From Japanese whisky to the traditional sake, awamori, and shochu drinks, Japan is continuously raising the bar when it comes to quality and flavour in the global drinks industry.
Yet, there are wonderfully colourful and exciting categories, which are yet to make a strong global debut. Japanese wine is one of those categories. Beyond their rice wine, Japan has been making both red and white expressions for centuries. The first winery in Japan came to life back in the 1870s with Dainihon Yamanashi Wine Company.
While some wineries ventured into winemaking using imported grapes and grape juice, other more passionate producers sought to create wine that was entirely Japanese.
Wine Drinking In Japan
The wineries cultivating their own grapes are fewer (20% of domestic wine), but their achievements so far are huge. Today, Japan is home to over 300 wineries. Some are small, even tiny, while others are huge, backed by drinks giants like Suntory and Kirin.
Wine consumption is rising in Japan. Walk the streets of Tokyo and Kyoto and, around every corner, you’ll come across a French or European wine bar, with a gorgeous food pairing menu on display. Popular with the young population, wine is seen as a healthier alternative to spirits or beer.
Sadly, according to the Asahi Shimbun, a mere 5 per cent of the huge 380,000 kilolitres consumed in Japan in 2015 was domestic wine. French and American wine still reigns supreme. Even though the number is small, interest and consumption of Japanese wine is increasing both globally and domestically, and the large companies expect it to skyrocket leading up to the Olympics.
The craft and skill of the country is evident in its winemaking. As with their cuisine, customer service, crafts, and whisky, the Japanese are aiming for perfection and relentlessly pursuing improvement. Looking further, the climate and altitude also play a large part in the process.
Yet, the most important asset lies in the grapes. Like France, Napa Valley, and other regions around the world, Japan has managed to create and cultivate unique grape varieties, while also utilizing traditional varieties.
Japanese Grape Varieties
The need to create unique Japanese grape varieties came to be through the country’s climate. Being so hot and humid, many areas in Japan are unsuitable for grape cultivation. Especially for varieties hailing from cooler climates like Germany and certain areas of France.
To combat the climate, wine-makers in Japan have used several techniques throughout the ages. The most known is tanashitate (棚仕立), meaning “shelf tailoring”. Meant to battle the high levels of humidity in Japan, this technique places the hedges at an elevated level, allowing the fruit to come into better contact with the air. With a dream of creating unique Japanese wine, and facing the difficulties of a harsh climate, Japanese wine makers took to breeding varieties which would be able to survive.
For white wine, the main and most globally known variety is Koshu. The variety is grown primarily in Yamanashi which, due to its well-drained soil and hot and cold climate, is home to 40 per cent of Japan’s wineries. The area is also a major fruit cultivating area in Japan. Said to have come to Japan from Europe over a millennium ago, the Koshu grape is, perhaps, the oldest indigenous variety used in winemaking.
Thick-skinned and pinkish pale, the Koshu grapes are renowned for their clean, citrusy character, with mineral undertones. The Tomi No Oka winery, owned by Suntory, produces a lovely Koshu 2015 wine. On a smaller scale, the Grace winery also cultivates Koshu grapes, showcased in their Toriibira Private Reserve 2016, and other delicious Koshu expressions.
Looking at red wine, the Muscat Bailey A variety is the most globally-known. The grapes were first bred back in the 1920s when Zenbei Kawakami was trying to create a Japanese varitety for his Iwanohara winery which could withstand the cold, snowy winters which stripped the area.
The variety came to be by breeding Muscat Hamburg and Bailey grapes, and has been used by many different wineries throughout the years. Known for creating light, fruity reds, cultivation of the grapes is growing. For a deep look into the flavours of Muscat Bailey A, try the range of reds by Iwanohara winery; the Iwanohara Zenbei 2014, in particular, is spectacular. Suntory’s Japan Premium Muscat Bailey A expression is also immense, as the drinks giant’s expertise shines through in wine.
While Japanese grapes are starting to show up more and more, the European classics remain the most popular. Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir are largely cultivated in Japan, each adopting the notes of the soil and area they are planted in.
Experimentation is fast-paced, and the Tokyo Olympics 2020 are being viewed as a milestone for the Japanese wine industry.
We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled and glasses at the ready!
As a half Greek Scotsman, who previously lived and worked in Japan’s whisky industry for years, George Koutsakis is a spirits writer specializing in Japanese whisky, world whisky, and spirits. Aside from Alcohol Professor, he currently writes for Liquor.com, Saveur Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Distiller.com, and acts as head of content for dekantā, the largest online retailer and specialist of Japanese whisky. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably swimming, watching Japanese anime, or travelling in search of gorgeous dishes and drams. Follow him on Instagram @whiskyislander