Japan Articles

Travel Report: Koshu, Manga and halves

Published in www.jancisrobinson.com while traveling with OIV



 The Japanese wine market is evolving steadily with more education and global awareness, but Japan remains a modest wine-consuming country.

Although Japan has already experienced some significant “wine booms” in the past decades, propelling itself to the forefront of the Asian market, wine consumption is currently a meagre 2.4 litres per capita. I was told that 50 per cent of the population does not drink wine at all; 30 per cent drinks only once a year and it’s Beaujolais Nouveau (in fact, Japan is the number one market for Beaujolais after France, and Duboeuf has 70 per cent of the market); 10 per cent indulge twice a year with the obligatory Beaujolais along with some Champagne for Christmas; and the rest are considered regular drinkers if they consume wine several times a month.

Two major turning points for the Japanese market occurred in the 1990s: the French Paradox report and, a few years later, a Japanese sommelier’s winning the prestigious International Sommelier Competition.

While white wine may taste great with your sashimi, and producers in Germany and Austria are trying to promote their delicate Riesling and Grüner Veltliner as an obvious match with Asian cuisine, the Japanese are seeing red. Ever since the news of the French Paradox, drinking red wine is considered a healthy habit. About 70 per cent of wine consumed in Japan is now red and comes mainly from France, Italy, USA, Chile and Spain.

When Shinya Tasaki became the first Japanese champion of the International Sommelier Competition in 1995 it suddenly made the role of the sommelier seem very interesting and lucrative and many pursued that path. Ten years later, the pioneering sommeliers of that time are now the opinion leaders of the wine industry of Japan. And recently, Mr Kazuyoshi Kogai was appointed as president of the ASI (Association de la Sommellerie Internationale), another first for Japan.

Japan’s many sommeliers have quite a job cut out for them since pairing wine with the traditional way of eating in Japan is rather difficult. Unlike the European system of dining, where there's a series of courses one after another which you can pair with a succession of wines, in Japan it's customary to bring all the dishes out at once, making it complicated to find a wine that will go with so many flavours and textures together on the table. Still the restaurant culture is huge in Japan. With personal living spaces being quite limited in the cities, it’s very common to entertain friends outside of one’s home. Having the support of the sommeliers allows Japanese diners to try new suggestions and develop their wine knowledge.

Half bottles are a growing trend in Japan. There are many singles and/or couples that wish to drink wine with dinner at home but cannot finish a whole bottle. A fabulous chain has emerged to meet this demand called Enoteca 375 (for 375ml). It sells an excellent selection of wine primarily in half bottles and is conveniently located outside metro stations, so busy professionals can stop in on their way home from work to pick up a (half) bottle for dinner.

Wine has merged with Japanese manga comics as a form of entertainment and education. There are many series of manga comics about wine sommeliers, stories ranging from adventures with wine, to sommeliers that will solve your life problems by suggesting the right wine for you.

Japan’s own wine production took off after the second world war when the government had to ration rice to feed people, so sake production was severely reduced. Grape growing became more prevalent and the desire for cheap alcohol led to wine production. Currently there are about 200 wineries in Japan, but the majority of them are not profitable.

Koshu is a particularly interesting white variety (shown here with little hats to protect them from the rain – and matching vineyard worker!), grown mainly in Yamanashi region and vinified by a wide range of wineries. It is a Vitis vinifera variety and, amazingly, has existed in Japan since the 8th century. It has a unique character, but if it had to be compared with something international, perhaps it most closely resembles a Sauvignon Blanc in its zesty aromas and fresh taste.

The Koshu Wine Project of Bordeaux’s Professor Denis Dubourdieu has generated a lot of buzz as the only wine in Asia that Robert Parker has tasted and rated... giving it an impressive 88 points. In comparison with other Japanese producers such as Marufuji or Chateau Mercian, the Koshu Project does not stand out as exceptional in terms of taste. But I was told that one of the key project members is also a business associate of Mr Parker, which is presumably how he came across the wine.

Another notable producer in Japan is the Coco Farm & Winery. Their key point is to keep experimenting to find the right varieties that work with Japan’s challengingly damp climate and conditions. They are working with anything from Albariño to Tannat, and have an impressive range of wines made from Koshu by various methods.

Although they prefer not to communicate about this as a marketing tactic, a truly intriguing aspect of this winery is that part of the facilities is a home for mentally handicapped adults who work in the vineyards doing basic tasks like leaf pulling and fruit sorting. Generally, Japanese wineries do not export as all their production can sell easily on the domestic market... and it would be hard for them to compete in the export market.

Half bottles, minuscule wine consumption, and even smaller wine production... Japan is a wine market of small proportions! But regardless of its size, the market is undoubtedly moving forward with quality, variety and wine education... and getting noticed around the world.