The art of growing Budou grapes for Japan in Hawke’s Bay.
A third-generation grape master from Japan is growing premium Japanese table grapes in Hawke’s Bay, selling the fruit locally at farmers’ markets, at high-end fruit stores in Auckland and Wellington, and exporting them to his homeland Japan, where perfect bunches can fetch up to NZD$200 each, as well as Hong Kong and other countries in South-East Asia.
Japan is one of New Zealand’s preeminent trading partners with fresh fruit being a major export, in particular kiwifruit, of course. Now, thanks to a Japanese ‘grape master’, New Zealand grown Japanese table grapes – extra-large, juicy, sweet, and perfectly formed – are now also now on board as an export to Japan, as well as to Hong Kong and other countries.
Transplanted from the Yamanashi Prefecture southwest of Tokyo, where his family has grown table grapes for three generations, Tetsuya Higuchi is growing six varieties of seedless Japanese grapes in the Hawke’s Bay.
Top-grade bunches of the ‘budou’ grapes he grows near Clive, a short distance from Hastings, can fetch up to $200 in Japan, where they are favoured as gifts, beautifully packaged.
Tetsuya sees enormous potential in the production of Hawke’s Bay grown premium quality table grapes for the Japanese market, as well as for Hong Kong, and for other overseas markets – amongst them Southeast Asia.
He produces 20 percent more grapes to the hectare in Clive than in Yamanashi, and says they are also better quality, with individual fruit of the largest, the coveted yuhou variety, growing to the size of golf balls.
Tetsuya took on the small vineyard in Clive in 2014 after searching for the ideal southern hemisphere location to grow grapes off-season for the Japanese market. He considered Chile, Australia and South Africa as growing locations, opting for New Zealand after researching our export methods, security and cultivation conditions. “We also knew that New Zealand would grow good quality grapes – after all New Zealand wine is highly regarded around the world and to make good wine you must start with good grapes.”
Under supervision by Tetsuya and New Zealand-raised vineyard manager, Shiki Nakazawa, a team of workers train vines onto trellises to form a canopy about 1.8 metres above the ground and bunches are hand-thinned, so the grapes can receive optimum sunshine to aid their ripening, depth of colour and desired size.
As well as aiming for gorgeous looking fruit full of sweet flavour, antioxidants levels are tested, finding numbers in his Clive-grown grapes many times greater than in fruit grown in Japan. “Although it’s easy for the grapes to get sunburnt here in the Hawke’s Bay, the ultraviolet rays, which are about seven times stronger here than in Japan, together with the longer sunshine hours, allow us to produce a premium great tasting fruit with high levels of polyphenols,” says Tetsuya.
He adds that humidity is also lower in the Hawke’s Bay than in Yamanashi, reducing disease risk, while the overhead trellis also means fruit can be readily harvested from below.
Each budou bunch is encased in a bag made of waxed paper to shield it from insects, birds, and wind, and sheltered under a little umbrella that reduces the risk of sun burn.
The distinct table grapes are not just for export. Tetsuya and his team sell locally, including farmers’ markets and eateries in Hawke’s Bay (where chefs find them especially appealing), and to selected fruit shops in Auckland and Wellington. Happily, locally the grapes do not have the eye-watering price tag the premium export quality product attracts in Japan, selling for around $20 per kg. Tetsuya, who is full of admiration for many people in our horticulture and viticulture sectors, sees making the grapes available locally as a way of thanking the many people who have helped and supported him from the start of his venture.
To bring the grape varieties to New Zealand, Tetsuya had to secure a contract with the patent holder in Japan. Once the mother plants arrived here, they were quarantined for an 18-month period by Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to ensure they were free of any pests or disease. After being cleared, the plants were multiplied in a nursery and then planted out at the Clive vineyard.