Yes, you read that right- today I’ll be speaking about Japan! For the past few weeks I have been travelling through the land of the Rising Sun, and in my travels, I discovered a small but thriving wine industry in this island nation. The first thing I noted upon arrival in Tokyo is that the Japanese love their wines; whilst still modest by European standards at 2.6L /person/year, Japan is far and away the biggest wine consumer in Asia. Second, I found that it is really easy to find a lot of different wines from all over the globe in Japan (especially in the largest cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto). In regards to what wine is consumed, the Japanese are largely Francophiles; even in your most basic convenience store you could usually find a decent-quality Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone Valley red.
Grapes have been grown in Japan for centuries, with tales written that they were given by the Buddah to a holy man named Gyoki, who planted the first vines in the year 718AD. Grapes have been seen as a very healthy food (even thought of as a medicine for many centuries) by the Japanese ever since, however it was only turned into the alcoholic beverage we know and love in the late 19th century. Before that, the feudal Shogun lords acquired a taste for wine as it was gifted to them by visiting European dignitaries throughout the 16th century. In the 17th century, the Tokugawa Shogunate condemned European influences, especially Christianity with its use of wine in the Eucharist- meaning wine drinking came to a halt. After this during the “opening of Japan” to the world under the rule of the great Emperor Meiji, Japan was re-shaped, from a land of feudalism and constant battle between the 180 minor lords, into a global superpower through industrial revolution- during which wine consumption picked back up again.
Japan has an interesting definition of what “Japanese wine” is. Grape juice can be imported from another country and fermented into wine in Japan, and then called Japanese wine with no regional designation. If a wine has a regional designation (usually the name of the Prefecture it comes from), it must be made from 100% locally-grown grapes. The biggest challenge the Japanese wine industry faces is the rainfall. A Japanese invention, known as a ‘Rain Cap’- kind of like a transparent, long, thin umbrella stretched over the entire vine row, is in place to combat it. This allows the sun to shine through the transparent roof, but keeps the vines relatively dry from the never-too-far-away rain. Without these measures, disease is a constant presence in most vineyards. In addition to this, frost and snow are a constant threat in both spring and autumn, leaving a very small window for grapes to ripen. White wines are heavily favoured by local growers, as red grapes never usually attain a deep enough colour for quality red production, although experimentation is clearly apparent- in one vineyard I visited, they had 46 different vine varieties growing! Just to name a few, I saw Cortese, Zinfandel, Carignan, Saperavi, Delaware, Scheurebe and Tannat!
Japan, interestingly enough, is home to several native grape varieties, introduced over the Silk Road 800 to 1200 years ago. These varieties have evolved to suit the wet climate and taste of the Japanese people over the centuries. The most famous of them is Koshu, which produces large, thick-skinned pink berries, and is incredibly hardy against disease. Making a red from the grapes pink skins can be tough; however it makes a lovely crisp, dry Rose, and a refreshing off-dry white. One other variety only found in Japan is the delicious (but rather technically named) Muscat Bailey A, which, despite its name, is actually a deeply coloured red with no hint of flowery Muscat aromas. I tried one of these from Yamanashi Prefecture, and it really was great- kind of like a Southern Rhone Grenache.
Wine Sales Manager