Outcry as Japanese winemakers ordered to leave France

Rie and Hirofumi Shōji’s wines are made from grapes grown in southern France. (AFP pic)

BANYULS-SUR-MER: French wine lovers have risen up in revolt after a Japanese couple who make “outstanding” wine in southern France were threatened with deportation.

More than 42,000 have already signed a petition protesting the “crazy, moronic and shameful decision”, with wine and restaurant critics now joining the outcry.

Rie and Hirofumi Shōji’s “exceptional” red wine, Pedres Blanques (White Rocks), made from grenache grapes near Banyuls-sur-Mer in the French region of Occitanie, became an instant hit after their first harvest last year.

It has already made the cellars of the world’s best restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, just across the Spanish border in Girona, and top Paris restaurants have also been vying to stock up on the natural wine.

Their first year of production completely sold out, with 10,000 bottles quickly snapped up and the price surging from 12 euros (RM57) to 26 euros (RM123).

But immigration officials said the couple could not stay in France because they were not earning enough and their business was “not viable”.

The Shōjis sank 100,000 euros (RM470,000) of their savings and took out a 50,000 euro (RM240,000) loan to buy their vineyards on difficult terrain where the Pyrenees mountains plunge into the Mediterranean.

They harvest the grapes by hand, growing them organically and without adding anything to the wine.

Hirofumi Shōji, 38, fell in love with French wine when he began working for the French three-star Michelin chef Alain Ducasse in Japan.

The Shōjis met in France after arriving separately in 2011 dreaming of making their own wine. Both studied and worked with some of the country’s leading winemakers to perfect their skills before marrying and buying the land together in 2016.

But when they tried to change their status on their papers from “employees” to “farmers”, officials told them they would have to leave the country because they earned less than 2,000 euros (RM9,500) a month.

Renowned local winemaker Alain Castex also came to their defense, praising Pedres Blanques as “an extraordinary wine”.

“They are really passionate people with very high ethical standards and they have been a magnificent success,” he told French public television.

Jean L’Heritier, the organiser of a wine fair in Perpignan, said it would be a “huge loss for everyone if the Shōjis had to leave. The quality of their grapes, and the typically Japanese perfectionism of their winemaking” had impressed their peers, he told the local newspapers, L’Independant.

Callers to local radio stations raged at the officials as “moronic”, and Twitter users also described the decision as “criminal”. Green MEP Yannick Jadot called the decision “absurd” and urged his supporters to sign the petition to save the Shōjis.

Banyuls is best known for its rich red dessert wines, often called the wine world’s best-kept secret.

Codognes, who has appealed the decision, said the couple were doing well compared to many other winemakers locally. “The average revenue in the area (from winemaking) even with subsidies is less than 1,000 euros (RM4,700) a month,” he added.

Several Japanese winemakers have made a name for themselves in France in recent years, almost all making organic and natural wines, led by Hirotake Ooka, whose Domaine de Grande Colline wines have a cult following in his homeland.