Getting to Know Japanese Wine

Japan is a magical place with some of the most delectable culinary experiences in the world. Typically, meals are paired with sake or beer, but Japanese wine has a place at the table as well. Known for delicacy in style, these wines make lovely compliments to most regional dishes. 

Japan makes wine?

Yup. It all started in the Yamanashi prefecture in the 1870’s, when two men returned from studying wine production in France and decided to give it a try. This eventually became Chateau Mercian, the first private winery in Japan. It is still in operation and has plans to double its production according to The Drinks Business. From there, wineries began popping up all over Japan, with the major production areas being Yamanashi, Hokkaido, Nagano and Yamagata. There are over 300 wineries in Japan today.

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Cultivation methods vary among each of these vastly different climates. Honshu and Kyushu, for example, are known for being incredibly wet most of the year. In addition to this, typhoons with heavy rainfall and strong winds are common in the fall. This can make the vineyards particularly susceptible to diseases and pests. They must be especially vigilant and meticulous in these vineyards, but as we know, the Japanese are known for their precision and dedication.

Muscat of Alexandria in Okayama Prefecture, Japan.
Muscat of Alexandria in Okayama Prefecture, Japan. Image courtesy iStock.

Japanese Grape Varieties and Styles

Japan is known for having an affinity for natural wine. Purity of flavor and production is an obvious fit for Japanese cuisine. Tokyo is a natural wine lover’s paradise. I had the unique opportunity to try Koerner wines at Wine Stand Bouteille in Shibuya before they had made their way into the states. Knowing that the Japanese palate is in tune with this style of wine, it makes sense that the wines they produce are generally in line with this way of thought. Most Japanese wines are straightforward and pure and a number of wineries produce natural wines. 

Jun Nagahashi, owner of natural wine bar, Wineba in Chofu has a focused list of small farmer wines –Grape Republic in Yamagata being his favorite.

“I love Vin Nature wine. Just like putting grapes in my mouth, the taste and fragrant aroma is of the grape–that is why I like it.” – Jun Nagahashi

Marie Tanaka, owner of Wine Styles shop in Okachimachi, says most of her sales come from Japanese people who enjoy pairing regional wines with Japanese foods.

“Grapes like Delaware, Niagara, Muscat, Adirondac semi-sweet or sweet wines are popular. Recently tourists from overseas stop at my shop and buy Japanese wines for presents,” says Tanaka.

In Ryusei Kobayashi’s, Sake and Wine Bar in Sendai—Nikyo, he serves Japanese wine only. While finding the best examples of natural wine.

“In Japan it is difficult to do wine making in a natural way, due to the difficulty of the cultivation environment–for example, it is very rainy. However, a large number of small wineries in Japan carry out cultivation in a way that is as natural as possible,” said Kobayashi whose main operations are Obuse Winery, Domaine Takahiko and Akiu Winery.

The varietal most often seen is Koshu, a hybrid indigenous to Japan with a thick-skin that helps it survive damp summers. It makes a soft and fruity wine boasting citrus and peach. The grape travelled along the Silk Route and found it’s home in Yamanashi, within the foothills of Mount Fuji.

In Nagano, Koshu is rarely cultivated. Instead, they focus on major grape varieties like Chardonnay and Merlot. Tsuyoshi Takemura of Mashino Winery prefers to work with these grapes, as well as cider apples.

Other varieties are seen below in the chart from the Japanese Wineries Association.

Chart of Japanese Red and White Wine Grape Varieties |

If you are someone who is keen on watching a region grow and find their niche, keep your ear to the ground about wines from Japan. While opportunities in the U.S. to taste these wines are limited, hopefully in the near future more brands will make their way here. A chance to taste some of the farmer wine adored by Japan’s natural wine scene would be an ideal situation. If you are interested to try some Japanese wine for yourself right now, these are a few options to seek out in the States:

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