Japan is famous for its various, tasty alcoholic drinks – such as nihon-shu (commonly referred to as “sake” worldwide), refreshing beers and fruity shochu cocktails. In recent years, Japanese wine has also become a made-in-Japan drink of choice.
Japanese wine refers to wine that is made from grapes that have been grown and cultivated in Japan. Visit these wineries to have a taste of Japanese wine!
History of Japanese Wine
Wine itself is estimated to have a history that dates back to as long ago as 8000 BC. In Japan, winemaking began about 140 years ago.
Winemaking in the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912)
Winemaking in Japan began during the Meiji Period, when the country was suffering with a lack of rice. There wasn’t enough rice to make nihon-shu, and brewers were looking for a different type of alcohol to create.
In Yamanashi prefecture in 1877, two young men, Tsuchiya Ryuken and Takano Masanari, went off to France to study winemaking. After their return, they began making wine at Dainihon-Yamanashi-Budoshu-Gaisha, the first winemaking company in Japan.
Despite their efforts, wine did not reach the popularity of other pre-existing Japanese drinks, since it did not match well with Japanese cuisine. The company began to produce sweet fruit liquor instead.
Winemaking in the Showa Period (1926 – 1989)
There was another important reason why winemaking in Japan was so difficult: climate. In order to make winemaking easier in Japanese climate conditions, the “Muscat Berry A”, a type of grape specifically for Japanese winemaking, was introduced in 1927. The founder of this grape, Kawakami Zenbei, is often referred to the Father of Japanese Wine.
In 1970, after the Japan World Exhibition 1970 was held in Osaka, western foods began to become more commonly seen in Japanese households. Since then, wine has grown as a popular choice of drink in Japan.
What makes Japanese wine good?
Japanese wine began to make an international presence in the last ten years or so. Until then, Japanese wines were criticized for being too watery and light in taste. However, the grapes have improved in quality in recent years with more research and experimentation, and Japanese wines are now acclaimed for their taste and quality.
What is Japanese wine?
Wine and grapes
Not all wines made in Japan can be called “Japanese wine”. In order for a wine to be a Japanese wine, it must only use grapes that are grown and cultivated in Japan. This means that it cannot use even a little bit of grape extract that are from other countries.
Also, if 85% or more of a wine’s grapes comes from a certain region, then it is allowed to use the name of the region for the wine.
Characteristics of Japanese wine
Sushi and wine
Red wines are usually paired with meat dishes, while white wines tend to be enjoyed with fish and seafood. However, Japanese wines have a delicate sweetness and bitterness to it that allows it to be savored with Japanese cuisine, such as sushi and tempura.
Wine producing regions in Japan
Japanese wines are made throughout the country. Some famous wine producing regions in Japan are Hokkaido, Yamagata, Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures. Yamanashi prefecture, in particular, is the biggest wine producer in Japan.
Japan stretches vertically, which results in differing climates throughout the country. Grapes are grown and cultivated to match each region’s climate to create delicious, high-quality wine.
There are over 200 wineries throughout Japan, and some of them offer tours. Through the tour, you can visit the vineyards and wine distilleries, and even do some wine tasting. Here are three wineries that offer tours.
Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery (Yamanashi)
Vineyard at Tomi no Oka Winery
Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery locates in the city of Kai in Yamanashi prefecture. They have been making wines here for over 100 years.
In the huge vineyards, 11 different types of grapes are grown, including the Muscat Berry A and Chardonnay. You can explore these vineyards as a part of your tour.
For an extra fee (basic tour is free), you can tour the wine distilleries, cellar and more. At the end of your tour, you can buy your favorite bottle of wine to take home with you. In particular, the Riesling Italico (white) and Bijou Noir (red) are popular picks, since they are both limited in quantity.
L’Orient Shirayuri Winery (Yamanashi)
L’Orient Shirayuri Winery (photo credit: L’Orient Shirayuri Winery)
The L’Orient Shirayuri Winery was founded in 1938. It locates inYamanashi’s town of Katsunuma, which is particularly well known for winemaking.
Grape stomping (photo credit: L’Orient Shirayuri Winery)
There are many tours to choose from at L’Orient Shirayuri Winery. One experience that is highly recommended is the grape stomping experience. Grape stomping is the traditional way of making wine, and is currently sight that cannot be commonly seen.
At L’Orient Shirayuri Winery, you can experience filling your own bottle of wine and creating the label for it as well. The other tours include tours of the vineyards, wine distilleries and more. Most of them require a prior reservation, so make sure to do so at the L’orient Shirayuri Winery Official Website.
Manns Wine Komoro Winery (Nagano)
Vineyard at the Komoro Winery
Although Yamanashi is the biggest wine producer in Japan, Nagano is actually Japan’s biggest grape (for winemaking). Nagano’s valleys rich in vineyards are commonly referred to as the “Shinshu Wine Valley”.
The Manns Wine Komoro Winery can be found in the Chikumagawa Wine Valley, which is a part of the Shinshu Wine Valley. It was founded in 1973, and is a subsidiary of the soy sauce maker Kikkoman. Manns Wines have won in several contests, and is known for its high quality.
At Komoro Winery, you can tour the vineyards and wine cellars for free. There is also a beautiful traditional Japanese garden called Bansui-en. At the restaurant inside the winery grounds, you can taste the Komoro Winery wines and have a great view of the vineyards.
More to come for Japanese wines!
As mentioned earlier, Japan’s history of winemaking just began around 140 years ago. Winemaking has just started for Japan, and it is finally starting to make a name for itself nationwide and worldwide.
Make sure to keep an eye out for Japanese wines, since they are constantly improving and growing in demand!