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Japanese wine: not as bad as you think

by Melinda Joe

On the morning of Nov. 3, the line leading to the entrance of Hibiya Park snaked along the sidewalk and coiled around the corner, several meters from the gate. I was there for the Yamanashi Nouveau wine festival but had assumed that the throngs had come for some other purpose. It was a moment of cognitive dissonance: That there could be so many fans of Japanese wine was a proposition my brain found difficult to accept.

The popularity of the Yamanashi Nouveau fair, which started in 1987, has grown over the last few years. According to the Yamanashi Prefecture Winemakers Association, 5,300 people turned out for last year’s one-day event in Tokyo (there are also legs in Osaka and of course Yamanashi). This year, the organizers turned the festival into a two-day affair. By the time I left, around 1:30 p.m., over 5,000 people had already entered the venue.

Until recently, serious wine drinkers have regarded Japanese wine as little more than grape juice with a kick. But quality has improved, and wineries producing sophisticated styles are popping up all over the country. Rica Miura, a wine advisor with the Japan Sommelier Association, attributes the improvements to the fact that the new generation of winemakers has studied enology and viticulture overseas.

“The standards are changing,” she told me. “In Nagano Prefecture, they’ve introduced an ‘AOC’ system (similar to the geographical designation system used in France), and many other prefectures are eager to learn.”

Although the most famous wine-producing areas are Yamanashi, Nagano and Yamagata prefectures, many experts point to Hokkaido as the most exciting new region. “Producers including Domaine Takahiko quite possibly make the most interesting and complex wines in Japan from Pinot Noir,” said Master of Wine and noted authority Ned Goodwin. “The lack of humidity is hugely beneficial, but finding appropriate sites with sufficient sun exposure is also key to success.”

Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have been grown here since the 1980s, but contemporary winemakers have begun to shift their attention to cooler-climate grapes such as Muller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris and Zweigelt.

Japan’s best wines, however, are made with Koshu, a pink-skinned grape cultivated primarily in Yamanashi and used to make dry to off-dry white wines. At the Yamanashi Nouveau event, nearly all of the 36 participating producers presented one Koshu wine. I sought out Alps Wine and Kai Winery, as recommended by Miura. The Alps Nijiiro Koshu Shinshu offered lively aromas of green apple followed by a sweet finish, while the Kai Kazama Koshu Karakuchi Shinshu was more reserved and subtle, exhibiting the herbaceous and citrus notes characteristic of the Koshu grape. Most of the wines I tasted were pleasant — if a bit on the sweet side — and, although I didn’t leave a convert, I am eager to try more Japanese wine.

Incidentally, you can sample offerings from some of the country’s leading natural wine producers at the third annual Festivin tasting (www.festivin.com/?page_id=29) on Dec. 9, which will feature over 300 natural and biodynamic wines from Europe and Japan. Last year’s event was fun, but beware — the spittoons are few and far between.

The Osaka leg of Yamanashi Nouveau ends Nov. 9 and the Yamanashi leg runs Nov. 10-11; wine.jp/nouveau/event. Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.