The image most people have of Japanese wine is of the ¥500 plonk sitting next to the synthetic beer and sickly sweet chu-hi cocktails on the shelves of their local convenience store; of the cheap and decidedly dismal stuff of lost weekends and discarded personal dignity.

Let it be known, then, that these inexpensive wines are not actually 100-percent Japanese, but are made by blending in cheap imported grape juice. Real unadulterated Japanese wine, while still in its infancy, is now taking its first steps into the big wide world. Back in early 2008, the first Japanese wine was allowed to be imported into the EU, and many exporters are now setting their sights on exploiting the growing market for wine as a companion to sushi.

It’s not just small boutique producers who are looking to raise the standards of Japanese wine. Back in 2002, drinks company Mercian finally stopped blending its fine wine with imported wine to produce a vintage made from 100-percent Japanese grapes. That move has won the company a number of international wine awards and raised the bar considerably for other large wine producers.

“It was shocking news for every producer, because many people still call their wines Japanese but use a blend of Japanese and foreign wines,” says Kunio Naito, manager of the wine shop Cave de Relax in Shinbashi and a former sales and marketing manager for Mercian.

If you want to know about Japanese wine then Naito is the man to talk to: Cave de Relax stocks over 150 Japanese wines, and Naito personally knows many of the winemakers who produced them. He’s also got an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of winemaking in Japan.

It was in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) that grapes were first used to make alcohol in Japan, as winemaking was seen by the Meiji administration as being key to the country’s industrialization.

“Japanese agriculture was based on rice-farming, but there wasn’t enough rice being produced. As sake is made from rice, they thought that if grapes could produce alcohol, more rice could be kept for eating,” says Naito. “So the government tried to make wine in Yamanashi Prefecture, but they didn’t have much success. The wine was sour and tannic and didn’t suit people’s palate.”

The first popular wine was manufactured by Suntory in 1907 and was not really a wine in the strictest sense, but a cocktail of grape juice, alcohol, flavorings and sugar.

“Suntory Akadama Port was very sweet and became really successful around 50 or 60 years ago,” says Naito.

Its success meant that large companies such as Suntory and Mercian were keen to buy grapes within Japan.

“The problem was that there was a law preventing big companies from owning large farms, so they contracted farmers to grow grapes for them,” says Naito.

The task of encouraging farmers to grow grapes for wine was not an easy one. Table grapes such as the Kiyohou grape command a far higher price than the variety used in winemaking.

“Such kinds of grapes cost over ¥1,000 a kilogram, but regular grapes for winemaking cost maybe ¥150 or ¥160,” says Naito. “Nobody knows how many hectares we have dedicated to wine. The total in hectares of grape farms in Japan is about 100,000, but we don’t know what percentage is used for (table) grapes and how much for winemaking. I guess it’s about 20 percent for winemaking and 80 percent for eating. Twenty years ago it was more like 5 percent for winemaking and 95 percent for eating.”

The current shift reflects the changing drinking habits of Japanese people.

“Twenty-five years ago, Japanese people drank 0.3 liters of wine a year,” reports Naito. “Now it is almost 3 liters per year.”

After World War II, the first imported wines — mainly from France — were totally different from the original sweet wines. During the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the capital’s big hotels started to serve wine in their restaurants, so companies such as Mercian, Suntory and Kikoman started local production. As they felt it was difficult to produce high-quality wine to compete with the imported products, though, they blended theirs with wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy.

“Nobody knew they were doing this, as it wasn’t indicated on the label that imported wines had been used,” says Naito.

The real revolution in quality has been a grassroots one, coming from small wineries that have the experience necessary to produce some really impressive wines. Many of the current generation of winemakers have trained overseas.

According to Naito, “Almost all young producers have been in wine countries to study wine — France’s Bordeaux and Burgundy, Australia, California — for at least three or four years.”

While foreign winemaking techniques are being adopted, these winemakers know better than to ape the style of foreign wines. Instead, they build on the strengths of native grape varieties, especially the Koshu grape.

“The Koshu’s fruit flavors may not suit Europeans, but it suits Japanese, and the price of these wines is not expensive,” says Naito. “The best food for this wine is sushi. When I am abroad in a wine-producing country, I go to sushi bars and find a lot of people drinking wine while eating sushi. Japan is the last country in the world to not have wine in a sushi restaurant. We ought to send our wines to those restaurants.”

The barrier to exporting Japanese wine to the EU has been that producers need to show that more than 5 percent of the grapes used were grown in the country of production. Due to the lack of regulation in the Japanese wine industry, and the tendency for producers to blend their wines with imported wine, or — at the lower end of the market — imported grape juice, this has proven in the past to be an insurmountable hurdle.

However, one wine, Shizen, has already successfully leaped over this barrier, potentially paving the way for others to do the same. A white made with the Koshu grape in Yamanashi, Shizen is on the menu at the Michelin-starred Umu restaurant in London.

The tastes of Japan in reds and whites

If you want to try some Japanese wines for yourself, pop down to Cave de Relax in Shinbashi (1-6-11 Nishi Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; [03] 3595-3697; www.cavederelax.com ).

Domaine Takeda Pure Chardonnay 2006 — ¥1,820 Located in Yamagata Prefecture, Takeda is one of the top wineries in Japan. Established in 1920, it is now run by Noriko Kishidaira, who learned her craft in Loire and Burgundy for seven years and makes a clean and elegant organic Chardonnay.

Rubaiyat Koshu Sur Lie 2007 — ¥1,650 From one of the oldest wineries in Japan, the Marufuji family’s Rubaiyat, comes this dry, fresh and fruity wine made with 100-percent Koshu grapes. Sur lie means “on the lees,” and is a method where yeast sediment is kept in the wine barrel rather than being removed. This is done by draining off the wine into another barrel, a process known as racking. Before Koshu was made with this method, almost all wines made with the grape were rather sweet.

Grace Gris de Koshu 2006 — ¥1,600 The winery that produces this rather individual beverage is said to be among the top three wineries in Yamanashi. The skin of the Koshu grape, which is kept and pressed in juice for a few days prior to mixing with the wine, lends the drink its gray (gris) color. It also gives it an added oomph of tannin and acidity that makes the wine slightly stronger than your average Koshu.

Obuse Winery Sogga Pere et Fils Ordinaire Merlot 2005 — ¥2,000 Almost all of the wines from Obuse sell out quickly due to the dedication of its owner, Akihiko Sogga, whose passion for winemaking has allowed his winery to achieve cult status. Obuse Winery is located in Nagano, where the climate is more suitable for European grapes. Although this Merlot is from the standard Domaine range (as opposed to the higher- quality Negotian range), it’s of superb quality and well worth the price tag.

Chateau Sakaori Muscat Bailey-A 2006 — ¥1,890 Muscat Bailey-A is a Japanese hybrid of the Bailey grape with the Muscat Hamburg variety. It was made around 100 years ago and these days is the most popular grape in Japan for red wine. Just 10 years ago, though, it was used only for the purposes of blending, as its character was deemed too wild and heavy to be drunk on its own. Chateau Sakaori’s winemaker, Masayoshi Ijima, stumbled by chance on a way of making this wine palatable. In 2000 he made a single cask of the grape and, after a year’s maturation, tasted the results. They were far from satisfactory. He left the cask to gather dust and when two years later he suddenly remembered about it, he was surprised to discover the high quality of the aged wine.

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