“Thirty years ago did you imagine you’d drive a Japanese car?”
That’s what a Japanese beer commercial was like a while ago.
Japanese often achieve remarkable results when they commit to something, methodically and consistently, even in fields that are not part of their own tradition, be it the automotive industry, the electronics industry or the production of alcoholic beverages.
When you think of Japanese wine the first thing that comes to mind is sake, often improperly called rice wine. Yet few years ago Japanese whisky started to rank at the very top in international competitions. And now there is no bar that does not have a few bottles of Japanese whisky on display. In addition to whisky and beer, the Japanese are also winemakers.
The quantities are still small, but international interest is growing and few bottles are also beginning to be exported.
The Japanese are analytical, meticulous and terribly stubborn. They observe, study and apply, even looking for new ways to improve. With wine it is also going like this, and quality Japanese wines are promising.
In recent decades the Japanese have also developed a palate and passion for wine that is contending beer’s role as mealtime alcoholic beverage. Much of the wine on sale in Japan still comes from the old and new world. However, there is a growing interest in local production.
National Wine VS Japanese Wine
The national denomination system is still rather generic and vague.
Until 2015, wine was labelled “Produced in Japan” as long as it was fermented on the Japanese islands. This included wine made with imported concentrated juices and musts. Since 2015 the legislation has changed. There are now two denominations:
- National Wine (国産ワイン – kokusan wine): wine produced in Japan also with imported raw materials (grapes, juice, must).
- Japanese Wine (日本ワイン – nihon wine): wine produced in Japanese territory exclusively from grapes grown in Japan.
Regional denominations do not exist yet. However, considering the growing success, prefectures and producer associations are working to establish areas of wine-making interest with the prospect of creating protected designation areas on the European model.
Japan Wine Producing Regions
The typical Japanese climate is the worst for the vine. Warm and humid with abundant monsoon rains between spring and summer and violent typhoons between August and September, right next to the harvest.
That said, it is also true that the Japanese archipelago has a wide extension from north to south. Hokkaido, the northernmost island, is not too far from Siberia, and Okinawa is at tropical latitudes. It is therefore possible to find areas with sufficiently cool and windy altitudes and latitudes, and soils where vines can grow for winemaking.
Grapes and wine are produced throughout central Japan and Hokkaido.
About a third of the production comes from Yamanashi Prefecture, west of Tokyo. Koshu, the name of the main Japanese grape variety, is actually the name of the town in Yamanashi where historically viticulture has developed in Japan.
In 2015 there were 280 wineries in Japan. In 2018 they were 331.
Japanese Grape Varietal
The native Japanese grape variety is koshu. When fully ripe, the bunch has a delicate and elegant pink color reminiscent of sakura, the famous cherry blossoms of Japanese culture.
Genetic analysis revealed that it is actually vitis vinifera, related to Caucasian strains, among the oldest domestic vines.
It also includes DNA of wild Asian vines. The two species hybridized over centuries in the long journey which brought Koshu to Japan, possibly through the Silk Road. It probably followed the same routes that brought men and civilizations to the Japanese archipelago in ancient times. Over the centuries it was further selected to better adapt to Japan’s humid climate.
Its thick skin makes it resistant to cryptogamic diseases.
In the Yamanashi area koshu vine is still cultivated using large pergolas called tanatsukuri. Sometimes grape growers mount waxed paper “cloaks” on stems in order to protect bunches from excessive rain.
The characteristics of the wine produced from Koshu grapes are the citrus scents, together with a balanced acidity and alcohol content.
The other native Japanese grape is Muscat Bailey-A. Again, it is a hybrid between domestic vine (vitis vinifera) and wild vine (vitis labrusca). Here, unlike Koshu, the crossing was done by human intervention. Zenbei Kawami, one of the founders of Japanese oenology, developed this hybrid in the 1920s, in an attempt to obtain a grape resistant to the humid climate of Japan. He crossed Bailey varieties with Muscat Hamburg.
The result is a grape with fruity hints, typical of fruit juices, widely used for the production of sweet wines. Recently some wineries started experimenting dry vinification with Muscat Bailey-A.
Other Vine Varietal
The recent success of domestic production is increasing vineyards surface and the cultivation of international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Kerner.
The History of Japanese Wine
Japan is certainly not among the first countries that come to mind when you think about wine. Yet, compared to many other countries that are by now well established producers of the “new world”, wine production and consumption in Japan are not that recent.
The Origins of Japanese Viticulture
In 718 AD, the monk Gyoki had a vision of Buddha holding a bunch of grapes in his hand. Upon awakening, he decided that he would build a temple to house the statue of the vision he had, and planted a vineyard around it. The grapes were used for medicinal purposes.
The temple still exists, it is the Daizenji (大善寺), as well as the statue of the Buddha with the bunch in his hand and the vineyard. Daizenji is commonly called the “temple of grapes“. It is in Yamanashi prefecture, the most important area for wine production in Japan.
Wine appeared again in Japan in 1545 when the Jesuit missionaries of Francis Xavier arrived from Portugal. Among the precious gifts they brought to ingratiate the Japanese feudal lords there was also wine. It was certainly much appreciated. The Jesuits were in fact allowed to settle down and carry out their work of evangelization.
The missionaries also planted vineyards to produce the wine indispensable for religious services.
In 1600 the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power and established the shogunate (military government) in Japan. Tokugawa progressively isolated the country from the rest of the world, and banished foreigners, including missionaries. Everything Westerners had brought was eliminated, including Christianity and wine.
The vine, however, did not disappear, and grapes continued to be much appreciated as table fruit for their sweetness.
Wine came back to Japan only after 1853, when an American military fleet forced the opening of the country. Trade resumed and wine appeared again in Japan, both as imported and local production.
Towards the end of the 19th century various wineries were founded by introducing European techniques and varieties.
Post War Era
After the devastation of World War II, Japan re-emerged on the international scene as an economic-industrial power in the 1970s. During this period, the great purchasing power supported by a strong currency allowed Japan to import western luxury goods in large quantities, including wine. Travel abroad and fashions did the rest, helping to develop the Japanese taste for French wines first, followed by Italian and then New World wines.
Japanese viticulture remained in the background, mainly aimed at the production of very expensive table grapes, and marginally wine.
In the picture a single bunch of table grapes sold in a department store in Tokyo. 54,000 yen is equivalent to about 500 dollars!
Since the mid-2000’s Japanese cuisine has become one of the most popular food, and spread all over the world. Whether authentic or imitation, sushi and sashimi have become extraordinary means for promoting Japanese culture, food and drinks. Even the most xenophile Japanese, proud of this international recognition, have begun to re-evaluate their domestic products. Including wine.
Cultivation and winemaking techniques have improved and beside Koshu, wineries are introducing international varieties. It is not difficult to imagine that sooner or later some Japanese wine will start to rank high in international competitions.
Pairings and Future Developments
Japanese wine is perfect to pair with Japanese cuisine. Alongside raw fish like sushi and sashimi there are the succulent tempura and wagyu meet, the umami and spicy notes of dashi (Japanese soups), the grilled yakitori and yakiniku, the sweet and sour contrasts of sauces. Wine must therefore be versatile enough to adapt to this complexity and contrast of flavors.
For Western palates, accustomed to years of a fashion that demanded full-bodied and exuberant structures, Japanese wines may appear too light. But when peaty Scottish single malts were still all the rage, did you imagine that one day you’d drink a delicate Japanese whisky?