The Time to Visit Japanese Wine Country Is Now
Although Japan is perhaps best known for its brews, sakes, and cutting-edge cocktail scene, the country has been producing grape wine for over a century. It’s a lesser-known yet longstanding tradition among the small percentage of the population that consumes wine. Yet with affordable French, Italian, and Chilean wines readily available across Japan, why would locals sip on a glass of unknown koshu (a native grape) when they could purchase a well-known chardonnay from France? And with limited marketing and lots of competition from mega global wine regions, Japanese wines have had trouble reaching a global market. However, there’s a group of winemakers in the Yamanashi prefecture, Japan’s biggest wine-growing region, who are noticing that tastes are beginning to change.
“Consumption of sake and beer is going down,” says Haruo Omura, owner of Marufuji Winery. Indeed, beer and sake consumption in Japan has been declining since the 1970s. “Palates are changing, and people are starting to alter their alcohol choices,” he adds, noting that his wine sales have been incrementally increasing over the last 20 years. According to the Global Agricultural Information Network, wine consumption in Japan has seen a steady rise over the past decade as Japanese wines become more visible in retail stores and restaurants.
“Food and wine pairing has become more popular," says Omura. "Restaurants previously only served bottles, but now they serve by the glass, which means you can try more than one wine."
Marufuji, which was established by the Omura family in 1890, currently produces 170,000 bottles a year, most of which are consumed within the borders of Japan. The Marufuji tasting room and shop, which is set in a traditional Japanese building with dark wooden beams and shoji sliding screens, is like a slice out of old-world Japan. Outside, there’s an ancient manicured garden with bonsais and black pine trees; beyond the garden, terraced vines extend for some 2.5 hectares.
The winery looks nothing like the sprawling wineries of France or Italy, but it has an unmistakable sense of place. Here, wine drinkers can sample a few reds and whites – Chardonnay, Muscat Bailey A, Petit Verdot – and the winery’s flagship white wine, which is made from koshu, a traditional Japanese grape variety that thrives in Japan’s damp climate.
The brand’s Rubaiyat Koshu Sur Lie, made from 100% koshu, has a soft, grassy yellow color and is light in flavor with a subtle zest. It’s incredibly delicate, a characteristic that is both the wine’s greatest quality and biggest shortcoming. “Our wines can’t be too strong, otherwise they’ll overpower the [sensitive flavors of] Japanese food,” says Omura, who often sees people pairing the wine incorrectly. A koshu wine wouldn’t stand its ground if paired with bold French seafood dishes like moules mariniere or sole sautéed in butter. But then again, should it have to?
“If you’re eating Japanese food then you should be drinking Japanese wine,” says Yuji Aruga, president of Katsunuma Jyozo Winery, a family-owned winery also based in Yamanashi. Set in a 140-year-old merchant’s house, the winery dates back to 1937 and aims to showcase the best of koshu wine. Aruga believes that Japanese wine’s greatest downfall is a lack of marketing.
“People’s understanding of Japanese drinks is sake," he says. "Even in Japan, people drink foreign wine. There’s a wine market, but no culture around it." According to Aruga, part of the problem is that people only drink wine on special occasions, and that not a lot of foreigners are educated on Japanese wines. “My hope is that people outside Japan will start to recognize Japanese wine and drink more of it," he says.
Aruga believes that the only way to spread the gospel of the grape is to garner international attention, which is tough when you’re competing against countries like France and Spain. Of the 450,000 bottles of wine that Katsunuma produces, only one percent is exported. “We’d like to get that up to 10%,” he says. In 2007 they started exporting their bestelling Koshu Branca Issehara (made from 100% koshu grapes) to the EU through a partnership with Chateau Pape-Clement in Bordeaux.
At the winery’s Restaurant Kaze, a five-minute walk from the vineyard, Katsunuma Jyozo wines are served alongside dishes like roast beef with Japanese horseradish sauce in an attempt to showcase how wines can compliment local cuisine. “People don’t understand that these wines bring out the local food,” says Aruga.
More and more, restaurants are serving local cuisine alongside Japanese wines. Hotel Risonare in Yamanashi, a self-proclaimed "wine resort," encourages guests to try local bottles at the YY Grill and at the Winehouse, an on-property tasting room, over 24 signature wines (some from Katsunuma Jyozo Winery) are available on tap. There’s even a "wine suite" splashed with merlot-colored cushions and walls and a Vino Spa which has treatments using products made from grapes.
At the nearby Hoshino Fuji, a splendid "glamping" hotel facing Mount Fuji, guests can experience a forest dinner where seasonal dishes like tartare with wasabi and strawberry cream are served alongside glasses of muscat bailey A and koshu. Lumiere, the oldest family-owned winery in Yamanashi founded in 1885, which produces wines including a koshu and muscat bailey A, has a restaurant that serves Japanese and French fusion dishes paired with their wines. In the swanky tasting room, visitors are also encouraged to try their gamut of wines from the shiny stainless steel and glass automated wine dispenser.
While some wineries in the Yamanashi are working to spread wine culture, Hiroshi Matsuzaka, CEO of MGVs, has taken a different approach. The former semiconductor manufacturer, who started producing wine in 2017, is making wine with the precision of a scientist. If the other Yamanashi wineries transport you back to 1800s Japan, then MGVs will catapult you to the future. The tasting room is as classy and contemporary as they come, with polished wooden floors and large glass windows that overlook the laboratory-like wine-making areas. Here, they use a nitrogen system to prevent oxidation in the production of wine – a system that has been repurposed from semiconductors. The cleanroom, where the wine is fermented, bottled, and stored, has a powerful circulation system that eliminates anything that might affect the quality. Matsuzaka is also playing with the growth of the actual koshu grape. By applying stress and science to the grapes, he is hoping to grow a smaller variety of koshu grape, which will lead to wine’s with bigger character.
“I’ve tried lots of Japanese wines and I think it’s a good solution. I want to get more characteristics out the wine,” says Matsuzaka. His methods are entirely unconventional and could play an important role in boosting the visibility of Japanese wines. Because that’s what Japanese wine needs: attention. It has barrels of history, craft, and complexity, and now all it needs is for people to take note.
How to do it:
InsideJapan Tours offers a Koshu Vineyard Tour & Wine Tasting tour which can be booked as part of a Japan itinerary through InsideJapanTours.com.
Where to stay:
Risonare Yatsugatake is wine-centered resort located in the heart of Yamanashi.
How to get there:
From Tokyo (United Airlines offers direct flights from NYC - Tokyo), Yamanashi is a two hour train ride away.