An introduction to Japanese wine

The number of wineries in Japan has tripled in the last decade but Japanese wine remains relatively unknown around the world. Jim Clarke explores the country's key winemaking regions, producers and grape varieties

Words by Jim Clarke

Japanese Wineries - Chateau Mercian cellar
The cellar at Château Mercian in the Yamanashi region of Japan

Japan is the fifth largest wine importer in the world, with an estimated 30 million wine drinkers. The amount of wine coming into the country has not discouraged Japanese vignerons from making their own wine locally and the number of wineries in the country has tripled in the past decade. Few of these wines are exported but visitors will encounter them readily in restaurants and shops.

Unlike in many countries, the leading enthusiasts for wine are the younger generation, according to research company Wine Intelligence. Japan has accordingly embraced trends such as natural wine, and a young, open-minded clientele means vintners need not lean on familiar grape varieties to reassure their customers.

Curious connoisseurs will find an elegance and depth to the best Japanese wines that makes them worth seeking out

Grapes are not new to Japan; shrines in the Kashiwara area outside Osaka bear grape bunch decorations dating back 1,300 years. But the birth of modern Japanese wine is tied to the Meiji Restoration of 1868; under the new government, vineyards were planted 150 years ago in Yamanashi, an hour or so southwest of Tokyo, and researchers were sent off to Burgundy to study oenology.


The Japanese climate and grape varieties

Japan’s climate does not make viticulture easy. Winters can be bitterly cold; while producers in the Finger Lakes or Okanagan Valley might find it necessary to mound earth around the base of each vine in winter, Atsuo Yamanaka at Domaine Mont in Hokkaido prefers to dismount the vine from the trellising entirely and lay it flat to protect it from the intense cold.

Those pressures are less intense further south but all parts of Japan face rain and humidity during the growing season: 600-1000mm or more of rainfall during the April to October growing season is typical. Those conditions lend themselves to ripening challenges and disease pressure, rot in particular.

Domaine Mont in Hokkaido
A vineyard at Domaine Mont in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's main islands. The climate means labour-intensive work ahead of winter to protect the vines

Finding grapes that can prosper in these conditions is a work in process. Two native varieties make up almost a third of Japan’s wine production, Koshu and Muscat Bailey A. Koshu came to Japan as early as the twelfth century and is now Japan’s flagship grape, promoted at trade events in London and elsewhere. Once believed to be a vitis vinifera, recent research suggests that as much as 30 percent of its DNA comes from wild, East Asian grape species. It can have a soft, floral, Muscat-like character, and a decade or two ago most renditions would be soft and sweet. Today, more producers are exploring its potential as a dry wine, and in good hands it reveals a mineral side that adds complexity to the fruit aromas.

Grape breeder Kawakami Zenbei developed Muscat Bailey A in 1927. Its wines are typically lightly to moderately coloured, with red fruit, moderate tannins and pronounced, juicy acidity. Koshu, Muscat Bailey A and many other Japanese varieties are often grown for both culinary and oenological use.

Koshu grapes at Chateau Mercian
Koshu is Japan's signature grape, with a long history stretching back into the twelfth century

Japan’s winegrowers have also explored non-vinifera varieties developed elsewhere. While Niagara and Concord are more heavily planted, Delaware, the pink-skinned hybrid variety has proven itself able to thrive in many parts of central Japan. It’s successful in a range of styles from sparkling to classic white wine vinification to orange wines.

Among the classic vitis vinifera varieties, Chardonnay and Merlot are the most planted, each making up slightly less than six percent of Japan’s production. Whites are more reliable than reds, which sometimes struggle to ripen. Albarińo, native to the wet northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula, has shown it can tolerate Japanese growing conditions and is a grape to watch in the country. In Hokkaido, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and a number of other ‘Alpine’ varieties are yielding some of Japan’s most remarkable wines, albeit in frustratingly small quantities.


What are the major wine-growing regions in Japan?

