Japan: introducing a new frontier for fine wine

Following a week long tour of Japan taking in key vine-growing regions Yamanashi, Nagano and Hokkaido, Patrick Schmitt MW brings a introduction to the fast-developing domestic Japanese wine industry.

Fumio Shonai at Suntory’s Tomi no Oka winery in Yamanashi, with Mt Fuji in the distance

Deep in the heart of Rioja at this year’s Masters of Wine symposium was a revelatory wine tasting that was laid on for some of the world’s best palates. It didn’t feature the great reds of Spain, nor the fine wines of France, but it did offer samples from “magical sites” in little-known terroirs throughout the globe, selected by Jasper Morris MW, former Burgundy director at Berry Bros & Rudd. Among these “unique regions” and “emerging modern classics” were a couple of remarkable wines – and they came from outside of Europe, the US, or Australasia. They hailed from Japan.

For those who associated this nation with just one drink – saké – it was an exciting discovery. Indeed, it was a taste of one of the most thrilling developments on the global drinks scene of this century: the production of wine from the extreme vineyards of the islands of Japan.
While this nation is well known as a consumer of great Burgundy and Champagne, Japan’s burgeoning domestic wine industry is a relative newcomer to the wider world of wine. But one can expect it to become a lot more famous – as a new generation of winemakers works to improve production and develop new sites, while the laws of labelling change for the better.

From this month, all Japanese wine must be made from grapes grown in Japan – preventing a long-time practice of importing wine from abroad, bottling it in Japan, then labelling it as a product of this country. Although the imports of bulk wine from abroad won’t stop, the new law means that ‘Japanese wine’ is only made from grapes grown in Japan.

Japan’s domestic wine production has a long history, but this change to the wine laws of the country is an important outward sign of a change within – the nation’s decision to champion its own produce. Japan’s domestic wine business is booming, but the nation’s winemakers seek international recognition because proof that their wines are taken seriously on the world stage is important for sales at home. The Japanese will look more favourably on a domestically made wine if it has been critically acclaimed abroad. It is a question of national pride. Boosting that requires confirmation from a less biased audience.

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