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Wines of Japan: Harpers takes a closer look at what the country has to offer

Published:  08 November, 2018

Japan has had a boost in winemaking productivity over the past decade, particularly among smaller, artisanal producers who are now leading the charge for quality and innovation. We took a closer look at a country which is focusing outwards on growing its reputation and inwards on winemaking expertise.

In 2004, government deregulation opened Japan up to the rest of the world in many ways. One that has perhaps flown under the radar, is wine.

You would be forgiven for not having tasted any of the country’s grape wine. Japan still produces a tiny amount compared to the rest of the world and exports much less.

It produced 22,131 tons of wine last year, most of it from imported grape juice.

But over the past 14 years, less stringent rules have allowed smaller, more premium-focused winemakers to flourish in the way smaller outfits so often do when given the space for creativity, and have lead to a fair amount of introspection among the larger companies at the same time.

Now looking beyond its borders, the younger generation is interested in pushing the envelope, experimenting with traditional styles while spending sabbaticals in Australian and French vineyards.

Today, wine – as opposed to Sake – is known to be made in 36 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and among those who have managed to snaffle a taste, the wines often end up being met with high praise.

Sarah Abott MW, who recently hosted the second ever Wine of Japan tasting, said dedication to quality is in the country’s DNA.

“The Japanese pay for quality, and there has been huge improvement and aspiration involved in making quality local wines. The wine on supermarket shelves will blow your mind”, she said.

Partly for this reason, wine from Japan will never be cheap, said Abbott.

Since the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese have brought across approaches from other area of agricultural expertise, which are now technically “very advanced. Science and control of fermentation is the seed that unites soy sauce, beer and wine”.

But perhaps climate is the biggest factor.

While Japan has similarities with other cool climate regions like areas of France and Germany, humidity means careful breeding and site selection is necessary.

Mitigating its typhoons also requires a lot of time and attention, not least because the growing season is very short.

“So either you need early ripening grapes that are out of danger season by typhoon season in September, or grapes that bud late to avoid Spring frosts and ripen early. In the south of Japan, they get massively heavy rain in late summer / early autumn," Abbott said. 

One region which is spared the challenging typhoon season is Hokkaido.

This northernmost prefecture is much cooler than most of the country and has half the annual rainfall of Yamanashi, making it the place to plant Pinot Noir.

The lion’s share of wine however is still made in Yamanashi, where winemaking was founded in the Meiji era of the late 1800s and when the outward looking leaders of the age sent emissaries to Scotland to learn whisky making, Germany for beer and France for wine.

Yamanashi is responsible for producing most of Koshu - Japan’s dominant white grape and one of two native Japanese grapes recognised by the OIV.

The other is Muscat Bailey A.

This deep pink-skinned grape is used to make light red wines and is a hybrid – a cross between Muscat of Hamburg and Bailey, mostly from vinifera – which was created precisely to fit into that little window between frost and typhoon.

The varietal also plays an interesting role in the history of beer, whisky and wine giant, Suntory.

Its creator, Kawakami Zenbei, often dubbed the "grandfather" of Japanese wine, used the fortune he made from the grape partly to establish the company.

Today, the varietal is clawing back some kudos from years as a workhorse grape.

“For a long time, Muscat Bailey was used to make off dry, simple, light wines. In the last few years, more serious but seductive styles are being made, with the grape showing an affinity for well judged, perfumed oak,” said Abbott.

Harpers top picks:

Manns Wines NV Kobo-no-awa Brut

A pleasant and precise fizz that can be drunk with spiced dishes.

Suntory Wine International 2013 Shiojiri Muscat Bailey A Mizunara

More aromatic than Muscat Bailey A of old. Notable for being aged in Mizunara oak with violet and rose notes. Similar to Barbera.

Hokkaido Wine Company 2015 Tsurunuma Zweigelt

Showed well, with bright cherry notes that shows why Hokkaido is garnering attention.

Grace Wine 2015 Cabernet Franc

A fantastic Cab Franc that got a rousing endorsement at the Wines of Japan tasting 

Koshu and Muscat Bailey A are Japan’s forerunners, with 3,574 tons and 3,152 tons produced respectively in 2016.

After that, comes a number of French and German varieties.

Notable is the Hokkaido prefecture which was established for wine in 1950s with the help of a number of German consultants, because of similarities in climate.

Because of this, “Hokkaido is an emerging region for Pinot Noir, as well as being the centre of natural wine production in Japan”, said Abbott. “Domaine de Monti invested in Pinot Noir in Hokkaido. Also, Merlot make some very nice wine: Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Zweigelt”.

When it comes to wine regions, Yamanashi, Hokkaido, Nagano, and Yamagata are the Beatles, and have been since the band was in the charts.

As well as being the cherry capital of Japan, Yamagata is responsible for making sturdy reds, while Nagano was established for wine in the 1950s along with Hokkaido.

But, like everywhere, the winds of change are blowing through Japan.

While Sake is gaining traction in the UK, slowly being included in pairing menus in non-Asian inspired restaurants, Sake is falling out of fashion at home.

“Sake is declining domestically because it’s seen as what your granddad drank,” Abbott said.

In Japan, drinking wine is much more embedded among the middle class, where consumers have more disposable income per capita than China.

“China is so interesting and full of promise, but their vineyards are much younger.

People in Japan have been drinking domestically really the 1960s and they adore top quality food and drink.”

Photo shows Rubaiyat winery in Katsunuma, Yamanashi