees, he got a broad experience taking in all aspects of wine growing.
He studied for a while, and then in 2013 he set out on his own, and started growing vines. Initially, he rented vineyards in order to make wine, which were owned by a farmer who wanted to concentrate on table grapes. This gave him access to Chardonnay and Merlot planted in 2002.
At the moment, Hatano thinks that Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris have the most potential in this area, but he thinks this may change with global warming, which is a concern shared widely in Nagano. His winery is at 850 m and the vines are at 800 m.
Hatano wants to express the quality of the grapes, but doesn’t identify with any dogma such as natural wine. He doesn’t use any herbicide, and he’s tried to reduce use of insecticides.
One of the weak points of Japanese wine is lack of ripeness, he says. He doesn’t want to make powerful or full bodied wines, but if he could get the Chardonnay fully ripe it would have different flavour. So for now he wants to focus on getting it riper. Many winegrowers were obliged to pick earlier than they want to by rainfall in autumn. He’d like to wait until the seeds and the stems had more ripeness.
It’s actually very difficult to buy farmland in Honshu (the mainland), so most winemakers have to rent land. The situation is different in Hokkaido. He now has 0.4 hectares of producing vineyard with 1.2 hectares planted but not yet in production.
Since 2013 Hatano has consulted on viticulture for others. He’s also done some custom crush for other winemakers. In 2014 he decided to open his own winery: Tomi City are happy to let people establish wineries for less than 6000 bottle production without any complicated approval process.
He’s beginning to bring together an association of winegrowers: he says there are quite a few young vignerons in the area who are in their 30s, and so far this association has six members. It’s an exciting time for wine here.
Cave Hatano Kurakake Chardonnay 2017 Tomi, Nagano, Japan
12.5% alcohol. 800 m vineyard, picked in the middle of October. Unoaked style, with 10% fermented in older barriques. Fresh, bright and stony with some pear and pineapple fruit, with some citrus pith bitterness on the finish. A linear wine showing good acidity. Clean and lively; well made. 89/100
Cave Hatano (Reserve) Chardonnay 2017 Tomi, Nagano, Japan
This hasn’t got a name yet. No malolactic, barrel fermented. It’s powerful and linear with keen acidity and bright lemon and pineapple fruit. Very expressive with some well integrated oak. Nice weight and spiciness. This is a serious effort with some mineral notes under the vivid citrus fruit. Good acidity. Should develop beautifully. 92/100
Cave Hatano Merlot 2017 (tank sample)
Fresh, bright, sappy and green with good acidity and nice crunchy raspberry fruit. Juicy and brisk, and very much on the cusp of ripeness. Cranberry finish. I quite like it. 89/100
Cave Hatano Merlot 2018 (barrel sample)
This has nice focused cherry and raspberry fruit, with good acidity, some tannic structure, and also some slightly roasted oak notes in the background. This is linear and focused, and while it’s still a very tightwound baby of a wine, it shows lots of promise. 89-91/100