It’s official: Natural wines are entering mainstream consciousness in Japan. I know this not simply because sections devoted to organic, “bio” (biodynamic), or shizen-ha (natural) wines have become fixtures in many retail shops, or even because sales of natural wines have risen around the world. The realization struck when a friend who rarely touches alcohol brought a bottle of Gérard Schueller et Fils Rien que des Bulles, a sparking natural wine from Burgundy, to Christmas dinner.
“It’s bio,” she declared with aplomb.
My initial reaction was one of blinking bewilderment, the kind of confusion that might arise from hearing my parents suddenly use hip-hop slang as though it had always been a part of their vernacular.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked. By now, most wine enthusiasts will have heard of natural wine, even if defining it remains something of a challenge. Laws determining what can be called natural wine don’t exist. Generally speaking, the term indicates minimal manipulation in both the vineyard and the cellar. Its adherents avoid additives such as sugars, extra yeast or sulfur dioxide, which acts as a preservative, as well as technological interventions like reverse-osmosis filtration, a process that enables winemakers to correct certain flaws. Many organic and biodynamic wines — both of which are made from grapes grown without synthetic chemicals — fall into this category.
Japanese consumers began developing a taste for natural wines in the 1990s, and Japan has become one of the world’s largest markets. Some industry professionals suggest that natural wine’s associations with health are driving the trend, while others say that the flavor profile appeals to the Japanese palate.
“Natural wine retains the charm of the grapes themselves and expresses their terroir,” says Junko Nakahama, one of the organizers of the popular natural-wine tasting event Festivin.
At times, it can be difficult to distinguish natural wines from their technologically enhanced counterparts. The genre encompasses a wide range of styles, from the muscular, amphora-fermented orange wines of Josko Gravner (obviously natural) to the racy, crystalline whites of Marc Tempé (almost imperceptibly so). At their best, natural wines are vibrant and intriguing, with complex flavors that unfold over time. At their worst, they taste like moldy socks steeped in cider. While sampling the offerings at Festivin recently, I encountered specimens that exhibited typical characteristics — funky, yeasty notes underlying ripe fruit flavors and zingy acidity — alongside clean and elegant wines such as the Chablis from Alice et Olivier de Moor.
Most of the 300 varieties present were from France, but the bottles from Japanese wineries seemed to generate the most buzz. The line for Beau Paysage Merlot from Yamanashi was so long that the wine had run out before I could taste it. Nakahama predicts that more Japanese producers will join the natural movement in the future.
Several wine bars and bistros in Tokyo, such as Shonzui in Roppongi and Ahiru Store in Shibuya, specialize in natural wines, and an increasing number of restaurants and shops are adding them to their portfolios. Don’t be surprised if your parents turn up with a bottle at your next party.
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.