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Winemakers worried about climate change should look to Japan

At a recent masterclass in Hong Kong, Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief of the drinks business, said that European winemakers who are worried about climate change should look at what producers are doing in Japan.

Speaking to a roomful of guests consisting of Hong Kong’s top sommeliers, wine merchants, and educators, Schmitt argued that Japan could be very much on the cusp of a wine export boom, with the country’s well-known meticulous craftsmanship carried over into the vineyards and cellars.

He also said that the country was set to benefit from the newly introduced law for stricter control of its native wine production, and the recent EU-Japan free trade agreement that will remove most of the tariffs on Japanese products.  

In October, Japan banned the addition of imported wine into wine produced in Japan, which means that 100% of the grapes used in Japanese wine must be grown in Japan, ending a decade-long tradition of blending imported wines into local wines.

Drawing a comparison with English sparkling wines, Schmitt said: “Japanese wine for me is another emerging classic. They are both distinctive, very hard to copy and are starting to become renowned worldwide”.

From the country’s local hybrid grapes such as Koshu, Muscat Bailey A to international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz, winemakers are not interested in producing what he calls “blockbuster wines”.

Instead, the wines will do very well in a restaurant setting paired with the delicate Japanese cuisine such as sashimi in a wine by the glass set-up, he believes, while showcasing a flight of 10 wines that “he fell in love with” during his trip to the country in September.

These wines include: Cuvée Misawa, Akeno Koshu 2017, Katsunuma Winery Aruga Branca ‘Issehara’ Koshu 2016, Katsunuma Winery Aruga Branca Pipa Koshu 2015, Lumière ‘Prestige Class’ Orangé Koshu 2017, Kusunoki Winery Riesling 2014, Château Mercian Hokushin RGC ‘Left Bank’ Chardonnay 2016, Hokkaido Wine Company Otaru Gewurztraminer 2017, Tomi no Oka  ‘Tomi’ 2013, Château Mercian Kikyogahara Merlot Signature ‘Pont des Arts’ 2013, and Lumière Sparkling Koshu.

“You are not going to have overly extracted, tannic, juicy, jammy reds. You are not going to have white wines that have tropical fruits or hot burning alcohol. What you are going to have is something delicate, subtle, pretty, elegant, charming, entrancing. If you like music, it’s not like jazz but more like chamber music,” he explained.

Another key factor that makes Japanese wine relevant in today’s wine industry is Japanese winemakers’ decades of experience in dealing with humidity and heat, which will prove invaluable in the context of global warming.

Moderated by a subtropical climate, the challenge for most Japanese wineries is rainfall during the growing season, with summertime rainfall making grapes susceptible to rot and fungal disease. The Japanese, therefore, employ innovative methods such as wax paper hats over fruit bunches, plastic sheets to protect grapes from excessive rainfalls and ensuing disease, and even using fans in the vineyards to stimulate air circulation.

“People in Europe talk a lot about climate change, and they should really look to what they are doing in Japan,” Schmitt continues.

“One of the issues with climate change is they think that with rising temperatures comes excess heat. Actually the real problem is heat and moisture together, and that’s what we are seeing and that’s what Japan is very used to seeing, the combination of heat and moisture,” he said.

The country’s major winegrowing regions such as Yamanashi and Nagano thankfully are shielded from excessive rainfalls thanks to Mount Fuji, which creates a rain shadow effect for the two prefectures. Hokkaido, another wine region in the northern part of Japan, however, suffers higher and sometimes extreme rainfall from November – sometimes so strong that can even break vine stems, according to Schmitt.

To adapt to the climate, Koshu, the pink-skinned hybrid white grape, triumphed in Japan. Designed to be resistant to rot, the thick-skinned grape can also take on different styles from light, refreshing wines to denser versions with skin contact and oak ageing.

Citing an example of how the grape can withstand humidity, Schmitt recalled one winery in Rheingau, Germany that managed to produce both quality and quantity in the wet 2006 vintage when its neighbours suffered. The reason, he says, is Koshu, thanks to its resistance to rot and disease.

This led Schmitt to predict that Koshu could be “one of the grapes of future” with increased humidity and warmth.

In addition to Koshu, other white grapes have also found success in Japan including Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Muscat Bailey A is key red grape, that is reminiscent of Beaujolais, says the Master of Wine, with the rest being international varieties.

Pinot Noir is another red variety that’s beginning to capture international attention in Japan, particularly with wines produced from Hokkaido. Burgundy producer Etienne Montille was the first vintner to venture into the northern island to make Pinot, a move that’s seen as “a real endorsement of the quality potential,” said Schmitt.

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