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Most natural winemakers will tell you they make wines that they themselves like to drink; Yuki-san, revealing the former rigorous sommelier still residing inside him, makes wines that he’d like to pair. “Wine has a long history of walking hand in hand with great food cultures of the world, traditionally with the Western ones that are very rich in butter, oil, and meat. But my culture is different. When I was working as a somm in Kyoto fine dining restaurants, I’d sometimes have difficulty finding the perfect wine for pairing… so I ended up trying to make them as I’d like them to match,” he says about the philosophy behind his cute flower-dotted labels, which are created by his friend, a Japanese artist named Sacco.
It’s true that traditional Japanese meals don’t need much oil; they try to honor the unique personality and quality of raw materials, masking them as little as possible. An analogy with natural winemaking can be drawn here, as nothing is taken or added — like nearly all the wines carrying the name Kunoh, a rare surname coming from Yuki’s maternal grandfather, which the winemaker has let live on in the name of his wine.
Yuki’s native Kansai region is famous for its tasty food – it’s a stronghold of dashi stock and umami flavors, and you can definitely taste this in his wines as well. From the very first bottle of his pet-nat bought out of curiosity in a Sydney wine store to the barrel samples tasted from his wine thief, we followed a red thread of fine-tuned aromatic intensity and a pure yet bold savory kick of idiosyncratic energy. Produced in boutique quantities (about 8,000 bottles in total), it’s not easy to get a hold of them; so far, Yuki’s New Zealand wines are only exported to four countries. We’re quite happy that, thanks to our discovery, the US gets to be the fifth one, as these bottles really show some singular talent and personality.
“My family eats only fish, I can’t eat raw vegetables… All this makes my palate quite unique, which is why I can probably make something different and bring a new Japanese taste perspective into the wine world,” Yuki nods matter-of-factly. He has an unparalleled focus on palate, manifested for example in his habit of explaining how exactly the wine flavors work on the tongue, using the palm of his hand as a model. He cares so much about his own tastebuds that he’s sticking to Japanese food even in his new New Zealand home, claiming that the rich or spicy dishes of other cuisines could alternate his sense of taste too much. Such a degree of dedication and discipline is quite unusual (at least for us in the West, I guess), and tremendously enriching to witness. Just like Yuki’s cooking: spending a weekend with him was an indulgent crash-course on the nuanced world of saltiness, from algae to miso and koji salt fermented by a Japanese couple who have settled in a nearby town.
The same precision and amount of thought apply to his wines as well. Although not formally trained as a winemaker, Yuki has a fair command of microbiological and chemical processes and their consequences in wine, which is quickly obvious during our sampling tour in the cellar. He only uses barrels that have previously hosted white wine (“the red ones have a higher risk of brett”), chases oxygen by using CO2 at bottling and opting for Nomacorc or crown cap closure. He knows exactly how much of which wine went into a given blend and why, or which steps to take to avoid the nettley character that people tend to associate with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and that he – not surprisingly – detests.
The thirst for knowledge was actually the very root of his shift from sommelier to winemaker: “I visited many Italian wineries around Piemonte in 2014, including Gaja, which in particular was so impressive that it made me think I needed a winemaking experience in order to be a world-class sommelier,” he recalls. It turned out to be life-changing: his 2015 internship at the Poggio Scalette Chianti estate showed him “how wonderful and pure wine can be, and I decided to become a winemaker instead.”
After working at Smallfry, a renowned biodynamic winery in the Barossa Valley, Australia, where he also made a couple of vintages of his own label, Yuki moved to Tasman, the beautiful northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, his current home. He’s a full-time assistant winemaker/grower at the Kindeli estate there, and he also takes care of three hectares of organic vines from which his own wine is born. When not working in this sun-laden vineyard, or enjoying the famed beaches of the nearby Abel Tasman National Park (much recommended; since then, a beach mat has been our number one spot to seal the deal with a natural winemaker), Yuki spends some time in Japan, overseeing wine production for friends and his own brand there.
Impressive CV? Very much so, especially being only roughly 30. Almost as impressive as the fact that this guy can wear clip-on sunglasses and still look cool. Must be something in the strict Japanese diet…
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