In the world of Japanese alcohol, you could be forgiven if you had never tried Japanese wine before. No, not the “rice wine” of nihonshu, or the “plum wine” of umeshu. Actual, old fashioned grape wine. Wine in Japan has had a fairly slow start, but in recent years, it has matured into a rich and vibrant industry.
How Wine Came to Japan
Japanese wine, similar to Japanese whisky, can be traced back to the 1870s when two intrepid young men, Tsuchiya Ryuken and Takano Masanari, were sent to France by the Dainihon Yamanashi Budoshu Gaisha wine company to learn the art of winemaking. After their return, they also inspired Kawakami Zenbei of Niigata prefecture to found the Iwanohara winery. Currently, there are over 200 wineries operating all around Japan, but there are five regions which have grown famous for wine production.
Japanese Grapes for Wine Making
When it comes to grapes, there are two varieties which are considered native to Japan:
Koshu Grape (Yamanashi)
The Koshu Grape from Yamanashi Prefecture is a light pink color that is used for making white wine.
Muscat Bailey A Grape (Niigata)
The Muscat Bailey A from Niigata Prefectureis a cross breed developed by Kawakami Zenbei, and has grown famous for the red wine produced using it.
Yamasachi Grape (Hokkaido)
In 2020, the Yamasachi grape from the Ikeda region of Hokkaido gained international recognition and certification from the International Organization of Vine and Wine in Paris.
These, along with Ryugen grapes (Nagano) and Yama Sauvignon (Yamagata) make up the Japan wine belt. Other European varieties of grapes were also imported in Japan, so it is no longer uncommon to see more common varieties of wine such as syrah or chardonnay produced in Japan as well.
What Is Considered Japanese Wine
Prior to 2015, Japanese wine could be any wine that was bottled in Japan, even if the grapes or juice were imported. However, in 2015, a law was passed (enacted in 2018) that brought Japan in line with international wine standards, ensuring that Japanese wine now had to be made with grapes grown and fermented in Japan. This has led to a stronger national identity for Japanese wine.
Along with the fast growing domestic wine market, Japanese wine has also been gaining recognition internationally. In 2021, two Yamanashi wines from Shirayuri Winery and Lumiere Winery both won the international Platinum award from The Decanter World Wine Awards.
Other wineries, such as Chateau Mercian (one of the spiritual successors of the Dainihon Yamanashi Budosha Gaisha), have been producing wine since 1949, and won the very first gold medal awarded to a Japanese wine in 1966. Likewise, in 2020, Camel Winery from Yoichi, Hokkaido, won its very first Silver Medal for their 2018 Pinot Noir, an impressive feat when you consider that the winery was only founded in 2017.
Japanese wine grown with unique Japanese grapes such as the Koshu or Muscat Bailey A grapes are known for their delicate flavor profiles, and tend to be dry with hints of fruit, and are at times somewhat bitter and tannin forward. While it is impossible to generalize all the varieties of Japanese wine, a common characteristic seems to be the subtleness of its flavors, perhaps capturing the national character of Japanese cuisine. Regardless of whether you are a wine aficionado or an amateur like me, experiencing this emerging section of Japanese cuisine is sure to be a delicious and exciting adventure!
Try pairing your favorite wine with our Foods That Pair With Alcohol: "Otsumami" Care Package which includes sake, wine and beer pairing suggestions.
About the author: Michael Bugajski
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!