As recently as the early ’90s, consumers in Japan needed perseverance to track down good, affordable wines. Wine was still perceived as a special-occasion beverage, requiring the intervention of an expert in formal attire. Top Tokyo restaurant wine lists revealed an obsession with French trophy wines, and retail prices would often produce a cringe. Wine fans on budgets were limited mainly to mediocre, bulk-produced plonk — unless they smuggled in their favorites from abroad in their carry-on luggage.
Such memories have been eclipsed by the proliferation of wine bars, wine shops, wine Web sites and wine schools in Japan. Between 1993 and 1998, Japan’s per capita wine consumption more than tripled. Now the frenzied boom has subsided, as have some of its more foolish excesses (such as face lotions made from wine) and the slavish obedience to the notion that “serious” wine must be red. Yet throughout Japan’s postbubble economic malaise, its wine market has remained one of the few remarkable spots of vibrance.
Economic constraints had a paradoxical benefit for the Japanese wine market: They bolstered its liberalization. The global wine boom and multiple disappointing vintages in France sent prices soaring for prestigious French classics when Japan’s consumers could least afford them. Starting in the early ’90s, value-conscious importers, retailers and restaurateurs were forced to look beyond Bordeaux and Burgundy to the New World — as well as to less renowned wineries in Europe.
Gradually, even orthodox sommeliers in Japan allowed some interlopers onto their once French-only wine lists. Professional wine buyers began to evaluate wines on a price/quality basis, instead of fixating solely on famous labels. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (the chocolate and vanilla classics of the wine world) were joined on shop shelves by wines from distinctive, good-value but less familiar grape varietals.
In the past decade, the Japanese wine trade has become less conservative, as young, well-traveled consumers — including numerous women — have formed a new wave of wine professionals. In addition, small, independent wine-importing companies (often specializing in a particular country or region) have flourished. The accompanying increase in wine mail-order options now provides people outside major cities with better access to wines.
In 2001, Japan is no longer a hardship posting for ardent oenophiles, and Tokyo is arguably among the world’s best-stocked cities for wine. In recent years, this market has received a disproportionately generous allocation of coveted cult wines and classics — because many wineries overseas have been eager to woo a consumer population known for its robust appetite for quality goods.
One example: Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc — the legendary benchmark from New Zealand often rationed out one bottle per customer in the U.K. and the U.S. — flows in continual supply at upscale Tokyo grocery stores.
Although good-value wines is available, the wine boom in Japan also spurred opportunists who have sought to cash in on an emerging market — importing wines of indifferent quality, sold at inflated prices.
One of our goals in this new column will be to pass along resources for canny wine-buying. The focus will be on affordable indulgence, with emphasis on the 1,000-3,500 yen range. There is no great art to finding a stunning wine at a proud price; real exhilaration comes from discovering a beautiful wine that you can afford to drink on ordinary weeknights.
Now is a good time to stock up, particularly on U.S. wines. Many importers and retailers are still working through a huge post-yearend holiday inventory. When they reorder, they will face the ugly reality of the recent plunge in the yen to its lowest point in 21/2 years. Look for Japan’s wine retail prices to rise substantially in coming months.
In pursuit of that sweet spot where quality and value converge, we will also report on tasting surveys. If you have a nomination for the best wine in Japan, your favorite neighborhood wine bar or wine shop, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org