When it comes to Japanese alcoholic drinks, most people think of Shōchū, Saké, or increasingly, award-winning whisky. However, Japan is also home to some amazing vineyards producing fantastic wines. With attention turning to Japan because of the start of the Olympic festivals and lockdown restrictions lifting across the world, wine lovers are once again emerging into the sun and looking forward to a nice glass or two.
In this article, we’ll be exploring the Japanese winemaking industry and looking at some of the excellent Japanese wines being made there.
A Short History of Japanese Wine Making
There are two generally accepted tales associated with the start of Japan’s history of growing grapes and making them into wine.
In the more interesting of the two, a holy man named Gyōki, who lived in 8th century Japan, received divine inspiration during a prayer session and set out to plant the first set of vines in Katsunuma, part of the Yamanashi prefecture.
Gyōki is also apparently responsible for the construction of the nearby temple in Daizenji.
In the less exciting, but more historically validatable of the two stories, wine growing began in Japan in around 1874 as an economic strategy of the Meiji government.
The government was looking to expand Japan’s export industry and decided that wine suited the local climate.
What can be said with some certainty is that the Yamanashi prefecture was chosen to be the site of this new wine-growing experiment and continues to be Japan’s primary wine-growing area to this day.
Modern Japanese Wine Production
Since its semi-mythical roots, Japanese wine production has expanded from Yamanashi to Nagano and Hokkaido.
Traditionally, the Japanese wine industry has relied heavily on imported grapes or wine concentrate to fuel its wine production. Only around 20% of the grapes used by the wine industry in Japan are grown on the home islands.
However, there is a growing movement in Japan to focus more on Japan-grown grapes. Over the past decade, more than 100 new wineries have sprung up in Japan, mostly in Nagano and Hokkaido.
These new wineries have concentrated on producing wine from Japanese grapes, using Chardonnay and Merlot, although some are now experimenting with other varieties, such as Trousseau.
The homegrown wine industry, however, is still very much in its infancy in Japan, with the largest Japanese-grape-only winery in the country, Hokkaido Wine only producing around 2.6 million bottles per year.
Japanese Wine Growing Regions
There are four principal wine-growing regions in Japan, including:
The highest wine production region in Japan, Nagano, situated in the centre of Honshu, is known as the roof of Japan because of the presence of the Japanese Alps.
Despite its elevation, Nagano has a relatively mild climate and an ideal combination of low rainfall and free-draining soil.
The slightly cooler climate also contributes to significant day/night temperature variances, which is ideal for retaining natural acidity during ripening.
Nagano is split into four primary wine-producing valleys, Chikumagawa, Kikyogahara, Tenryugawa, and the Nihon Alps.
Spread across these four valleys are around 35 wineries in total, mostly growing hybrid varieties of grape such as Niagara, Ryugan, and Concord.
Because of its naturally chill climate and cold harsh winters, the 14 vineyards in Yamagata sit in a cluster on the banks of the Mogami River.
In this particular space, they are protected from the worst of the winter winds by the Asahi mountains on one side and the Ōu mountains on the other.
The low-lying river plains have wide stretches of free-draining, clay-gravel soil that house vertical trellises, instead of the traditional pergolas, growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot.
The wine-producing regions of Hokkaido actually sit on the same parallel as France’s famous Rhône Valley.
However, because of the presence of the chilly Chishima ocean current, the winters in Hokkaido are far colder, with two metres of snow during the early spring not being uncommon.
Taking advantage of this, Hokkaido has positioned itself as the cutting edge of both cold climate viticulture and home-grown Japanese wine production.
While the original grapes brought to Hokkaido in the 1970s were German and Austrian varieties, today the most common grapes are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The first and still very much primary wine-producing region in Japan, around 30% of all wine made in Japan comes out of Yamanashi.
Higher levels of humidity and monsoon level rains mean that grapes grown in Yamanashi are commonly grown on overhead pergolas for added air circulation.
While Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscat Bailey A, Merlot, Delaware, and Chardonnay are all grown in Yamanashi, the primary export of Katsunuma, the main wine-growing area, is the famous Koshu grape.
What Is Koshu Wine?
One of the more recognizable Japanese wines is made from the Koshu varietal, with its signature large light pink grapes.
The Koshu grape is well suited to the base of Mount Fuji as it thrives in volcanic soils and the thicker skin protects it from the plentiful sunshine and heavy rainfall of the Yamanashi prefecture.
Traditionally made into a sweet fruity white wine, drier varietals are now increasingly being produced. Koshu grapes have also traditionally been turned into a lightly sparkling white wine which is said to go exceptionally well with the local spicy food.
Koshu wine has a signature strong minerality, light body and slightly muted flavours of citrus and Japanese white peach.
What Are the Benefits of Japanese Wine?
If the explosion in the quality and popularity of Japanese whisky has taught us anything it is that the Island of Japan can produce some extraordinary beverages.
While the Japanese wine industry is still in its infancy, it is already showing the hallmarks of the same care and passion that has made Japanese whisky an international force to be reckoned with.
Sommeliers and wine experts across the world are starting to extol the benefits of Japanese wine and, as the interest increases, the Japanese wine industry is becoming a fantastic opportunity for wine drinkers and wine investors alike.
Award-Winning Japanese Wines
As the Japanese wine industry matures, international sommeliers, industries bodies and wine collectors are increasingly interested in these new and evolving wines, with several Japanese wines becoming highlights of the IWSC 2020 tasting, including:
Château Mars Koshu Orange Gris (2019)
Grande Polaire Dry Koshu (2019)
Zodiaque Pinot Noir (2018)
Barrique Pinot Noir (2017)
Mars Koshu Sparkling (2018)
Château Mars Hosaka Shukaku Koshu (2019)
Château Mars Shirane Koshu Sur Lie (2019)