Why Hokkaido, Japan Is a Wine and Cheese Lover’s Destination

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Here’s why foodies should keep this Japanese prefecture on their radar for their next trip.

While Tokyo is the epicenter for the 2021 summer’s Olympic Games, Sapporo in Hokkaido, with its cooler and less humid climate, will host the elite runners chasing the gold medal for the Marathon event.

Related: A Foodie's Guide to Hokkaido, Japan

Enjoy the respite from Tokyo’s crowds yourself; the northern island of Hokkaido has long been renowned for seafood, but two burgeoning culinary industries—wine and cheese—are making this a place to go for more than just scallops and crab. Fuel up post-run with these two gastronomic side trips.

Wine


Courtesy Domaine Mont

The Yoichi district, located about 45 minutes outside of Sapporo, is the epicenter of Hokkaido’s wine industry. Here you’ll find an eclectic mix of wineries, ranging from larger, tourist-friendly estates to small upstarts. The challenging—not to mention changing—climate has winemakers taking a throw-spaghetti-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. Some producers experiment with hearty hybrid grapes like Delaware and Campbell Early, which can stand up to the cold, snowy winters and typhoons. However, the wineries that are raising consciousness about Japanese wine and bringing premium wines to the international stage cultivate cool-climate varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Kerner, and Pinot Noir.


Courtesy NIKI Hills winery

Start your journey at Niki Hills; with its sleek architecture and floor-to-ceiling windows and panoramic valley views, the estate is reminiscent of Napa’s luxury tasting rooms. Founded in 2009, the first vintages of Bacchus—a white grape that’s become a signature for the winery—was released in 2015. Head winemaker Mariko Withrington, a New Zealand native, coaxes delectable peach and apricot notes out of this variety, a Sylvaner and Riesling crossing that’s also crossed with Muller-Thurgau.

OcciGabi, one of the early pioneers of Hokkaido wine, is an ideal spot for a lunch break. The Italian-leaning menu in their sunny solarium restaurant offers an extensive list of OcciGabi wines, from sparkling cuvées to reds. Founder and winemaker Kiichiro Ochi studied winemaking in Germany in the 1970s and after crafting wine in Niigata for many years, moved to Hokkaido to start this project in 2012. Kerner is a focus—Ochi claims to have been the first to bring the vines to Japan from Germany—as well as a range of reds such as Cabernet. As the climate warms, he notes, grapes like Pinot Noir could be a new focus. With 14 different varieties planted over 44.5 acres, there’s plenty of room for experimentation.


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You won’t find fancy tasting rooms at Domaine Mont or Domaine Atsushi Suzuki, but what you will find are some of the most cutting-edge and exciting wines coming out of Japan today. Both could be considered garagiste winemakers—they literally operate their makeshift wineries out of their garages—but their wines have caught the attention of the international wine industry. Pinot Gris is the singular focus at Domaine Mont, which was founded in 2016; winemaker Atsuo Yamanaka draws inspiration from Alsace for his style of wine. Meanwhile, at Atsushi Suzuki’s 10-year-old eponymous winery, Kerner and Zweigelt get a starring role, but new plantings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay could prove fruitful as the climate continues to warm. Both follow the path of natural winemaking: organic farming in the vineyards, native yeasts for fermentation, little to no sulfur use during winemaking, and a general low-intervention philosophy when it comes to making wine.

Cheese


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In the Tokachi district, about three and a half hours east of Sapporo, a thriving cheese scene gives one of the world’s most-loved dairy items a uniquely Japanese twist.

Nozumu Miyajima, one of the pioneers of Japanese cheese, studied his craft in Wisconsin before moving back home 41 years ago. Milk production was his first foray into the dairy business but when it failed to become lucrative, he turned to cheese. Miyajima was the first to work with Brown Swiss cows, a breed he felt made a superior product. Mild, fresh-style cheeses are the signature offerings, but his Sakura cheese, a soft, spreadable version scented with cherry blossoms, earned him multiple international awards, such as the Mondial du Fromage Gold Selection several years in a row. His farm, Kyodo Gakusha Shintoku, houses not only the dairy but a quaint cafe where visitors can indulge in the cheesy wares.

The farm not only innovates in its products, it supports an often-overlooked segment of the population. Many of the employees have special needs or learning disabilities and Miyajima provides training and housing for this workforce.

Cheese also plays a part in the greater environmental ecosystem at Ran Ran Farm. A small agricultural project located within the Tokachi Millennium Forest—a large nature reserve and garden—the 180 on-site goats provide milk for Ran Ran’s tangy offerings. During warmer months, a cafe offers culinary creations featuring the different selections from the farm. As a bonus, guided Segway tours take visitors around the blooming, expansive property.


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However, it’s raclette cheese that’s proven to be most popular in the region. At Tokachi Raclette Collective, which opened in 2017, eight fromagers work out of a communal cellar in an effort to create a truly unique Japanese cheese. All must follow specific regulations—which took three years to create and standardize—in order to remain in the organization. A key component to this aromatic, gooey cheese’s signature style is the use of moor water when washing the rind. Sourced from area hot springs, its alkaline properties create distinctive flavors and texture, so much so that the Collective applied for GI (Geographical Indicator) status for Hokkaido raclette. Just like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Champagne, the Collective wants Hokkaido to one day be synonymous with this melty dairy masterpiece.