"Everyone told me Bordeaux, particularly the Médoc, is too expensive and too closed to a foreigner. So where did I go? The Médoc. I was going to do things differently—my way."
Osamu Uchida is the grandson of a farmer and the son of a grocery shop owner in Hiroshima. His father had sold artisanal wines, beers and ciders, and he remembers running his hands over the bottles as a kid. That stuck with him, and with agriculture in his blood, he knew he wanted to do something within the farming realm. He moved to France to figure out what that should be, and found a homestay at a winery. This was many years before the terminology of ‘natural wine’ arose, but Osamu realised that this winemaker’s ancestral practices created something that was beautiful in its simplicity. He was hooked, and began travelling all over to learn more about winemaking.
When it came to setting up his own domaine, everyone told Osamu to avoid Bordeaux - in particular Médoc - because it was too expensive and unwelcoming to foreigners. Instead, they said, he could set up a winery in the south, where land was cheaper and people were friendlier.
He ignored that advice, following his heart instead, and managed to find a vineyard of just 0.6 hectares which he could rent. From those 0.6 hectares he creates meticulous and pure wines with Japanese soul. These are wines that are about minimalism, not grandeur. Osamu compares them to a French baguette: artisanal, but meticulously made.
Header photograph by Benoit Guenot for Monopole magazine
Osamu beams as he remembers Domaine du Haut Brugas; the winery where he stayed when he first moved to France. It has since sadly been sold, as the owner passed away, but it was here that Osamu’s love for wine grew.
“I didn’t come to France for wine - it was a bit by mistake that I came to Bordeaux but that’s where my homestay was. Nobody spoke of that sort of wine back then, but when I think about it now, that’s exactly what Domaine du Haut Brugas was doing - they were one of the pioneers of natural wine back in the 90s. I learnt so much there.”
To say Osamu is meticulous would be an understatement. Once the initial flame had been sparked, he visited an astonishing 300 chateaux in Bordeaux to learn more. He remembers one in particular with fondness.
“I arrived at Chateau Figeac and it was the owner that met me. The owner! Of this grand château! Usually it’s the personnel who shows you around. But here I was, a Japanese student, with the owner. At the end, he asked me what my birth vintage was, to which I replied 1977. He gave me a bottle of that and a bottle of their latest release - 1995. That really encouraged me to keep going.”
He worked harvest at his homestay, and realised that wine did not need to be made at a château, nor did it need to be made with fancy equipment.
“It was all done by hand - without pumps, with very little SO2, and with a very old tractor. Japan is, after all, a country of technology, so arriving here and seeing everything done by hand really interested me. New technology arrives all the time, but the great wines are made without chemicals or the new tech. I was so surprised.”
He also decided to enrol at wine school, to learn as much as possible about every aspect of wine.
“I had been learning the natural way, but I also wanted to understand oenology and technology. I wanted to understand the chemistry behind it and wanted to know about both extremes - the ancient, and the super modern.”
He also undertook winemaking internships across France - in Bordeaux, Rivesaltes, Côte-Rotie, the Loire and the Savoie, to figure out where he wanted to settle eventually. It was Bordeaux that kept ebbing at his mind.
“Everyone said, Osamu: Bordeaux is very expensive and it’s very closed. You can’t settle in Bordeaux as a foreigner. It would be a better idea to go to the south of France - to Banyuls or Provence. It’s less expensive and more welcoming there. Then, when I said I wanted to settle in Bordeaux, they said - Ok - maybe choose Entre-Deux-Mers - it’s less expensive and the people are friendlier. Definitely don’t settle in the Médoc. So where did I go? To the Médoc. I wanted to do things differently—my way.”
Although overall the region might seem unwelcoming, Osamu met friends over the years who helped him to find a vineyard. Vineyard holdings tend to be a little larger in the region, so he was offered 20 hectares or five hectares, but that was all too much for him. Eventually, a cooper friend found a plot of 0.6 hectares of 30-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines which was up for rent. That size suited him just fine.
