Let’s talk about Japan. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Japan? Sushi? Sake? Sumo wrestlers? Bullet trains? Cherry blossoms? Anime? The list goes on, but would anyone say wine?
The chances are not many would and this article aims to fix just that, so the next time you're talking about the Land of the Rising Sun you'll remember Japan's hidden wine regions.
We think this is a shame because some of our favorite new world wines really outperform their old world ‘rivals’ and, like many other new world wine countries, Japan makes top quality wines.
So read on to find your wine samurai spirit and learn about Japan wine regions.
Feeling unsure if you should drink Asian wines? Learn Why You Should Drink Asian Wines Today!
Wine regions of Japan
The northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido is also Japan's coldest and second largest island. The volcanic plateaus and mountains that make up the geography of the centre of the island result in relatively cool summers and snowy or icy winters.
With temperatures that fall below zero in winter, vineyard management gets tricky in this frozen region. Vines are buried underground in autumn to protect the delicate flower buds on the vines from freezing - much like how we turn into burritos with our duvets on a cold winter’s night.
Tokachi Wine is the oldest winery in Hokkaido! (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Chatama and is used under GNU Free Documentation License)
A couple of the more well-known wine brands in Hokkaido are Tokachi Wine and Hokkaido Wine Company. Tokachi Wine is known for its dry wines made with sour grapes along with its proprietary crossbred varieties such as Kiyomi, Yamayuki and Kaibutsu.
The first varieties that were planted in the region were varities like Pinot Blanc, Muller-Thurgau and Zweigelt, which are particularly well suited to Hokkaido’s climate (which is similar to that of Germany).
But today Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Kerner are also grown there. Kerner, much like Riesling, is a versatile and aromatic variety that can be made into a dry or dessert wine.
Although the wineries in Hokkaido are scattered throughout the island, the majority of them are located near Sapporo, which makes it fairly easy to visit a bunch of them if you’re planning your own Asian wine tour and want to see wineries in Japan!
Sapporo, Hokkaido in autumn (photo courtesy of Welcome to Sapporo)
Sandwiched between Hokkaido and Yamanashi, the Yamagata prefecture experiences high humidity and a small window of sunshine daily, which creates an ideal environment for powdery mildew and bunch rot - just like when your loaf of bread becomes mouldy.
To top it off, Yamagata usually sees a couple of typhoons between the months of August and October.
Grapevines in this region have it tough. Just like in Shawn Mendes’ “Treat You Better” music video - sometimes the vines get knocked down by Mother Nature, but the ones that remain are tough cookies and some of the hardiest plants around.
Takahata Winery's winning wine (2015 Japan Wine Challenge)
One of the top dogs of Yamagata is Takahata Winery. Known for its fruity, sweeter-styled red and white wines, Takahata Winery also makes divine Chardonnays like its 2014 Chardonnay, which won a gold medal at the 2015 Japan Wine Challenge.
Known as the “Kingdom of Fruit”, the Yamanashi prefecture is located in the Chūbu region. Grapevines in this region generally have very deep roots because of the water runoff from surrounding mountains.
With over 80 wineries in the prefecture, Yamanashi is one of the biggest players in Japan in terms of production, accounting for 40% of Japan's wine production.
The Japanese wine industry actually originated in Katsunuma, a town in the city of Kōshū in Yamanashi. The grape variety Koshu is the most widely planted variety in the Yamanashi, making up 95% of Koshu plantings in Japan.
Despite sharing the same name as the city, no one knows if Koshu was named after the city.
Koshu grapes from Japan, the only Asian country that has its own indigenous grape varietal used only for winemaking
It’s believed that Koshu grapes were introduced to Japan through the Silk Road around 1000 years ago. Koshu, like lemons, have thick skins and a strong natural acidity with low sugar levels.
Because it makes a delicate wine, Koshu is commonly described as a cross between a light Pinot Grigio and Semillon - a clean wine that delivers notes of citrus, peach, white flower, quince and offers a nice minerality. Koshu is a safe bet for wine pairing japanese food.
There are many wineries that produce Koshu but one that does exceptionally well is Grace Winery.
As the winner of the Best White Wine Award at the 2017 Asian Wine Review and one of the Top 12 all-time-favourites of the founder of Asian Wine Review, Eddie McDougall, the Grace Koshu 2015 is heavenly and beautiful.
Ayana Misawa, winemaker at Grace Winery, has honed her Koshu crafting skills to an exceptionally high level. Her constant motivation to uphold the natural flavours of the varietal is truly highlighted in this elegant wine.
It is a symphony of complex aromas ranging from orange blossom, white flowers and chalk with citrus tones on the palate that make it ever so refreshing.
Without a doubt many Japanese wineries are stirring up a storm in the international wine scene. Pictured above are Ayana Misawa of Grace Wines and Eddie McDougall of The Flying Winemaker.
Also situated in the Chūbu region, the Nagano prefecture has a humid subtropical climate. Similarly to Yamagata, mother nature makes Nagana a challenging area to grow vines with hot humid summers and cold snowy winters topped off with the occasional typhoon.
A process of trial and error experimentation with winemaking techniques and vine trellising solves most issues and the results are phenomenal given the hostile environment. If you want to sip electric wines full of personality that sparkles across the palate, Nagano is the region for you.
They make fresh, herbaceous, intense, light, and highly drinkable wines that truly capture the region's characteristics.
A classic example of a winery from the Nagano prefecture is Suntory Shiojiri Winery. Shiojiri Winery collaborates closely with local growers to ensure optimum growing conditions and produce wines that truly reflect the character of Nagano.
Today Shiojiri Winery is synonymous with premium quality Japanese wine, and they produce multiple grape varieties including Chardonnay, Merlot and Muscat Bailey A grapes.
Muscat Bailey A prior véraison (change of colour in grapes) is one of Japan’s most popular wine grapes and is often used to make light fruity reds that are low in tannins and acidity
What’s next for Japanese winemaking?
Wine consumption in Japan has steadily risen since the 1970’s and the local wine producers are making more and more yearly as well. Because of its rich history and culture that celebrates the little details, Japan's wines have evolved into something quite special.
Japanese wines are also gaining popularity overseas, especially with its key varietals: Koshu, Muscat Bailey-A and Campbell Early. Koshu is the most exported wine and its success has been spearheaded by a group called Koshu of Japan (KOJ).
World renowned wine critics, including the likes of Jancis Robinson MW, have said that “Japanese varietals lack brashness”, “show more delicacy”, “more purity”, and “clearly go well with the calmer regions of the Japanese gastronomical landscape.”
Even many international hotels and acclaimed restaurants have started to carry Japanese wines, recognising the care and craft that goes into the product. It’s pretty exciting to see a country as sophisticated as Japan grow and match their wine drinking habits with their clearly strong winemaking skills.