Intro to Japanese wines

  • By Reeze Choi
  • 16 Oct 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
Made possible by
Kamoidera vineyards of Chateau Mercian - Credit : in Yamanashi

Learn about Japanese wine. Japanese whisky is known for its speculative value, beer for its high consumption, and sake and shochu for their emblematic status. These alcoholic drinks from Japan have long been under the spotlight, but what about Japanese wine? It is certainly a rising star.

Although grapes were introduced to Japan over 1,000 years ago, the history of winemaking in Japan is rather short when compared to that of classic wine producing countries. Its origins can be traced back to Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya being sent to study winemaking in Champagne, France in 1877 by the Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoshu Wine Company (the forerunner of Château Mercian).

Geography, Soils, and Climate

Japan is a country composed of four main islands. From north to south they are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu (and its myriad archipelagos).

As of 2020, there were 331 wineries in Japan, most of them being family-owned or boutique wineries with very small production. The wineries are scattered all over Japan, with the exception of the Saga and Nara prefectures.

The three biggest wine producing cities in Japan (in descending order of volume) are Yamanashi, Nagano, and Hokkaido. Yamanashi, the birthplace of Japanese wine growing 140 years ago, and Nagano on its north are in the middle of Japan. The wineries in this central area are surrounded by mountain ranges up to 3,000m above sea level. Rainfall and inclement weather are blocked by the mountain ranges, therefore, compared to the rest of the other areas in central Japan, Yamanashi and Nagano have less rainfall coupled with a cooler climate, creating a better environment for grape growing.

The wine region of Yamanashi is divided into three areas, from west to east: Katsunuma, Fuefuki, and Nirasaki. The vineyards of Nagano are concentrated in Ueda, Shiojiri, Azumino, Matsumoto, the Tenryugawa Valley, and the Chikumagawa Valley.

Shiribeshi and Sorachi were the most important winemaking areas of Hokkaido. Hakodate became another recently when Bourgogne Winemaker Étienne de Montille established his winery there in 2019.

Mountains cover two-thirds of Japan’s surface area, and 110 active volcanoes are located all over the country, with the exception of the island of Shikoku. Volcanic soil is predominant, with 46.5% of the country’s soil having volcanic origins.

Japan has four distinct seasons. Since the country spreads out 3,008km long across the latitudes, the climate varies markedly from southern to northern Japan. In general, it is warmer and more humid in Kyushu, and colder and dryer in Hokkaido. Looking at climate in terms of the Winkler Heat Summation System, Miyazaki of Kyushu is in Category 4, and Hokkaido is in Category 1.

The rainy season, called “Tsuyu,” brings plenty of precipitation especially to the south and the middle of Japan from May through July. These two areas suffer most from the annual typhoon season between July and October, which brings not only rainfall but also damage to grape vines. Because of the subsequent humidity, disease resistant grape varieties are favoured here.

To provide better ventilation and protect the grapes from sunburn, a special overhead trellising system known as Tanajitate is utilised. Most parts of Hokkaido in the north have 70 to 100 days of snowfall per year; however, grape vines still benefit from the long hours of sunshine. Cold resistant grapes such as German varieties and Pinot Noir thrive here.

The signature grapes of Japan are both hybrids: the white Koshu and the red Muscat Bailey A.

Koshu

Recent analysis has shown that Koshu is a natural hybrid of Vitis Vinifera and the Chinese wild species Vitis Davidii. Koshu, named after the ancient traditional name of its birthplace (today known as Yamanashi), arrived in Japan during the 6th or 7th century from Caucasus via the Silk Road. In 2003 Dr. Tominaga Takatoshi discovered 3 Mercapto Hexanol in the Koshu grape. Also found in Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, this compound gives the grapes strong grapefruit and rhubarb notes. Today, Koshu is the predominant variety both in terms of vineyard plantings and wine production.

Muscat Bailey A

Muscat Bailey A is Japan’s own artificially crossed hybrid grape. It exhibits a Gamay-like character and candied red fruit aromatics. In 1927 Zenbei Kawakami, the “godfather of Japanese wine”, created Muscat Bailey A, and the grape is viewed as his masterpiece. Muscat Bailey A is a cross of Bailey and Black Muscat/Muscat Hamburg. It is a hardy grape, resistant to both disease and high humidity, so it is perfectly suited to the Japanese climate.

Other Varieties

North American and International varieties are also very important in Japan. The former adapts to the challenging climate of Japan; the latter produces world-class quality wines when they are grown on the correct site and handled with care. North American varieties, such as Concord and Niagara, were transplanted to Japan in the 1870s. 100 years later, the first international grape variety, Merlot, was introduced by Shogo Asai and planted in Nagano.

 

Kamoidera vineyards of Chateau Mercian - Credit : in Yamanashi