Do they make wines in Japan? Do grapes grow in Japan? I have quite often encountered to be asked such kinds of questions.- That means majority of people in the world, they do not know that wines are produced in Japan. Japanese Sake and Japanese spirits like Shochu and Whisky are well known and recognised by their quality and originality. Why not Japanese wines?
Recently quality of Japanese wines are tremendously improved. When I had tried Japanese wine more than 20 years ago, majority of them were medium sweet and its tasted like grape juice. It was such a really big gap to reach international standard. I did not fancy them honestly. Lubrusca grapes like Niagara or Delaware are mainly used and international grape varieties was really limited at that time. Some wines tasted reminiscent of Sake. They made wine but why they tasted like Sake? Was it because of vinification, terroir such as soil, climate or their preference? (well, I would like to research its reason someday…) Nowadays some wines are still like this style but others are very good quality wines made from Vinifera grape such as Merlot, Chardonnay or Koshu and Hybrid grapes – Muscat Bailey A.
Ok, Let’s focus to grape varieties in Japan! Koshu and Muscat Bailey A are Japanese representative grape varieties. According to DNA profile, Koshu is Vitis Venifera but part of gene includes Vitis Davidii which is Chinese wild grape spice and it was originally from western Asia, Caspian Sea coastal area and traveled through silk road, then finally settled in Japan for long time. On the other hand, Muscat Bailey A is hybrid made by Mr. Zenbei Kawakami due to suit for weather in Japan and this grape variety is tolerant to disease like rot. Both grapes are grown for wine and table grapes, and there is diversity of style as wine; For Koshu if it is unwooded, it is crisp and lively, quite similar to Pinot Grigio, but if it is oaked, it becomes of course totally different one.
Jancis Robinson MW wrote the article about Koshu at Financial Times for long time ago, so that compared to Musat Bailey A definitely Koshu is well known. How about Muscat Bailey A? Well, How much do you know Muscat Bailey A? Honestly you might know Koshu well, but not Muscat Bailey A even though both of them are registered officially at OIV(International Organisation of Vine and Wine). As I mentioned previously, Muscat Bailey A adapts well in Japan, and it is grown all over in Japan except Hokkaido. Muscat Bailey A has similar aroma of Gamay like cotton candy, caramel, raspberry usually. One of the great producers, Chanter Wine makes their wine like cru Beaujolais style. If you taste in blind, you might think Moulin a Vent. For rose, it becomes very charming, aroma is very sweet like caramel but on palate it is dry. One of producers, Sadoya used to make dry rose in its style instead of sweet rose which is most of Japanese rose wine. Unfortunately they decided to discontinue this style of rose wine and there is no more stock in winery. Too bad.
Chanter Wine and Sadoya are located at Yamanashi where it is famous grape growing region, but thank you for global warming! Nagano becomes now emerging region, which I consider as “Sleeping Lion”. If roughly it is devided as half, west and east in Nagano, the western part like Shiogiri area, there is long history to grow grapes like Yamanashi, especially famous for Merlot. On the other hand, the eastern part like Obuse, Susaka, Tomi area, that is very high potential area to produce mainly international grapes varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot…Most producers newly started wineries within 10year, although there is small production, their quality is rapidly increasing.
Apart from Yamanashi and Nagano, there are lots of other place to make wines like Sake. History of wine making in Japan was not long at all, even Japanese wines keep on improving , but there is still some room to do for reaching higher. It is not completed yet that’s why it is very interesting! Don’t you think so?