Most wine pundits do not consider Japan a wine-producing country, but much of the Land of the Rising Sun actually falls between the 30th and the 50th degree of latitude in the northern hemisphere suitable for the growing of grapes. While its not a major wine producer by any stretch of the imagination, Japan does make wine from domestically grown grapes, most of which comes from its Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures. According to numbers provided by the Japan Wineries Association, over 15% of the wine consumed in Japan – keeping in mind that the country is the world’s 6th largest wine importer – actually comes from locally grown grapes.
While grapes were grown in Japan for table consumption since the early 700s, the first real efforts to grow grapes specifically for wine began in 1875 in Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture using sake brewing equipment. But what grapes did the Japanese grow? The first attempts at cultivating imported varieties failed when phylloxera – which similarly devastated vineyards worldwide – destroyed everything. But winemaking revived after the cessation of World War II and accelerated in the ’80s and ’90s in tandem with growing wine consumption. Today international varieties like Chardonnay are grown, but what does set Japan apart are some of its more indigenous varieties such as Koshu and Muscat Bailey A.
The Koshu (甲州) grape – named after the original name of Yamanashi – was developed from grapes that traveled from the Caucasus through the Silk Road to Japan over a thousand years ago, while the Muscat Bailey A came about more recently when the “grandfather” of Japanese wine Kawakami Zenbei – who created over 10,000 grape hybrids between 1920 and 1930 – bred the varietal in 1927; it is today the 2nd most cultivated wine grape in terms of volume in the country. Interestingly, both started as table grapes before they were found suitable for the making of wines as well.
Suntory-owned Tomi no Oka winery, first founded in 1936 in Yamanashi, today produces wines based on both these indigenous grapes, as well as those from international cultivars. Its Koshu 2013, for example, sees the indigenous grape pressed and then fermented in stainless steel tanks and eschewed malolactic fermentation to retain the lively, bright yuzu-like fruitness of the grape, while six months worth of sur lie aging provides needed body and creaminess to the wine. Its older brethren the Koshu 2012 (pictured below) received slightly different treatment, with about half of the volume cask matured and aged sur lie for four months, adding a hint of butterscotch and jasmine to the usual citrus notes.
On the other hand its Muscat Bailey A 2012 is a light fruity red wine exuding notes of strawberry, rose and cranberries, backed by soft delicate tannins and a hint of oak. But the star in its current stable has to be its Shiojiri Muscat Bailey A 2013 (main picture) – with grapes sourced from neighbouring Nagano; the wine bursts forth with winter berry and rose petal notes, supported by hints of rosemary and thyme. There’s even a hint of toasted coconut, which likely comes from its use of aging in prized Japanese Mizunara oak casks.
Tomi no Oka does produce wines from international varieties as well, much of which are blends. It does do single varietals such as the Shinshu Chardonnay 2012, with grapes also sourced from Nagano – which sees low rainfall and high diurnal temperatures to help retain acidity – that displays white peach and lemon flavours, with a delicate buttery creaminess from malolactic fermentation and oak-aging.
Japanese wine, like sake or Japanese whisky, is made specifically for pairing with Japanese food. “Our wines are made for the Japanese palate, which is why it goes well with our cuisine,” shares Naoki Watanabe, senior general manager at Tomi no Oka winery. “Japanese people also associate oak-aging with premium pricing, which is why Chardonnay tends to do well in the Japanese market.”
Domestic consumption for wine in Japan made from domestically grown grapes is on the rise, but Tomi no Oka is already looking at expanding into international markets, with Singapore one of the top export destinations in mind. We can be certain we’ll be seeing more wine made from Koshu and Muscat Bailey here soon.
Tomi no Oka wines are distributed in Singapore by Beam Suntory Asia.