“I said, great - perfect size for one person just starting up, but it depends on the terroir. So I went to visit, and discovered that it was a completely isolated vineyard, surrounded by forest with no neighbours. That was perfect for organics; there’s no influence from others. Plus, the previous farmer had never used herbicides or pesticides. It was just great. I can’t afford to buy one - it’s a rental - so it was perfect.”
He signed the lease in March 2015, without a house or a cellar. He figured he had plenty of time, but couldn’t quite find the right spot in the right place, at the right price. Right before harvest a house with a garage came up for rent - in one of Chateau Mouton-Rothchild’s vineyards, no less! He signed the lease and rapidly converted the garage into a winery.
Since the start, Osamu has worked organically, and in 2019 he also began working biodynamically.
“In my head, I already knew organics and biodynamics was the way. It just feels right. In my vineyard, where there’s no neighbours, it’s very peaceful. It’s completely silent - there is only forest - and every now and then I see a deer.”
His decision to work biodynamically was to help strengthen the vines and aid them in becoming more resilient. He explains,
“If you’re sick you take medication. But what do you do if you don’t want to get sick in the first place? You stay fit: you exercise, eat healthily and maybe take natural supplements. That’s what biodynamics is: it fortifies the vine, but it doesn’t happen suddenly - it’s not as simple as that. It takes five or maybe ten years.”
Last year, he also found another plot of vines, to bring his holdings up to 2.2 hectares. It will become a different cuvee as he is working to convert the vineyard to organics and it’s important for him to not mix the grapes. It doesn’t have a name yet, but he wants to call it something that has international meaning - like his cuvees Miracle and Pheromone - so that many can read the names and understand them.
From all of his winery experience, Osamu had collected a lot of information that he had mentally filed away.
“I learnt theories and bit by bit tried to collect all of the information to find my own way. Then, it depended on the grapes and their quality. I realised we could do some carbonic fermentation and produce something with lower alcohol. I adapted my vinification to the grapes.”
He bought amphorae and older barrels, as he emphasises he doesn’t seek oaky characteristics and hence avoids new wood. In his first vintage, he did half whole bunch fermentation and half destemmed by hand.
“Some criticised me at the beginning and said, this isn’t Médoc. The appellation puts a bit of pressure on you. So, since 2016 I have destemmed. It’s still my way - I continued my style - but it had to be a bit more Bordeaux - it’s not always easy.”
So, while he doesn’t use whole bunches any more (at the moment), he still carries out an extremely gentle maceration which allows him to get some carbonic fermentation from the intact whole berries. He only does pigeage once a day - and sometimes not even every day - to do an infusion-style fermentation. This is not the norm in Bordeaux - but why conform? This is the wine that Osamu likes to drink and to share with others.
“I don’t like the new wood and extraction of so many of the grands crus of Bordeaux. It’s not my goal - instead I look for something pure and natural.”
Working with carbonic fermentation also allows him to work without sulphur dioxide during vinification - the carbonic gas works to protect the ferment. His Miracle cuvee is bottled with just a touch after malolactic fermentation, and he has also released a sans soufre cuvee called Pheromone which he bottled straight after malolactic.
“If you bottle straight after malolactic, it’s easy to make red wine without sulphur. But when you age wines it becomes a bit riskier. I’m still building and developing and don’t want to risk oxidation.”
Everything is kept as simple as possible, but also as precise as possible. He explains that this fits in with his Japanese minimalistic way of thinking:
“Japan is all about minimalism. It’s a small country, and we don’t have much space so we try to find space in the most meticulous way. We’re also very clean - even when I was at school, the pupils had to take part with the cleaning. So I try to make very clean wine, with old materials like in the old days.”
He laughs as he tells us,
“When people come to work harvest with me, I always tell them - here we do harvest à la Japonais! They ask me - Osamu, what’s that? I hold up a French baguette & say, it's like this. Artisanal but meticulous!”
Aside from the small addition of sulphur, everything is done completely naturally here.