Japanese wine catching up to its competitors

by Keiko Kimura

Kyodo News

Japanese connoisseurs have enjoyed imported wine for years, but some admirers are now focusing their attention on domestic varieties.

While wines imported from France and other countries are still popular, wines produced in Japan have gained attention. Some top hotels are stocking them along with imports and department stores have sections dedicated to domestic wines.

Suntory Holdings Ltd., a major producer of whiskey, beer and soft drinks, is striving to upgrade the quality of its wines this year, the 100th anniversary of its winery in Yamanashi Prefecture.

The company said it is jointly developing wines by strengthening technical exchanges on grape cultivation and fermentation with a French winery in Bordeaux.

An increasing number of small and midsize wineries are making a good showing in various parts of the country.

Hokkaido Wine based in Otaru is producing wines using only grapes grown on its own land or grown by farmers under contract.

It operates a vast winery in the town of Urausu, where its Tsurunuma vineyard resembles those in France and Italy. Experts say European chardonnay grapes grown in Hokkaido have helped to change the taste of domestic wines.

Speaking on the merits of growing grapes in Urausu, Naoru Imamura, who is in charge of the vineyard, said the red wine produced there has a light bouquet because the tannin content is low, while the white wine is crisp.

Hokkaido Wine’s main products are relatively cheap, selling for ¥1,000 to ¥1,800 a bottle.

Imamura said the company is trying to make low-priced good-tasting wines.

He also said the winemaker has been holding production costs down by growing grapes on a 160-hectare vineyard, using imported machines to pluck most of the grapes to save on labor costs.

Akihiko Soga from the town of Obuse, Nagano Prefecture, is one of those who believe the emergence of vintners in their 30s is a main factor that has changed domestic wines.

When they were in school, Soga said, they traveled abroad thanks to the yen’s appreciation against the dollar and sampled high quality wines. They were also exposed to the red wine boom in Japan during the 1990s.

Soga operates a small-scale winery in a residential area in Obuse in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture. His wine has won awards in Japan and abroad. A Japanese airline has also offered his wine to first-class passengers on international flights.

“If we grow good grapes we can make good wines,” he said. “Japanese wines are latecomers. But I want to fuse wines that will keep aficionados and consumers happy.”

Soga produces wines from grapes grown on his land. Some wineries in Japan use imported grape juice, but Soga hopes to turn out wines without using raw materials from abroad and by paying attention to the environment.

Wine lover and lawyer Hiroshi Yamamoto said improved Japanese wines have started to attract people.

“The number of people drinking wine casually has increased. Good wines made in the country sell well . . . I think Japanese wines have become better in the last five years,” Yamamoto said.