A cheeky little claret, made in Japan: Terry McCarthy finds out what makes a man produce wine for a nation that much prefers to drink sake and beer

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The Independent Online
TOSHIHIKO TSUKAMOTO is that rare vintage, a Japanese eccentric. The son of a former diplomat, and a distant relative of the Imperial Family, he has spent 37 years making high-quality wines in a country that prefers sake and beer. With cuttings imported from Bordeaux, Mr Tsukamoto, 63, produces 'Grands Vins' which sell for up to pounds 80 - but only to elite wine lovers.

A competitor has recently launched a cheap product - with a screw-cap and named 'Bonne Marche' - for the non-discriminating. It is dispensed in vending machines for pounds 3 a bottle. Oblivious to such abominations, Mr Tsukamoto is sitting in his small house overlooking his vineyard in Yamanashi prefecture west of Tokyo, philosophising about how 'a good wine is like a poem . . . you have to read, to look at paintings and sculpture, to listen to music to make a good wine.'

Wine accounts for less than 1 per cent of all alcohol sold in Japan. To get around high import taxes, Japanese 'winemakers' buy grape concentrate from Argentina or Chile, ferment it and bottle it in 'vineyards' that have never seen a vine, and put 'Made in Japan' on the label. They can then undercut imported brands.

'I don't care about the price,' said Mr Tukamoto, whose wines are bottled with the label 'Chateau Lumiere'. 'I am only interested in making high-quality wine. If I could once make a wine close to the great chateaux of France, I would die happy.' He is halfway there. Since the mid-Sixties his wines have been winning prizes in European competitions. His knowledge of wine is recognised throughout Europe, and he has become the only Asian member of the international wine-judging body, Office International de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV).

He is hoping this year will turn out to be an exceptional vintage: the summer has been hot and dry and the grapes are ripening well. 'But if I had just a little rain now, 10 or 20 millimetres, that would be very fine,' he says. Yamanashi has a perfect climate for growing grapes: hot summers, but with a big difference between the morning cool and the midday heat.

The vineyard is small: just 16 hectares, since much of the land owned by his great-grandfather was expropriated by the state after the war in US-inspired land reforms. In the middle of the vineyard is a small shrine, where his ancestors are interred. Otherwise it looks like a small winery in France: he imports the grape presses, bottles, corks and even the storage barrels from Europe.

Mr Tsukamoto, who was born in Sumatra, followed his diplomat father around the world until the war, when the family had to leave their last posting, San Francisco.

He studied economics, and would probably have become a professor if it were not for the death of his grandfather in 1957. This left the family's vineyard - founded in 1885 by his great- grandfather - with no one to take over, and the young economics graduate quickly decided to change tack and learn the wine trade. Within five years he was making good wine and by 1967 he had begun producing prize-winning vintages.

Wine has a short history in Japan. Portuguese traders brought some at the end of the 16th century, but Japan closed itself to outside commerce from the start of the 17th, and it was not until the country opened up again in 1868 that wine began to be imported. Instead, the Japanese have been making sake, a fermented rice wine, for centuries.

Through sake-making techniques Mr Tsukamoto made an impact on Europe's winemakers. White wine had traditionally been fermented at about 16C, but by using a yeast known to sake-makers, Mr Tsukamoto pioneered a fermentation process at a lower temperature, slowing oxidisation and improving flavour.

He does not drink sake himself. 'It is too sweet and if you drink too much, next morning your mouth tastes like a rotten persimmon.' Not that Mr Tsuakamoto would allow anyone to say that about his Chateau Lumiere.

(Photograph omitted)