On the slopes of Yamanashi, Domaine Mie Ikeno puts nature in a bottle

A single bunch of pinot noir grapes is left on the vine after harvest has ended at Mie Ikeno’s vineyard, at the foot of the Yatsugatake Mountains.

“The birds will take them,” she says. “It’s a susowake, or sharing back with nature.”

Nature abounds in full glory at Domaine Mie Ikeno. Mount Fuji, Japan’s Southern Alps and the Yatsugatake range form a 360-degree backdrop to the undulating fields that yield some of Japan’s most prized chardonnays, pinot noirs and merlots.

And it’s sensitivity to nature that has enabled Ikeno to produce wines in the finest Burgundy tradition with a distinctive Japanese essence. Ikeno seeks to capture nature itself in a bottle, with wines that “bring to mind our local soil and the weather of each passing year.” It’s a vision that works: the wines are so well regarded that each vintage sells out within minutes of release.

Hiroyuki Kanda, whose eponymous Tokyo kaiseki restaurant has won three Michelin stars 13 years running, says that “her wines possess the strength and vividness of the best French wines, at the same time expressing a unique Japanese sensibility, humility and beauty.”

As Japan’s first woman to establish a domaine — a winery that makes wine exclusively from its own grapes — Ikeno belongs to a vanguard of female vintners — including Noriko Kishidaira of Takeda Winery in Yamagata Prefecture and Ayana Misawa of Grace Wine in Yamanashi — who are creating celebrated wines in a realm traditionally dominated by men. But pioneers rarely find an easy path, and Ikeno is no exception.

A single bunch of pinot noir grapes at Domaine Mie Ikeno act as susowake (sharing back with nature) for the birds. | JOJI SAKURAI
A single bunch of pinot noir grapes at Domaine Mie Ikeno act as susowake (sharing back with nature) for the birds. | JOJI SAKURAI

A leap of faith

When Ikeno was in her 30s, she was settled in a high-flying job as an editor at a Tokyo publishing company. She hobnobbed with Japan’s political, cultural and entertainment elite, from kabuki actors to political barons. But something was missing.

“When I interviewed these people, they had a glow to them, as if coming from some inner core,” she recalls. “When I asked myself ‘What is my inner core?’ I had no answer.”

She began to reflect upon what really mattered to her. The answers that emerged were culture, nature and human interaction. That led to her inspiration: Wine. It stood at the intersection of all three. And she had loved wine for years.

When Ikeno ditched publishing to learn winemaking in France, people told her she was crazy. She had no wine background — and didn’t speak a word of French. Still, she leapt headlong into University of Montpellier, in the south of France, to study for a National Oenology Diploma (DNO), a masters level certification in the science of wine.

It was the beginning of many lonely days simply making sense of her bearings — let alone winemaking — and living off a student loan. “I started with numbers and l’addition s’il vous plait (check please),” she says. “That was my level of French.”

After a six-month French crash course, Ikeno began her oenology studies. Even studying from dawn to midnight, copying notes from classmates, she couldn’t keep up. “I didn’t even understand the professor’s questions,” she recalls.

She flunked her first year, and had to repeat it. Yet by then she had so perfectly digested her friends’ notes that she sailed through the year — and the next one — to become one of two foreigners in her class to obtain a DNO.

Armed with her qualification — and fascinated by Burgundy wine — Ikeno went on to train at the prestigious Chateau de La Tour in the Clos de Vougeot vineyard. There, during blind tastings with her host family, she fell in love with the wine of nearby Domaine Didier Fornerol. And thanks to the opportunities brought by Chateau de La Tour, began training under Fornerol himself.

After three years in Burgundy, Ikeno felt ready to pursue her dream: building her own domaine in Japan.

When it comes to making wine, vintner Mie Ikeno’s philosophy is to let nature take its course. | JOJI SAKURAI
When it comes to making wine, vintner Mie Ikeno’s philosophy is to let nature take its course. | JOJI SAKURAI

Landing place

Looking out on Ikeno’s impeccably groomed rows of chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot, it’s hard to imagine this 3.6-hectare plot was once a tangle of shoulder-high weeds and mulberry roots, strewn with boulders.

Ikeno transformed it with backbreaking effort, cutting roots and moving boulders one-by-one, with only occasional help from friends. Dogged research went into finding the overgrown field in the first place.

Ikeno spent her first year back in Japan, 2006, scouring Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures for the ideal terroir. Visiting countless municipal offices, she pestered bureaucrats for climate data such as rainfall and temperature variations.

“They thought I was nuts,” Ikeno says. “I became pretty famous. Clerks at different offices would tell each other, ‘Oh that weirdo came to me as well.’”

Data enabled Ikeno to hone in on the Yatsugatake zone for its gentle slopes, volcanic soil and stark day-night temperature differences. Hot days promote sugar production in grapes — therefore higher alcohol content — while cold nights preserve acidity that gives wine sharpness and definition.

Yet it was the field’s location surrounded by Japan’s great mountains — Fuji, Mount Kita in the Southern Alps and the Yatsugatake range — that truly persuaded Ikeno her search was over: “I needed a place where I could be happy.”

That’s no small advantage, considering how hard the winemaker’s vocation is. Boulders were only the beginning of the obstacles to Ikeno’s success. She then needed to raise vines under anxiety of Japan’s unpredictable weather patterns, which include heat waves, hail attacks and typhoons.

Despite such challenges, Ikeno’s winemaking philosophy is to let nature take its course, and she has never lost a vintage to nature’s blights. Her wine is unfiltered, to preserve the essence of the land from which it springs. “Retaining all original particles enhances complexity of nose and mouthfeel,” Ikeno says.

She also deploys a “gravity flow” winemaking technique — gently allowing pressed juices to flow down into tanks, then barrels — eschewing the pumps and conveyors that can damage wine with shaking and sudden jolts.

No amount of gravity will make more Mie Ikeno wines trickle down to the public. Her first vintage was only released in 2011, and each year she releases only 12,000 bottles exclusively for the Japanese market. But for the first time, she has plans to send a small portion of each vintage overseas. The first installment can be expected to land next year in New York.

“Visitors always ask me, ‘Where can I find your wine back home?’ and I feel bad to have to say I don’t export,” Ikeno says. “Little by little, I’m hoping to change that, and New York is the first step.”

For more information, visit mieikeno.com. New Wine Frontier explores the evolving world of Japanese wine through profiles of the country’s most exciting vintners.

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