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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.

Meticulous practices

Koshu grapes are commonly trained high on wires, with each bunch protected from summertime rainfall with paper hats

But why would wine consumers in the likes of the UK, US or any major wine-consuming country want to drink wines from Japan? It is because this country is able to apply meticulous practices in the vineyard and cellar to capture flavours from terroirs that are unlike any other. Japan offers the chance for drinkers to discover something completely different. And in the process of refining its wine offer, the Japanese have created something to match their cuisine – which is one of the most sought-after in the world, but also, with its salty, sweet, and umami-flavoured food, a tricky partner for most wines.

Key to its food-pairing potential is the overriding character of Japanese wine, be it white or red. One can expect delicate flavours and a medium to lightweight feel. This is not a nation attempting to coax concentrated, tannic results with its grapes. In any case, the climate wouldn’t favour such a style of drink.

For the most part, Japan’s vineyards are found in a sub-tropical environment, marked by summertime rains that conflict with the growing season, with associated problems of rot and swollen berries.But the producers’ response to such a challenge sets new standards for precision viticulture. Nothing, it seems, is too much trouble for the Japanese vineyard manager.

The most common technique is to cover each bunch with two pieces of waxed paper stapled together, creating, in effect, a little hat to shield the grapes from the rain. It’s a neat and pretty solution, but expensive, adding around 10% more per hectare to the cost of managing a vineyard. Others resort to plastic sheeting above or within the vines, depending on how exposed the site is and the direction of the wind.
In combination with such protection from above, certain producers resort to ways to reduce surface water, be it by creating deep drainage ditches, installing pipes or digging in gravel. One winery, Goichi Wine in the Nagano Prefecture, has even installed giant fans that start automatically when the humidity exceeds a certain level to improve air circulation in the vines.

Mitigating such climate-related challenges are, notably, the choice of sites for planting grapes for making wine. In particular, wine regions Yamanashi and Nagano – which together account for more than 50% of Japan’s wine production – are generally drier parts of the country, shielded by mountain ranges that act as a barrier to sustained summertime rains, as well as the combination of high winds and heavy precipitation that come with typhoons – weather events that can clash with grape harvesting. So, while Tokyo on the coast is subject to 2,000mm of rainfall, inland, Yamanashi, in the shadow of Mount Fuji, receives less than half that total.

On the northern island of Hokkaido, the climate is more temperate, but picking must be performed before the arrival of heavy snowfall from late October onwards – requiring producers to lay vines flat after harvesting to insulate them from freezing temperatures above the snow line, and prevent the trunks from snapping under the weight of powder.

In all regions, vineyards are generally located on more free-draining slopes, comprising a mix of soil types, from porous gravels to volcanic-sourced geology. Then there’s the most widely practised training regime – the high pergola, selected to maximise airflow while sheltering the bunches with a canopy of leaves. Nevertheless, the use of wire-trained vertical shoot positioning systems is becoming more commonplace, because with increased exposure comes greater sugars and ripeness levels – necessary particularly with the use of international red grapes such as Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet.

The majority of plantings in Japan are, however, hybrid grapes, bred for their disease-resistance in this generally wet climate. While Muscat Bailey A performs this solution for reds, and yields fruity results with some of the characters of a light Beaujolais, it is Japan’s hybrid white grape called Koshu that’s causing a stir among wine connoisseurs in the country, and beyond.

Flavour combination

Patrick Schmitt MW tries the range from Grace Wine with its winemaker, Ayana Misawa

In the vineyard, key to this grape’s successful performance in Japan – where it has been cultivated as a table grape for more than 1,000 years – is its ability to withstand moisture-induced disease, thanks to its thick skins, which are light pink. On the table, its ability to win favour hails from its delicate, appealing combination of flavours, from citrus to peach, as well as its affinity for ageing on its lees, and even, when done with sensitivity, in barrels.

In general, to draw comparisons with well-know European whites, it has some of the flavours of Muscadet, with its bready freshness, but also Albariño, with its lime-acid and peach fruit. Koshu also has something more unique, in the form of a gentle salty note, as though someone has added a drop of soy to your glass. Together, well-made Koshu, which rarely surpasses 12% in ABV, is a wonderfully refreshing accompaniment to the raw-fish based cuisine that the Japanese are such masters at.

