On the edge of autumn, vineyards are heavy with fruit. In the late afternoon, the air turns cool. The weeks before harvest are one of the most beautiful times of year to visit wineries. And you need not fly overseas for the experience.

In recent years, quality-conscious winemakers have been producing fine wines throughout Japan. Yet mention of this development often meets with skepticism.

Most consumers encounter Japanese wine mainly in omiyage (souvenir) shops. Bottles of brilliant crimson, pink or orange-colored wine are shelved next to gift packs of rice crackers and bean-paste sweets. The taste of such wines is generally reminiscent of sherbet, and they are perhaps best enjoyed as a marinade for fruit salad.

Contemporary Japanese vintners must choose whether to remain in this omiyage category or pursue international-standard winemaking.

Japan’s legislation governing wine production poses a significant hurdle to progress. According to law, “Japanese” wines may contain up to 95 percent foreign wine, blended with 5 percent “domestic wine” (which needs only to be fermented in Japan to qualify for this category). Thus, for example, juice concentrate brought from Bulgaria then diluted and fermented in Japan qualifies for a “domestic wine” label.

As a result, wine producers in Japan have tended to import inexpensive must (unfermented grape juice) and wine from countries known for industrial bulk production. Such wine is blended and bottled here, then often labeled — if any origin is indicated at all — in a way that may imply it is a local product.

Rather than tackling domestic climate and vineyard conditions, labor costs and grape varietals, this approach has been an easy way to keep cheap, low-grade wines on the shelves. Yet it has done little for the image or quality of the wines most widely available here.

Watch for Japanese wine labels that state “hyaku pasento koku-san budo shiyo (100 percent domestic grapes)” or that indicate the product was wholly produced in a specific wine-cultivating area such as Yamanashi, Hokkaido, or Yamagata Prefectures. “Yunyu wain (imported wine)” reveals that the wine is not of Japanese origin.

Check the word order on a label as well. If it says “imported wine/domestic wine,” then imported wine constitutes over 50 percent of the blend. “Domestic wine/imported wine” means that the majority of the wine has a domestic origin.

Unfortunately, such labeling is voluntary. If a wine contains a mere 5 percent “domestic wine,” it is eligible for labeling as Japanese wine without further explanation of its contents. This situation presents a strong disincentive to investing labor, research and funds in Japanese vineyards.

After all, in this mountainous country, agricultural land is scarce and expensive. Labor costs are high. Grape farmers earn about 600 yen per kilogram selling their harvest for table grapes, versus 200 yen per kilogram for wine grapes. Furthermore, at the grape-growing cycle’s peak, just when sun-dappled days are needed to achieve full ripeness, typhoon season arrives. Wet summers render grapes susceptible to rot, mildew and fungus.

Winemaker Bruce Gutlove from Coco Farm & Winery in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, says that winemaking in Japan “is like extreme sports. We’re at the very limit of the climate. Some would say it’s like para-gliding — and ask why we bother to do it.”

That question could be posed equally well to winemakers in renowned wine regions around the globe — from Portugal’s parched, rocky Douro Valley to Germany’s steep, rain-soaked Mosel River banks. Some of the world’s most thrilling wines come from inhospitable conditions. The challenge for Japanese winemakers is to identify the grape varietals, sites and micro-climates that perform optimally together.

More Japanese vintners are studying overseas, and generating the savvy and passion for this viticultural detective work. “We’re pushing the envelope to see how intensive, hands-on viticulture and sheer determination can allow people to grow good grapes in this environment,” says Gutlove.

The next column will introduce wineries around Japan that are succeeding at this mission.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.