MARY-THERESE KINSELLA meets a Japanese winemaker quietly making his mark in Marlborough.
While owning a winery in Marlborough couldn’t be described as unique, there is something special about Takaki Okada’s Folium Vineyard in the Brancott Valley, not least of which is Takaki himself.
Born in Japan in 1978, Takaki remembers wine, mostly French, always being at the dinner table and at his parents’ parties. This was unusual at a time when Japanese drinking habits stretched mostly to beer and sake, a state of affairs that lasted until the 1990s when red wine in particular became popular.
Fascinated, Takaki sought a career in wine, but realised he would have to leave Japan, as his options there were limited to being an importer or a sommelier, neither of which suited his personality. Takaki wanted to create for himself.
After much research, Takaki settled on a two-year winemaking diploma at the University of California, Davis, at the end of which he graduated with all the knowledge he needed to make wine – theoretically. So what next for a winemaker who had never made wine? In his own words, “Once you study wine, what else are you going to do? You can’t work at the bank.” Takaki settled on New Zealand as the place to put his theory into action, for the simple, but thoroughly appropriate, reason that he liked New Zealand pinot noir.
From 2003 to 2009 Takaki worked for Clos Henri in the Marlborough sub-region of Renwick, first as a vineyard assistant and then as vineyard manager. The humour of being Japanese, trained in theory in the US, working in New Zealand for tenth- generation French winemakers, is most definitely not lost on this quiet, yet witty, winemaker. Takaki sees his lack of wine heritage as a benefit, a blank canvas with no predisposed ideas as to how one “should” make wine.
In 2010, the time felt right to strike out and he found a suitable investor enabling him to purchase 8.4 hectares on Brancott Road. Thus, Folium Wines was born and Takaki took on the task of single-handedly running his own vineyard.
Takaki named his winery Folium after the Latin word for leaves or foliage, because although he is the winemaker, the hard work is actually done by the vines. Considering that the Folium vineyard is completely dry farmed, these vines are working very hard indeed.
The decision to dry farm is one that Takaki made as he wanted to do something completely different. We commonly talk of terroir and vintage, yet when the vine is irrigated the root system stays where the water is. When the roots are forced to seek out water they grow down into the subsoil to survive, and by doing so Takaki believes you get a true reflection of site and season.
Planted in 1996, the vines had previously been irrigated so when Takaki took over he had to risk challenging the vines by removing the water source they had previously relied on. Thankfully that year was a wet one (not something you often hear a winemaker say) forcing the the vines to struggle just enough, but not too much.
The first three years were challenging at Folium as the leaves yellowed, a sign that the vine is battling to survive. But in 2014, the leaves finally turned green and the canopy was full; nature had found its way and the lack of intervention had forced the vine to first survive and finally, to thrive.
Takaki is quick to point out that he will irrigate if the circumstances call for it, as they did during the extreme drought of 2016. “I dry farm, but I’m not stupid,” he quips. Since arriving in Marlborough Takaki has fallen in love with sauvignon blanc, and today he organically makes pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. He describes Folium sauvignon blanc as having Marlborough flavour but with the French texture he admires as a result of his time at Clos Henri.
Takaki’s favourite vintage is 2014, but admits that as this was the year that the vineyard came back to life, perhaps the power of the memory skews the vintage in his favour, but what is wine if not a conduit for creating happy memories? Though his family ask, “Why not make wine in Japan?” Takaki isn’t tempted. He feels at home in Marlborough and has been embraced by those in the wine industry who are open minded and supportive and who, above all else, believe in the land and love what they do. folium.co.nz