In Japan, you can often find Japanese wine in department stores and supermarkets. Some people have probably even found or tried Japanese wine abroad. Red, white, rosé, and sparkling wines are produced in wineries located throughout the country. The flavors of these wines embody the characteristics of each region.
Ranging from fine wines to inexpensive but delicious brands, there are many kinds to choose from. There is also a range regarding the variety of grapes that are used. This includes Japanese grapes such as Koshu and Muscat Bailey A all the way to varieties from Europe.
We spoke with Mr. Koki Yoda, who is the president and representative director of Yoda Saketen, a popular Japanese wine shop in Yamanashi Prefecture. Mr. Yoda is also a Japanese Sommelier Association, SSI accredited kikisake-shi.
A kikisake-shi is a sake sommelier that entertains customers with their service and knowledge. With his guidance, we will be introducing some basic information on Japanese wine and our selection of easy to acquire, delicious brands.
- Table of Contents
- 1. The Recent Appraisal and Popularity of Japanese Wine
- 2. The Difference Between Japanese Wine and Domestic Wine
- 3. The Main Japanese Wine Producing Regions (Yamanashi, Nagano, Niigata, Yamagata, Hokkaido) and the Leading Varieties of Grapes Native to Japan
- ■Koshu (Yamanashi)
- ■Ryugan (Nagano)
- ■Muscat Bailey A (Niigata)
- ■Yama Sauvignon (Yamagata)
- ■Yamasachi (Hokkaido)
- 4. Introducing the Best Wines of Each Region, Food Pairings, and Popular Wineries
- ① Hokkaido Region
- ② Northeastern Regions
- ③ Niigata, Hokuriku Region
- ④ Kanto Region
- ⑤ Koshin Region
- 5. Conclusion
1. The Recent Appraisal and Popularity of Japanese Wine
In the past, the wine produced in Japan mainly used grapes native to the country. This included varieties such as Koshu or a close relative known as Delaware. After 1980, European varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot made their way to Japan, causing the flavor quality of Japanese wine to go up exponentially.
Recently, the amount of wine being shipped out and exported from Japan has grown. Due to its delicate and smooth flavor, Japanese wine has attracted fans from all around the world. Furthermore, since 2018, the Japan Winery Award has been using a star classification to rank wineries and their wines. This award has been quite the topic for discussion among wine-lovers.
2. The Difference Between Japanese Wine and Domestic Wine
Wine is an expressive spirit that conveys the climate of the land it’s made on and the culture surrounding it. Many countries globally, including France, Italy, Spain, the United States, and Germany, truly care about where their wine is produced. By severely regulating production areas and how grape varieties are labeled, wine producers can protect the uniqueness and value of wine.
With this being said, the label of domestic wine in Japan was used quite loosely for many years. Some of the wines under this label were made by fermenting imported grape juice from other countries. What’s more, some domestic Japanese wines used large containers of wine (containers of wine with a capacity of 150-liters called bulk wine) imported from overseas. Even imported wine that was merely bottled in Japan was labeled as domestic.
Because this labeling caused a lot of confusion, a law for wine labels known as Labeling Standards for Manufacturing Process and Quality of Wine, etc. was established in October 2015. It was implemented three years later, in October 2018. Upon enforcing this strict, new Japanese rule that followed international regulations, the name on labels changed from domestic wine to Japanese wine.
Anything currently labeled as Japanese wine must show that the grapes have been harvested and fermented in the country. If it meets these requirements, the year that the grapes were harvested, the region, and the variety of grape are also shown on the label.
This is handy information when choosing a bottle of wine. Additionally, the label can be a source of pride and responsibility for wineries, winemakers, and vineyards.
3. The Main Japanese Wine Producing Regions (Yamanashi, Nagano, Niigata, Yamagata, Hokkaido) and the Leading Varieties of Grapes Native to Japan
We will introduce the varieties of wine grapes produced in Japan and the main regions you can find them in.
Koshu is a white wine grape used for Japanese wine that is becoming highly valued by foreign countries. A DNA test result showed that it’s a hybrid between a European grape variety and Chinese wild grapes. This hybrid is known as vitis vinifera.
Wine made from Koshu grapes has notes of citrus with pleasantly acidic and fruity flavors. Leaving a slightly bitter aftertaste, it is a wine praised for pairing well with Japanese cuisine. Due to the rise in popularity of Japanese cuisine abroad, this Koshu variety is gaining recognition worldwide.
Ryugan is an Eastern-European grape variety that originated in China. It is a white wine grape that has been cultivated around Nagao Prefecture’s Zenkoji Temple. Because of this, the popular variety is also known as Zenkoji grapes. With its light fruitiness and citrus-like acidity, it can be perfectly turned into a dry wine that also goes along with Japanese cuisine.
■Muscat Bailey A (Niigata)
The Muscat A Bailey was cultivated in 1927 by the founder of Iwanohara Vineyard, Zenbei Kawakami. Also known as the father of Japanese wine, Kawakami made this variety by producing a hybrid between an American berry and a European grape variety called the Muscat Hamburg. Out of all the red wine grapes, it is the most heavily produced variety in Japan.
Winemakers throughout various regions of Japan can experiment with this grape variety due to the wide range of flavors it produces. It can be made into a young, simple, and juicy, light wine, or an oak-barrel-aged wine.
