Nod to life and breath of vine

By Yvonne Lorkin

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Japanese grape grower Takaki Okada is forging ahead with his wine brand Folium. Below, tiny grape flowers can be dislodged by wind, rain or cold snaps.
Japanese grape grower Takaki Okada is forging ahead with his wine brand Folium. Below, tiny grape flowers can be dislodged by wind, rain or cold snaps.

Folium. It means "leaf" in Latin, I was told at a wine tasting arranged by distributors Dhall & Nash.

"But who are they?" I asked. "I've never heard of them, but this sauvignon is just fantastic."

"Well," said Puneet Dhall, "let me top up your glass and tell you all about it."

Folium is an 8ha Brancott Basin vineyard and the organically certified baby of young Japanese grape grower Takaki Okada. The team at Fromm vineyards originally planted 6ha on this site in 1996, with a second rollout of vines in 2003 on low-vigour, primarily clay-based soils created by ancient glacial movements and the nearby river systems. These soils retain sufficient moisture during dry summers to balance the growth of the vines without the need for irrigation systems.

This "dry farming", combined with intensive viticulture, helps Takaki reduce yields and encourage ripening, which helps eliminate herbaceous characters in his wines. He's aiming to downplay this "herbal" aspect of sauvignon blanc by showing, via his own style, how pure and clear sauvignon blanc can be.

"Takaki is obsessed with making sure the fruit and the wines express their terroir and the soils they're grown in," said Puneet. "He's fastidious with detail and absolutely everything in the vineyard is done by hand."

Takaki lives by himself in a little house in the middle of his vineyard, however, he has recently employed a part-time staffer to help him out. Once his fruit is hand-harvested, it is carefully transported to the Fromm winery on Godfrey Rd to be crafted into wine. And what great wines they are.

My first contact with Takaki was via an apologetic email not long after the tasting. He had just returned from business meetings in Sydney where he was struck down with a terrible cold: "Sorry to be late to reply to your message," he said, "I got 39.1 degree [temperature]! Anyway, by spending [a] weekend in my bed, I feel almost normal now," he said. He told me he grew up in an ordinary family in the Tokyo area and that it was around age 20, while at university, that his interest in wine developed. "Wine was in very strong fashion at the time in Japan" he said. "I worked in several wine bars during my university days, and what fascinated me the most was how wine changes the flavour of food."

He could have easily slipped into the life of a businessperson like many of his friends, but something else was calling.

"At the time, most of the jobs related to wine in Japan were either sommelier or wine distributor. I am a more practical person - I decided to go overseas to learn about winemaking."

I asked what his parents thought about his wine growing.

"They [are] very supportive," he said. "They want their kids to evolve into some kind of productive occupations. And also, they really like wine."

Takaki spent two years in California studying viticulture and oenology at UC Davis, and developing a love of pinot noir. "I decided to come to New Zealand to have practical knowledge about winemaking in 2003, but I only had a working holiday visa so I was thinking about working in different wine regions," he explained.

The word "holiday" soon disappeared from the visa when Takaki began working for Clos Henri, the winegrowing operation of the Loire-based Bourgeois family in Marlborough. "They promoted me to be assistant vineyard manager and vineyard manager in two years' time. That's how I am still staying here."

Takaki describes himself as being "like a blank canvas [in] that I didn't have any background in wine business. I could paint my canvas from academic knowledge from the US, practical experience from New Zealand and philosophy from French family." He can also add the Japanese pursuit of perfection to the mix and, with the help of investor friends in Japan, he eventually purchased land at 221 Brancott Rd in 2010 and started his own label. The name Folium is his way of recognising the role the vine leaves play in making wine - as the life and breath of the vine.

His favourite time of year is the harvest. "Because my job as viticulturist finishes and I don't need to worry about the weather any more." The next email I received from him, just last week, wasn't so fun. "Weather here in Marlborough for next few days doesn't look good at all. We had rain during the flowering of pinot noir, and may have rain again for flowering of sauvignon blanc."

Tense times indeed. The tiny grape flowers can be dislodged by bad weather such as wind, rain or cold snaps and if any of these things hit the vineyard during this crucial period, the crop could be lost before the flowers self-pollinate, or "set", to form berries.

Being a one-man operation, Takaki has almost no time to relax, but if time affords he reads, cooks and plays Japanese chess. But if he could have one wish for Christmas, what would it be?

"It would be someone who don't mind weeding for me all day long. Or a bottle of Champagne, which I can enjoy with a beautiful sunshine."

Folium Vineyard Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $27 I love this wine because it's a slow burner; light and soft-fruited on the nose with gentle florals upfront, but then a second or two later your mouth just bursts with intense passionfruit, stonefruit and waves of flavour. Then it gently leaves an elegantly tangy, gum-tingling finish.

Folium Vineyard Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $33 Quite unlike any other Marlborough sauvignon blanc experience you will ever have. Subtle, elegant and showing delicate passionfruit, mineral and hay-like aromas. With beautifully focused, precise acidity, purity and lovely tension and texture.

Folium Vineyard Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir 2011 $39 One sniff reveals a whiff of chocolate, liquorice, pot pourri and baked cherries. On the palate it is lean, elegant and shows raspberry and ripe cranberry flavours and pillowy, supple tannins. It's a beautifully built wine with delicately poised acidity and a long, stylish finish.

For stockists of Folium wines, phone Dhall & Nash, 0800 369 463

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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