Japanese wine has been making quite the splash both domestically and internationally in recent years. The country is becoming increasingly aware of its potential as a winemaking region, leaning into this from both a touristic and gastronomic standpoint.
When something starts to trend, we all want to stay ahead of the curve, right? Well, we've got you covered. Here's the scoop on wine in Japan, as well as a focus on the country's top wine-producing regions!
A History of Wine in Japan
It may surprise you to know that grapes are not all that new to Japan. They were imported to the country from China around the 7th Century, though it is likely that without modern cultivation techniques, the grapes would have been pretty inedible. In northern regions of Japan, like Tohoku and Hokkaido, there is also a native species of wild grape found in forested and mountainous regions (though again, they are so sour as to be inedible when eaten alone).
Wine isn't a new thing to the Japanese, either. The consumption of wine was first observed by Japanese residents when Jesuit priests from Portugal resided in Nagasaki in the 16th Century. Locals practicing Christianity were so taken with its flavor that it became a popular import. However, it would not be until the Meiji Period, when Japan's feudal isolationism ended, that winemaking would become a profession in and of itself. Thanks to pioneers returning from their travels in Europe with vine cuttings and winemaking knowledge in hand, a new industry was born.
In the postwar era, winemaking really took off in Japan and demand for Japanese wines began to grow. Innovative winemakers then successfully cultivated species of grapes and wines that were suited to the Japanese palate. This hit its stride in the 70s-80s and since then, Japanese wines have shown increasing promise both domestically and internationally.
Take a stroll through a local Winery in Sendai to get a fist hand glimpse into winemaking in Japan.
"Rice Wine"? "Plum Wine"? "Japanese Wine"? What’s the difference?!
In recent years, new terms have emerged to distinguish various Japanese liquors from others. For example, “nihonshu” (which is commonly just called “sake” in the west) is sometimes referred to as “Japanese rice wine”. “Umeshu”, a type of plum liquor, is sometimes called “Japanese plum wine”.
The "wine" label, in this case, is a little misleading as the process of making either nihonshu or umeshu is nothing like the process of making wine!
Sake's production process bears similarity to winemaking, but there are still several differences that set it apart. When making sake, there are only three ingredients– rice, water and a special type of mold called “koji” that is vital to the fermentation process. Unlike wine-making, yeast is not involved and the rice does not need to be crushed or blended prior to being added to the barrel or at any point during the process (although the rice lees or “sake-kasu” are filtered away and often used in Japanese cooking).
As for umeshu, it too is not produced like a wine and is more akin to fruit-infused liquor. Rather than the plums themselves fermenting, they are instead steeped in 35%-proof or stronger liquor with sugar or honey for several months. This practice is not unique to Japan– in fact, using alcohol to preserve fruit has been practiced by cultures across the globe for centuries. In Japan, the alcohol of choice for making umeshu is often “shochu”, made from sweet potatoes.
However, when we talk about “Japanese wine”, we are indeed talking about wine made from grapes, pressed and fermented with yeast right here in Japan. It is important to keep in mind that this production process is much newer to Japan and very different to that of nihonshu and umeshu.
Interested in Japanese sake? Tour of a Sake Brewery in Kyoto to learn all about Japanese rice wine.
Wine-Growing Regions of Japan
Although wine is being grown increasingly across Japan, today we will be focusing on three top producers of wine in Japan; Yamanashi, Nagano and Hokkaido prefectures.
Yamanashi has long been a prolific producer of wine grapes in Japan and accounts for nearly a third of the country's wine production. Wine-making in Yamanashi also has a long history of 150 years. In fact, Yamanashi was the very first region in Japan to produce wine in 1877, thanks to pioneers bringing home winemaking techniques from Europe in the Meiji period.
Yamanashi prefecture sits at the foot of Mt. Fuji and its most famed wine-growing region is the town of Katsunuma. With rich volcanic soil and relatively low humidity, Katsunuma’s potential as a wine region has been well-established for over a century. It was indeed here, after all, that Japan's first winery opened in 1877 (today it is part of the Mercia wine group in Japan).
