Miyagi: Aging wine undersea speeds maturing

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Michihiko Sasaki, right, checks wine that has aged under the sea in oyster cages in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, on April 21.

MINAMI-SANRIKU, Miyagi — A winery in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, adopted a method of undersea aging for wine made from grapes grown in the town and other areas. The winery uses a type of oyster farming facility commonly found in the Sanriku area. The wine is kept at a constant temperature and matures faster in the sea, where vibrations are transmitted through the water, resulting in a milder flavor.

“We want to make the wine a new specialty of Minami-Sanriku,” a representative from the winery said.

Wine bottles in oyster farming baskets covered in seaweed were pulled onto boats in Shizugawa Bay, Minami-Sanriku, in late April. The wine had been aging under the sea for six months at a depth of about 10 meters in a unique method called under-the-sea aging.

“The aging process is more than three times shorter than in a wine cellar, thanks to the vibrations caused by constant sound in the sea, and the seawater temperature that doesn’t rise too much even in summer,” said Michihiko Sasaki, 48, president of Minami-Sanriku Winery.

The winery is run by Sasaki and Yuta Shoji, 35, who is in charge of winemaking. The two took over the Minami-Sanriku Wine Project launched in 2017 by the Local Vitalization Cooperator as part of efforts to create new industries for reconstruction after the town was devastated by tsunami following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

In the project, they developed a vineyard on the slopes in the inland part of the town, where the daily temperature difference is big and thus suitable for grape cultivation. They crushed oyster shells, which are alkaline, and mixed them into the soil to help the grapes grow.

Shoji decided to become a winemaker because he loved wine as a hobby. He quit his job at a book sales company in Tokyo in 2014 and worked at a grape farm in Ishikawa Prefecture and a winery in Yamanashi Prefecture, where he acquired his winemaking know-how. In 2017, he found a recruitment article on the internet for the project and applied. He became a member of the Local Vitalization Cooperator in August the same year.

Sasaki quit working at a major musical instrument manufacturer after the earthquake and moved to Sendai in 2014. Through his work in planning and selling wine glasses, he became interested in winemaking and became a member of the Local Vitalization Cooperator in January 2019. The following month, the two established the Minami-Sanriku Winery.

Sasaki got the idea for under-the-sea aging wine from wine found in sunken ships. They learned the know-how from a winery in the prefecture that had been working on under-the-sea aging before them.

With the cooperation of local oyster fishermen, they submerged wine bottles in an oyster farm and left them to age. The first 90 bottles of white, rose and red wine put into the sea in February last year were pulled out in September last year, and the second 90 bottles put into the sea in October last year were pulled out in April.

“The wine taste has become softened and more flavorful in such a short time,” Sasaki said.

It is said to take about 10 years for the quality and yield of grapes to stabilize. Although full-scale marketing is yet to begin, “We would like to eventually make wine a specialty of Minami-Sanriku that we can be proud of,” Sasaki said.

One step at a time, they are reaching their dreams.