Furthermore, richer examples of Koshu – including well-made skin-contact ‘orange wines’ – can pair well with the powerful dashi flavours often found in Japanese dishes. Notable producers include Grace, Katsunuma and Mercian, though many more are making first-rate whites, and, while the grape’s home is the Yamanashi prefecture, it is also found in other parts of the country.

Beyond this hybrid white, the Japanese wine scene is attracting greater interest for its increasingly brilliant results with the key noble grapes of Europe. Stars include Syrah from Mercian, a beautiful medium-weight peppery take on the variety, not unlike an example from a Northern Rhône region such as St Joseph.

But Merlot too can be good, particularly when honed by the same producer. Indeed, Mercian uses lower-yielding vines on superior clones, managed to maximise sunlight exposure and reduce green aromas – all done on the advice of the late Paul Pontallier, the famous winemaker of Château Margaux, who acted as a consultant to Mercian until his death in 2016.

Exciting developments

Organically-farmed Pinot Noir maturing at ‘cult’ winery Domaine Takahiko in Hokkaido

In whites, Mercian and others are crafting delicious Chardonnay, with Chablis-like freshness but also, in some cases, the sort of richness found in better sites of the Côte d’Or, if not with the concentration of a grand cru. For such wines, lemon and stone-fruit flavours are married, successfully, with barrel-sourced characteristics – the Japanese are never heavy-handed in the cellar. Among other exciting developments are wines from Riesling (Kusunoki in particular), along with Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño, as well as Gewürztraminer (especially from Hokkaido Wein) while a Pinot Noir is the source of Japan’s first ‘cult’ wine: Domaine Takahiko.

Indeed, such is the quality of this wine, which hails from a small organically farmed Pinot-only vineyard in Hokkaido, Burgundy’s Étienne de Montille has been drawn to this part of Japan for his first project outside the Côte d’Or.

For the most part, however, Japan’s new-wave wine scene is being built by the Japanese themselves, even though international consultants have been present throughout the domestic wine industry’s development (the late Denis Dubourdieu was a helpful participant, along with the aforementioned Paul Pontallier at Mercian).

Vital to the terroir expression of Japanese wines are the people, be it the hardy and fastidious grape growers – many of whom are direct descendants of Samurai warriors – or the precise and nurturing cellar hands, who are sensitive to the nature of their climate, but also rapid learners, and willing to try new things. What you won’t get with Japan is over-extracted and alcoholic reds or tropical hot whites either. The wines are restrained in character for many natural reasons, but also because the country’s winemakers strive for delicacy – such a style suits their tastes and the raw fish in their diet.

So, next time you think of having Japanese food, remember there are wine options that pair with this nation’s flavours brilliantly and hail from the same home as its amazing cuisine. Not only that, but such wine offers something that one won’t experience elsewhere – a taste of a climate, site, grape and cultural combination that’s unique. And for that reason alone, Japanese wine is worthy of the world’s attention.

Japanese wine: key points

Hundred year-old wooden fermentation vats at Chateau Mercian’s new winery in Nagano

• The Japanese wine industry began in the 1870s.
• However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the country experienced a boom in wine consumption, driven by western imported wines.
• A greater focus on high-quality domestic wine production was accelerated by a law change in 2004 that had prevented the establishment of boutique wineries.
• In October 2018, 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 the country.
• Today, wine is made in 42 of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
• The production of Japanese wine totals around 22m bottles per year, with more than half from Yamanashi and Nagano, and a further 15% from Hokkaido (which is home to Japan’s largest single winery, Hokkaido Wein).
• Currently, there are around 300 wineries in Japan.
• The most planted grape is Koshu, followed by Muscat Bailey A – both of which are hybrid grapes – although plantings of Merlot and Chardonnay are increasing.

This report and the visits that took place to produce it were supported by The Japan Food Product Overseas Promotion Centre (JFOODO), which was established in April 2017 within The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO). This article first appeared in the October issue of The Drinks Business.

Takahiko Saga from Hokkaido’s Domaine Takahiko

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