Five prefectures have received official recognition as Geographical Units (GIs): Yamanashi, Nagano, Hokkaido, Yamagata and Osaka. Yamanashi is the most planted and home to the most wineries, with major players like Château Mercian and Grace Winery based there. Other local leaders and up-and-coming wineries include Kurambom, Kisvin and MGVs; an hour’s drive from Tokyo, the region is well set up for wine tourism.

Japanese Wineries - Chateau Mercian
The harvest in full swing at Château Mercian within the Yamanashi GI

Yamanashi is home to 90 percent of the country’s Koshu. It’s traditionally grown on high pergolas to improve airflow and in some cases individual bunches of grapes might be adorned with paper hats – personal umbrellas to keep off the rain.

Nagano, just northwest of Yamanashi, is inland, making rainfall less of a problem, and mountainous; most vineyards lie about 500 meters elevation, reducing humidity and allowing vineyards to cool off at night. Most of the larger wineries have vineyards here and there’s a growing boutique scene; Il Fait Beau, for example, works with just two hectares of vines, growing mainly Merlot and Chardonnay.

The Japan Wine Agriculture Research Institute Company (JWARC) is also based in Nagano. Founded in 2014, it’s a functioning commercial winery but also a training facility for viticulture and oenology, dedicated to teaching the values and sustainability of agricultural work and hopefully slow or reverse rural depopulation.

Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and a number of other ‘Alpine’ varieties are yielding some of Japan’s most remarkable wines, albeit in frustratingly small quantities

Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, is the third-most-planted prefecture in Japan. In particular the Yoichi Valley, west of Sapporo, is home to some of the country’s best and hardest-to-find wines including Domaine Takahiko, Domaine Mont, and Atsushi Suzuki. Pinot Noir leads the way, attracting the attention and investment of Burgundy’s Etienne De Montille, who founded Montille & Hokkaido Vineyards in 2016. Pinot Gris, Kerner, and Zweigelt also do well.

A century ago, Osaka was home to the largest concentration of vineyards in the country but the number of wineries has dwindled from 119 to only six today. Katashimo Winery, founded in 1914, remains the country’s oldest surviving winery. Katashimo is focused on Japanese varieties but Osaka is becoming increasingly associated with Delaware.

Japanese wineries - Domaine Takahiko
Domaine Takahiko is home to some of Japan's most sought after wines

Much of Yamagata’s grape production is sent to wineries elsewhere in Japan but while there are only a handful of wineries, the west-central coast of Honshu, stretching from Yamagata down to Toyama, is abuzz with activity. Says Farm and Domaine Beau in Toyama, Fermier in Niigata and Woody Farm in Yamagata are producing elegant wines despite seeing some of the wettest weather on Honshu.

More than half of Japan’s prefectures are home to wineries and some leading wineries lie far from the recognized GIs. Azucca e Azucco works in Nagoya, and Coco Farm in Tochigi, just north of Tokyo. In fact, Coco Farm played a key role in the growth of smaller wineries in Japan, having lured American oenologist Bruce Gutlove to the country in 1989. Gutlove became a mentor for many young winemakers and now has his own custom crush facility in Hokkaido.

Atsuo Yamanaka of Domaine Mont
Atsuo Yamanaka, the owner of Domaine Mont

The future of Japanese Wine

Scale and expense are serious challenges for Japan’s wineries. In some prefectures like Yamanashi, zoning restrictions mean wineries need to source from a patchwork of small growers, making growth and quality control difficult. This is especially true for varieties like Koshu that do double duty as eating grapes in a country where a single perfect grape can sell for more than a bottle of wine.

Production costs mean high-quality Japanese wines at an entry-level price are almost an impossibility, especially in export markets. The premium wines are making inroads nonetheless. Momoya in New York recently added two Yamanashi producers, Katsunuma and Mie Ikeno, to their list. In London, wines from Grace Lumiere and others are available not just at Japanese restaurants but with independent retailers as well. Curious connoisseurs will find an elegance and depth to the best Japanese wines that makes them worth seeking out.