Food & Drink | KANPAI CULTURE

Japanese wine is no longer a novelty

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

Five years ago, Japanese wine was still considered a novelty, and finding it in Tokyo required a fair amount of searching. These days, most shops carry at least a few varieties and some have entire shelves dedicated to domestic wine. Popular magazines now run features on local producers and ways to match the wines with food. Japanese wine, it seems, is officially now in vogue.

“The quality of Japanese wine has improved dramatically because the younger generation of producers who have studied winemaking in Europe are making unique wines with grapes suited to the climate of Japan,” says Minori Goto, from Hasegawa Saketen, the Tokyo-based retailer specializing in domestic liquors — one of the first to offer a wide selection of local wines.

Increasingly, small wineries are helping diversify the market, and larger makers are putting more effort into their vineyards and vinification techniques.

The products have connected with the current generation of Japanese drinkers, who are more adventurous than ever. According to a 2016 report by Wine Intelligence, the number of consumers who stated that they regularly enjoy different styles of wine rose from 21 percent to 27 percent in 2014. More than half of the people surveyed had purchased Japanese wine in the past six months.

Adding to the cachet, fine-dining restaurants in Tokyo are including Japanese wines on their lists, and some offer pairing courses that feature domestic varieties almost exclusively.

I recently visited Celaravird, which serves inventive cuisine and local wine near Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park. A glass of Aruga Branca Clareza 2015 accompanied a dish of homemade goat’s cheese flavored with lemongrass and topped with crisp apple wafers and crumbled walnuts. Made from Koshu grapes in Yamanashi Prefecture, the wine displayed the fresh acidity typical of Koshu but was allowed to ferment on the lees, imparting body and complexity that complemented the lactic acid and umami in the cheese.

Takeda Winery’s Delaware Sans Soufre 2015, a fizzy and delightful white made without the addition of sulfites, came with chef Koichi Hashimoto’s edible seascape: hamaguri clam, seaweed and a single mussel in a cream bisque arranged beside waves of clam-essence foam. Commonly known as a table grape, the pink-skinned Delaware variety often produces highly aromatic and sweet wines, but this sparkler from Yamanashi Prefecture strikes a lovely balance of fruity sweetness, acidity and yeasty roundness. The simple wine matches the carefree feeling of summer that comes through in Hashimoto’s beach-inspired dish.

Celaravird’s sommelier served Fermier Merlot 2015 with blushing slices of tankakugyū (short-horned beef), cooked sous-vide (at low temperature) and then seared, atop a buttery puddle of makomodake, a bamboo-like plant related to wild rice. This oak-aged red wine from Niigata Prefecture was blended with a small amount of Muscat Bailey A, a red grape hybrid developed in Japan during the 1920s by pioneering winemaker Zenbei Kawakami. As a result, the wine has an intriguing candied-cherry nuance that complemented the dish.

“I want to showcase what we have in Japan,” Hashimoto says, describing his locavore approach to food and drinks. My experience at Celaravird shows there is much left to explore.

For more information, visit www.celaravird.com.