Japan may not be in the big leagues as far as being a wine-consuming country, but it makes up for it with its obsession for Beaujolais Nouveau.
And the countdown has started for midnight Wednesday, when the corks will be popped to fill glasses nationwide with this year’s harvest of the young French reds, 46 percent of which are imported to Japan.
But even in Japan, the popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau is fading.
Wholesalers have been reducing imports of the young wine, which retailers and drinking establishments hold off on releasing until the third Thursday of November.
“Beaujolais Nouveau’s taste is simple. It does not taste any different whatever year you drink it,” Japan Sommelier Association Secretary General Akefumi Nakajima opined of his own tastes, not as the representative of the association. “As Japanese learn about wine, they start drinking wine with old vintage and rich taste, and they ask themselves ‘What is so great about Nouveau?’ “
There are many other wine varieties that taste good and are less expensive than Beaujolais Nouveau, which many Japanese now realize is drunk more as a fad, he said.
“Timeliness is everything Beaujolais Nouveau is about,” Nakajima said, pointing out that flying the wine to Japan hikes the retail price per bottle by ¥400 to ¥500.
Imported Beaujolais Nouveau, which typically retails at ¥2,000 to ¥3,000, peaked at 9.39 million liters, equivalent to 12.52 million regular 750-milliliter bottles, in 2004, and fell to 6.2 million liters in 2007, according to Sopexa, a French government body promoting French food and drink in Japan. It will obtain this year’s statistics around the end of next month.
To be sure, Beaujolais Nouveau is losing popularity worldwide. France’s export of the wine peaked at 20.4 million liters in 2004 but had dropped to 13.5 million liters in 2007.
This year, purchases by 53 major importers were down 20 percent, according to alcohol industry periodical The Shuhan News, which says its statistics cover 98 percent of the entire market.
Shuhan News editor Yoshiji Sato said the recent drop stems from poor planning by distributors.
Supermarkets began full-scale Beaujolais Nouveau sales in 2003, which happened to be an excellent year for the wine, Sato said. They used the catchphrase “2003 is a once-in-a-century vintage” and sold out their inventories, he said.
Importers increased orders in 2004 but met with less success than in 2003, and consumers realized they did not have to rush out to buy the wine on its release day. Since then, retailers and wholesalers have always had excessive inventories, he said.
Suntory Ltd., Japan’s largest importer of Beaujolais Nouveau, this year cut imports by 18 percent to 1.7 million liters, which equals the amount of the wine consumed in France.
“We think recognition of Beaujolais Nouveau by Japanese consumers has been established, and we have cut imports to an appropriate level,” Suntory spokesman Kazuaki Kitahara said.
The company, which accounts for a third of Japan’s imports of the wine, chose an amount it felt could be sold off by the end of November, because consumers’ interest shifts in December to sparkling wine and other liquors for Christmas.
Amid the recent slump in demand, some retailers, including department store chain Aeon Co., are trying to attract consumers by cutting prices. Aeon’s outlets sell Beaujolais Nouveau in plastic bottles for ¥1,780, an unusually low price.
It cut costs by directly importing from wineries in the Beaujolais district, spokesman Shigeyuki Yagi said. Also, plastic bottles are lighter and thus transportation costs are lower.
Yagi said the lighter weight saves on aircraft fuel and thus helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Cordon Vert Co., an Aeon subsidiary, imports wine for Aeon and its affiliate, Yamaya Corp., a wine wholesaler.
Cordon Vert, Japan’s seventh-biggest Beaujolais Nouveau importer, negotiated with a Beaujolais winery to produce the plastic bottles, Yagi said.
Vineyards originally made Beaujolais Nouveau to celebrate the harvest.
They began exporting the wine in the middle of the last century. The official release date was Nov. 15, but it was changed to the third Thursday of November in 1985, according to IntoWine.com, whose contents are contributed and edited by people in the industry.