The state(s) of Japanese wine
Author: Sophie McLean
On a snowy winter’s day in St James’s, a dedicated troupe of tasters gathered at Japanese restaurant Ginza Onodera to work through a series of “new Japanese wines”. The snowy context couldn’t have been more appropriate for a country whose harsh winters provide one of the many challenges for growing grapes. And yet, Japan’s ski-resorts are also where many of the vineyards are located – planted at high altitude for optimal growing conditions.
Wine has been made in Japan for over a thousand years (Medieval monks believed grapes to be of medicinal merit), but until recently it has not made much of a leap overseas. In the past, wines made in the country didn’t necessarily come from native grapes – they would use grape concentrate, imported from abroad. New regulations set out in 2004 have made it easier for smaller, boutique wineries to exist, while more recent legislation ensures that grapes for Japanese wine must be home-grown. Consequently, the quality and quantity of the Japanese domestic winemaking scene is rising and the foundations for progression are primed to bloom.
Wineries exists in all of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and at today’s tasting we are guided through the current trailblazers. Yamanashi, west of Tokyo, surrounding the area of Mount Fuji, is dubbed the “heartland” of Japanese wine production. Here, wineries such as Lumiere and Katsunuma are making good quality – distinctly rice-y and ripe in flavour – sparkling wines from the original Japanese grape, Koshu. Koshu, for the uninitiated, is believed to share the same pink grapefruit compounds found in Sauvignon Blanc. The popularity of these particular wines is not altogether surprising, given the Japanese predilection for bubbles – a fact backed up by recent reports that Japan is set to take over the UK in sales of Champagne.
Yamanashi, a large area renowned for the quality and richness of its wines, is also home to Ch. Mercian – a forward thinking winery whose skin-contact white wine “Koshu Gris de Gris” is causing quite the style stir. The Marufuji Winery’s “2016 Rubaiyat Koshu sur lie” is another wine and style on everybody’s lips – almost like a Viognier or Muscadet, the “sur lie” gives it a plug of plumpness, providing something that is rich, mouth-filling and elegantly oily. Over and above oak treatment, more alternative methods (perhaps inspired by the rise of things like orange wine elsewhere) is something that is being deployed with success, to grab one’s tastebuds and attention. “There is a very small natural wine movement in Japan” says Sarah Abbott MW, host of today’s proceedings. One that will no doubt continue to flourish as awareness of these styles continues to grow.
Grace Wine also based in Yamanashi, makes a variety of styles from different grapes. Today we taste its Cabernet Franc – a grape that we are told has the greatest potential in Japan, thanks to its suitable climate. This one is made by Ayana Misaura, a female winemaker with “a delicate touch”, so says Abbott. In Nagano, better known for its ski resorts and the 1998 Winter Olympics (I have the t-shirt to prove it), the Suntory Shiojiri Winery is producing top quality Muscat Bailey A. A red grape, dear reader, that once tasted, will never be forgotten. This, unusually, has a real caramel flavour to it – and something akin to Asian plum, or a Japanese sweet. This is a low-yielding grape that was bred in the Niigata prefecture of Japan in the 1920s – and is a hybrid of Vinifera and Lambrusca grapes without the “foxy” undertones. This one is made with Mizunara oak – one that is native to Japan and high in vanillins – famed also for its use in Japanese whisky. The Muscat Bailey A is dubbed “respectable fun” – it is silky and soft, and (New World) Pinot Noir-esque. A must-try for anyone with a vinous curiosity – and interesting perhaps to those of a Beaujolais Cru persuasion.
From the Yamagata prefecture, we are introduced to a Zweigelt. This area was established for winemaking in the 1800s – it is further north in Japan surrounded by “epic landscapes” of huge mountains and rivers – including the Mogami River and each year they host a grape festival here. The Zweigelt is fresh, elegant and cherry red in colour – reminiscent once again of the famous blossom on Japan’s cherry trees.
From Hokkaido we taste Domaine Takahiko’s Pinot Noir. An island prefecture situated at the very north of Japan it has a more moderate climate, remaining a little less monsoon-y (known as Bai-wu, or the “plum shower” elsewhere). The wineries here are presented to us as young and dynamic – with miles yet to go. This Pinot Noir is bright red with plums and black cherry (blossom). It has high acidity which fits with the growing season character, and a nice spice with pepper and subtle tannins.
Of all these and the various other wines we taste, the resounding personality is elegance. There is no obvious fruit-smacking power as found in some other northern hemisphere wines, but instead a sharp, knife-edge finesse. The tasting notes evoke aromas and flavours specifically found in Japanese products and cuisine, marking them out as deft and unique in the glass, and a reflection perhaps also of this country’s overall quietly confident yet equally delicate persona. On exiting the building and stepping back out into the freshly-landed snow – the environment, for both the weather and the wines, seems most befitting: pure, clean and bright.
To browse our range of Japanese whiskies, click here.