Japan the "new Old World" or the "unusual" winemaking country?

Wednesday, 10 April, 2013
Kristina B, CWM
As the second anniversary of the earthquake and following tsunami, the disaster of Fukushima, is approaching, all newspapers and websites are summarizing these events.
Again the horrendous pictures of the disaster will be screened, showing how more than 19000 people were killed, some 340000 people had been displaced, affecting an area of at least 561 square kilometres. The area affected is a huge part of the coastal strip, about 220km north of Tokyo.  But we do not want to focus on this part of Japan.
The centre of attention is Japan’s winemaking, the new Old World, and the unusual areas where grapes are grown. Although the Koshu grape has been grown in Japan for the past 1200 years, it is only now showing off its potential at the wine competitions. The bulk of the production of grapes each year is still for the table. The Japanese per capita wine consumption 2010 is 1.8 litres, a 1.7% increase in 4 years.

Japan is one of the top 50 countries that South Africa exports to. The SAWIS Wine Exports 2012 report  shows that exports in  natural wine (packaged) has increased from 2007 to 2011 some 344000 750ml bottles, or 11%.  Interesting is also the increase over this same time period of exports of natural wine (bulk) at 66%, third highest growth rate after Sweden and Thailand. It seems that the domestic Japanese industry still uses a lot of the bulk wines from different countries to extend its quantity and improve its quality of the local material.

The country of the rising sun has no culture in winemaking like France, or ancient roots like Georgia, but has adopted winemaking as a challenge to westernization since the second half of the 19th century. The viticultural industry is still based a lot on producing table grapes, rather than providing the quality base for wine-making.

Grapes are basically grown anywhere, (see map of Japan's grape growing regions) and there is no overall  wine classification system for control of origin, variety and contents, although Katsunuma, in the Kofu valley, and the Nagano prefecture have introduced a certificate of origin for their 100% domestic grapes, grown, fermented and bottled wines.

Nagano, Yamanashi, Yamagata and Hokkaido are the more well-known regions of wine production and also present the  largest concentration of wineries. High humidity and rainfall are real and continuous challenges for winemaking in many of the areas.

Hoakkaido, 43 degrees north, is the most northern island, connected to the mainland (or Honshu) via an underground railway. It has a number of mountainous volcanic plateaus and coastal flat regions right around the island. Earthquakes, leading to tsunamis, are not uncommon in this region.

The island is known for cool summers and icy winters. Hokkaido is the “breadbasket" of Japan:  the island has a lot of agriculture, fish, beef and venison farming, beer breweries and viticulture. The vineyards are scattered over the island, although near Sapporo there is a concentration of wineries. 

The Yamanashi Prefecture homepage advertises its local products of jewellery, foods and textiles as well as wine. It even refers to the first Koshu wine ever produced in 1877 in Katsunuma, by Mr. Takano and Mr. Tsuchiya. The Koshu vine is strictly speaking not native to Japan, but has evolved into its favourite variety. 90% of all Koshu vineyards are planted around Katsunuma. Although climatic conditions are not ideal, Katsunuma is more elevated , enjoying better grape growing conditions, for example  less rainfall,  refreshing winds which help control rot and  wider  diurnal temperature variation.

The newer wine- growing areas of Nagano and Yamagata fare better with their climates, and according to The Oxford Companion to Wine had 25 and 11 wineries respectively in the mid 2000s.

Grape/Vine varieties are:
  • The Koshu grape, a good table grape, made into wine and brandy.  Thick skinned light  pink grapes produce colourless and light bodied wines.
  • The Neo-Muscat grape, a crossing of Koshu Sanjaku and Muscat d’Alexandrie. 
  • Ryugan which produces light and sweeter wines.
  • Hybrids, based on Vitis Labrusca (introduced from the USA) called Kyoho, Delaware or Pione have become important. Pione produces rose wines.
  • Muscat Bailey A, a hybrid red grape variety from Bailey and Muscat de Hamburg, originally for sweeter reds with cherry-muscat flavours, today also produce dry red wines.
There are some classic grape varieties grown mainly in these areas, but not limited to these prefectures:
  • Merlot  and Chardonnay  from Nagano prefecture
  • Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from Yamanashi prefecture
  • Mueller-Thurgau, Zweigelt, Kerner from Hokkaido
There are a lot of attempts of producing crossings with the local wild vitis amurensis in Hokkaido.

At an international competition last year we tasted some 50 Japanese wines. Never before had there been so many entries from Japan that we could taste through different regions, styles and grape varieties.  Some 24 wines obtained Bronze medals while 8 received Silver. We tasted Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, blended reds, Muscat Bailey A , lots of Chardonnays, a medium sweet Baccus, a Viognier,  and  sweet wines from  Muscat, Mueller-Thurgau, and Riesling. The whites fared better than the reds. The Koshu wines from Yamanashi were all pale in colour, delicate citrus, lemon fruit on the nose, sometimes crisp citrus fruit and peaches on the palate, low alcohol. The other wines that stood out were the Chardonnays from Yamanashi, a few good ones from Yamagata and some from Nagano. The sweet wines all received Bronze medals.

Last year the Japan Wine Challenge attracted 1350 wines from 27 countries.  Here we see that the “Trophy for the best Japan wine” mostly goes to a Koshu variety wine. Cuvee Misawa Koshu Toriibira Vineyard Private Reserve 2011 from Grace Wine won the Trophy in the 2012 Challenge,  Grace Gris de Koshu 2010 from Grace Wine won in 2011 and Haramo Vintage Koshu Sur Lie 2009 from Haramo Wine won in 2010. 

Even in the Decanter Awards 2012 in the category “Middle East, Far East and Asia” Japan receives medals for its Koshu wines and Chardonnays mainly from the Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures.

One can only hope that this New Old World winemaking country will continue to improve in quality, whether producing wines from classical or unusual varieties, and developing a complete classification system.  Why not try an unoaked delicate Koshu wine with your next sushi, oysters, or tempura on a hot summer’s day?
Japan's National flag
Japan's National flag

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