We kick off our very own vineyard world tour with an exploration of Japan at its most enological, contemporary and ancestral to discover the country’s current relationship with the wine world, which isn’t well known, but strong.
Winegrowing despite all odds
Based on the statements above, it might seem like Japan has everything in its favor to be an industry leader. Nothing could be further from the truth. Japan’s geographic and climatic conditions make the country akin to a Garden of Eden, ideally suited to all kinds of natural refinement and elegance—except for vineyards. Winegrowing is limited to very specific areas of the country, because most of the scarce and valuable farmland is dedicated to cultivating an essential staple: rice.
Origins: between Buddhists and emperors
Records show that grapes were already grown in the 8th century, during the Nara period, and that Buddhist monks spread the practice across the country. However, a wine industry as we understand it today wasn’t established until 1874. Around 1870 courtly interests prompted the then government to send several researchers to Europe to study cultivation methods and bring back new vines that could adapt to the difficult conditions of the empire.
Varieties, trends and wine production
Nowadays Japan has 20,000 hectares under vine. When you take into account that many of the country’s leading winemakers own at most two or three hectares, primarily in central Japan, this number is put into perspective. This means that in order to reach a production of 850,000 hectoliters of wine per year, the import volume of wine and must remains very high (three-quarters of bottled wine).
- Winegrowing conditions vary significantly across the thousands of islands that make up Japan, stretching from the 24th to the 46th parallel north.
- Wine is currently produced in 36 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, primarily in centrally located areas with low annual precipitation levels, such as Yamanashi (home to Mount Fuji), Nagano, Hokkaido and Yamagata.
- The main varieties grown in Japan are the indigenous grapes *Koshu and Kyoto and the hardy American varieties Delaware and Niagara, as well as the international and chameleonic Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, among other less frequently cultivated varieties.
- *Koshu is an Asian rarity, a little known beauty that was originally only grown as a table grape. Koshu is a rosé grape that produces smooth, delicate and balanced white wines, which usually require chaptalization (the adding of sugar) to be marketed successfully. It is traditionally served with sushi.
Female-driven trends: women lead the way
When it comes to consumers, a 2014 study mentioned by the Spanish-Japanese Chamber of Commerce revealed the following insights on consumption trends in Japan:
- 58% of consumers prefer purchasing wine at the supermarket to the more traditional practice of drinking it at a bar.
- Almost half of Japan’s adult population drinks wine at least once a week.
- For 54% of Japanese consumers, the country of origin is an important or very important factor when choosing a wine, which has a positive impact on Spanish wines.
- In 2015, Japan’s main wine imports by volume came from Chile, France, Italy and Spain (in fourth place).
- Women represent the largest percentage of wine consumers and buyers: 55%.
This trend is exemplified by the enologist Tanabe Yumi, who has run her own wine academy for over twenty years and imparted her knowledge to 10,000 sommeliers. She is also the president of the “Sakura” Japan Women’s Wine Awards, a competition organized by and for women with the goal of highlighting their contributions to the industry.
Fun facts you should know about Japanese dining etiquette
Kanpai: The equivalent of “cheers”—although it literally translates as “drain the glass.” You should wait for someone to say the word before taking a first sip. But don’t worry, you don’t actually have to drain the glass—unless someone starts shouting “Ikki! Ikki!”
Pouring yourself a drink is considered rude: In semi-formal or formal situations, you always serve others, never yourself. At receptions or business events, lower-ranking professionals serve those higher up. Even in the most traditional companies, women are expected to serve men.
Eating in public is considered unseemly: Eating or drinking in public spaces such as streets or trains is frowned upon and seen as bad manners. There are some very down-to-earth exceptions… like eating ice cream!
Don’t tip: Tipping is considered rude, even insulting. The Japanese are proud people, and tipping may confuse the waiter who will try and return the money to the customer. Should you be very satisfied with the service, it’s best to leave a small gift.
Finally, if you’re planning a trip to the land of the rising sun and need a few references that’ll say something about you, take note:
What to drink in Japan if you are…
- Two of the most revered Koshus in the country are produced by Grace and Arugabranca, respectively. Give them a try.
- A Gourmet. Domaine Sogga’s Merlot is very sought after and if you find it… be prepared for a pricey treat.
- An Expert. Takahiko’s Pinot Noir made from grapes grown in Hokkaido is one of the country’s most complex and delicate wines.
- In Kyushu, in southern Japan, winemakers produce a light and luscious rosé from the Campbell Early variety.