The region’s signature “Koshu” grape, cultivated here in Japan, is particularly beloved by Japanese winemakers as its lightly acidic flavor creates wines that pair beautifully with traditional Japanese cuisine– sashimi and sushi in particular.
Katsunuma is only about an hour’s ride from Tokyo, making its wines in the Koshu Valley (from where the Koshu grape takes its name) a popular choice with restaurant sommeliers. There are a huge number of wineries to visit here, so if you are a wine connoisseur looking for an exciting day trip out of Tokyo, we recommend doing some winery-hopping in Katsunuma!
Nagano prefecture is another sizeable producer of wines in Japan. In addition to wineries, Nagano already has a national reputation for growing delicious dessert grapes, notably Japan’s famous “Kyoho” grape. Like Yamanashi, its winemaking history goes back over a century, with the first winery in the region established in 1902.
There are four regions in Nagano that produce wine, all of which boast the same rich soil, high altitude and cool temperatures as Yamanashi. What is unique about Nagano, however, is that its climate lends very well to growing popular European wine grapes such as Merlot and Chardonnay. As such, you can expect many of the wines coming out of Nagano to have labels with a name known to even those unfamiliar with wines! If you'd like to learn more about other specialties from this area, check out this blog for What to Eat in Nagano.
Try a bottle of award-winning wine from Nagano!
With its frigid winters, Hokkaido might be the last place you’d expect to find vineyards! But did you know that Hokkaido’s climate is actually extremely close to famous wine-growing regions of France, such as Champagne and Alsace?
With low humidity all year round and swings in temperature between day and night that bolster the natural sugar content of fruit and vegetables, Hokkaido is a surprisingly perfect place to grow wine grapes. When wine-growing began in Hokkaido in the 70s and 80s, most growers chose hardy German grape varieties, like Kerner or Zweigelt. With climate change, however, Hokkaido wineries have started to find they can even branch out into French species of grape, like Pinot Noir.
Within Hokkaido, the two top producers of wine are the Yoichi region and the Furano region. Wines from Yoichi have made quite a splash in recent years, with some even winning prizes at international wine competitions. In both areas, there are a number of wineries you can visit to taste local wines for yourself. Many also have restaurants attached that will allow you to sample their wine with a perfect meal pairing. Our own reporter experienced this at Domaine Takahiko in Yoichi– take a look at this video for more!
Enjoy a bottle of muscat wine from Hokkaido, available on byFood's market.
Our Recommendations (You Heard it through the Grapevine...)
If you truly want to call yourself a sommelier of Japanese wines, then you simply must visit Daizenji in Koshu, Yamanashi.
Daizenji is often colloquially known as "the grape temple". It is said to stand in the place where grape-growing first began in Japan in the 8th Century. The monk who founded the temple here had the medicine Buddha appear to him, holding a bunch of grapes. Aside from its connection to grape-growing in Yamanashi, it is a spectacular temple with a main hall that is almost a thousand years old. And of course, you can go to see the grape-bearing Buddha for yourself (although the one on display is just a replica to keep the original safe). What better way to show your appreciation for Japanese wines than to head to a place where they are sacred?
As for my personal choice of wine, it is hard to say as there are just so many to choose from! So shop around, do any tasting that you can and see what wine takes your fancy. My one tip is that you simply must pick up a bottle of Japanese white wine for the next time you plan to have fish at home. As discussed, many Japanese wines are geared towards the Japanese palate. Fish is a huge part of Japanese cuisine, so it stands to reason that Japanese wines will pair wonderfully with any fishy dish.
You can take a look at byFood's online shop for a selection of wonderful wines from some of the regions covered in this blog!
A Grape Future Ahead
Like so many of Japan's forays into Western cuisine, Japanese wines show incredible promise. It is quite astonishing that Japanese winemakers have taken ancient winemaking techniques and have applied their own innovations to create a brand new world of wines that has not only managed to hold the attention of its own nation but the world at large, too.
As with all of the food and drink we cover in our blogs, you simply have to try it if you get the chance. So if you're feeling curious, skip the sake at the sushi bar-- ask the chef what Japanese wine pairing he recommends instead.