Japan: introducing a new frontier for fine wine

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.

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