■Yama Sauvignon (Yamagata)
When trying to think of grape varieties found in Yamagata, you may think of Koshu or Chardonnay for white wine. For red wine, there’s the Muscat Berry A and Cabernet Sauvignon. However, a noteworthy variety is the Yama Sauvignon. Made for red wine, this variety is a hybrid between mountain grapes and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a powerful, full-bodied red wine distinct with its deep red coloring and earthiness from the mountain grapes.
Yamasachi are red wine grapes specially developed in Ikeda, Hokkaido. Along with Koshu and Muscat Berry A, this typical Japanese variety is OIV (International Organization of Vine and Wine) certified. Because it is resistant to the cold and frost, it is easy for winemakers to cultivate, therefore lessening the amount of work needed to keep them intact. The chilly climate of Hokkaido can be felt through the rustic woodiness, complex tannic flavor, and sharp acidity found in this wine.
4. Introducing the Best Wines of Each Region, Food Pairings, and Popular Wineries
The following will present the popular wineries of each region, their wines, and recommended food pairings.
① Hokkaido Region
In Hokkaido, the main variety of grapes for white wine are Kerner and Niagara. For red wine, Yamasachi and Pinot Noir are cultivated.
Kerner, available at Chitose Winery, is a dry, white wine that offers bright fruitful notes. It can be enjoyed with fresh sashimi assortments or grilled seafood. Tokachi Wine’s Yamasachi is a red wine with the unique bitterness of mountain grapes and a sharp fruitiness and acidity.
In Hokkaido jingisukan, a Japanese grilled mutton dish, is very popular. In addition to this, there’s Tokachi’s specialty, the pork bowl. This is an inexplicably delish dish that tops rice with pork boiled in a soy sauce-based, sweet and spicy sauce.
② Northeastern Regions
In the Northeastern regions of Iwate Prefecture and Yamagata Prefecture, white wines such as Koshu and Riesling Lyon can be found. Red wines available include Zweigeltrebe and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Seele Ohasama Zweigeltrebe, from Edel Wine (Iwate), has a subtle and sweet woodiness, notes of fruitiness from blackberries, a powerful tannic flavor, and acidity. This red wine pairs well with meat and cheese dishes.
Takahata Winery (Yamagata) recommends its ‘Hattaki’ Barrique Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon. This red wine has fruity notes of a ripe plum. Also, due to being aged in an oak barrel for 23 months, this full-bodied wine has the attractive quality of lingering on your palette, leaving hints of spice and vanilla. It pairs especially well with hearty dishes such as hamburger steaks and beef stew.
③ Niigata, Hokuriku Region
In Niigata Prefecture and Toyama Prefecture in the Hokuriku region, Chardonnay for white wine and Muscat Berry A for red wine are cultivated.
Zenbei Kawakami, the father of grapes for Japanese wines, is the creator of Muscat Berry A. At his winery, Iwanohara Winery (Niigata), this red wine is known for its superb quality due to using organically grown grapes. The characteristics of this wine are its initial velvety mouthfeel and its charming berry-like aroma and flavor. It pairs perfectly with highly-seasoned dishes such as yakitori covered in a soy sauce-based glaze.
Yamafuji Vineyards and Horizon Winery was founded in 1933. This winery takes great care in producing small quantities of various kinds of wine.
④ Kanto Region
Tochigi Prefecture and Ibaraki Prefecture in the Kanto Region produce Koshu for white wine and Cabernet Sauvignon for red wine. Koshu F.O.S., produced at Coco Farm and Winery (Ibaraki), is a rare white wine that, similarly to a red wine, uses the skin of the grape. With its orange hue, complex fragrance, and bitter, full-bodied flavor, it pairs perfectly with dishes like roasted duck or quail.
Tsukuba Winery, located at the foot of Mount Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture, is known for its unfiltered wine called Tsukuba Primo. With its delicate taste, it goes well with both Western and Japanese cuisine.
⑤ Koshin Region
In Yamanashi Prefecture and Nagano Prefecture located in the Koshin region, native Japanese white wine grapes called Koshu are cultivated. Red wine grapes such as Muscat Berry A and Merlot can also be found. Koshu Kiiroka, produced at Chateau Merican (Yamanashi), is made with Koshu grapes that are picked just before they’re fully ripe. This is because this is when they’re the most fragrant. The result is a dry white wine with notes of woodiness. It pairs well with a green salad, white fish sashimi, lightly simmered bamboo shoots, and wakame seaweed, and butterbur shoot tempura.
Katsunama Winery (Yamanashi) offers the Aruga Branca Brilhante. Using Koshu, it implements an in-bottle secondary fermentation process that makes it into a white sparkling wine. This allows you to enjoy the delicate fragrance of Koshu along with its sharp, refreshing flavors.
Grace Wine offers the Grace Cuvee Akeno Koshu. This winery grows hedgerows at their vineyard to cultivate rare Koshu grapes. The wine made from these grapes has a very elegant and delicate taste. It pairs well with a ham and grapefruit marinade, flounder carpaccio, and a clear seafood broth called sumashijiru that is served during a traditional Japanese course dinner known as kaiseki.
Japanese wine is still fairly new to the market. However, due to the hard work of vineyards and wineries, the taste is getting better and better. Japanese wine goes well with Western cuisine, but it also pairs beautifully with the delicate flavors of Japanese cuisine. If you ever have the chance, try stopping by a winery and breath in the deep scent of soil while enjoying a glass of delicious Japanese wine.
Who We Interviewed
Mr. Koki Yoda
President and Representative Director of Yoda Saketen
A Japan Sommelier Association, SSI accredited kikisake-shi
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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