A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also my tasting notes on Japanese wines tasted so far this year.
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as Japanese cult wine. Or perhaps you thought Japan would produce only cult wine, rather than the standard issue Chardonnays and Cabernets that for some time dominated the Japanese wine scene? Interest in Japanese wine has risen, along with its quality, over the last five years with some of the country's super-skilled chefs taking active steps to match their food to it.
The last time total Japanese wine production was put in an official international context, Japan's 2012 harvest yielded about the same amount of wine as Uruguay, and more than Canada, Slovenia, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel or any North African country.
In the 1980s European wine producers viewed Japan rather as their counterparts viewed China recently, as a potentially vast new market for fine wine. Importers were courted, and Japanese department stores were redesigned to accommodate some of the most enviable collections of fine wines on the planet.
Today, the Japanese Sommelier Association has 11,000 members – 'sommelier' in this context meaning someone sufficiently interested in wine to submit themselves to formal courses and exams rather than necessarily someone who pours wine for a living. Tokyo's leading wine-education provider, L'Academie du Vin (to which I am special adviser, I should point out in the interests of full disclosure) teaches 6,000 Japanese students about wine each term. With their total of 150 courses, including some on sake, they claim to be the largest wine school in Asia. During my four visits to Japan I have consistently been impressed by the precision of the Japanese palate, and by the precision of questions from Japanese wine connoisseurs.
According to British-born, New Zealand-raised Tokyo wine importer Carl Robinson of Jeroboam, the Japanese are at long last beginning to drink wine at home and not just when out and about in the country's many first-class restaurants with non-Japanese cuisine. Wine seems to be the drink of choice for young Japanese women, whatever the time of day.
And there are distinct signs that the Japanese are moving well beyond the Bordeaux and Burgundy 'classics' to pastures newer and sometimes more stimulating. As in so much of the rest of Asia, Chile is the most important wine supplier by volume. Japan's propensity to import cheap wine or grape concentrate in bulk and stick a Japanese label on it, having blended it with a little Japanese wine, continues, but from 2018 such liquids will have to be clearly signalled 'imported' on the front label. The Japanese have long been particularly keen consumers of champagne – and natural wine, wine consciously made without additives, was embraced in Japan even before it became de rigueur in hipster restos in eastern Paris.
But the Japanese have increasing reason to be proud of their own wine. The new-wave Japanese wines are very much in the same idiom as natural wines, being particularly light bodied and often relatively crisp. There is the most extraordinary range of imported grape varieties too: Kerner, Traminer and Zweigelt vie for the country's precious space (vineyards tend to be tiny) with American vines such as Niagara and Delaware.
It is not surprising to find the hardy Americans because summers in Japan can be extremely challenging. Typhoons are common and many regions are famously humid – perfect conditions for the spread of the fungal diseases to which grapevines are so prone. A favourite photograph of Japanese vineyards is of each bunch sheltered by its own little paper umbrella – although these are usually grapes destined for the table rather than the fermentation vat.
One local grape speciality is the strangely named Muscat Bailey A, a Japanese hybrid that has been bred to resist mildew and rot. It has many an American gene and can taste oddly like candy but Suntory, one of the dominant wine producers, seem to have mastered it by ageing it in oak, some of it Japanese. The 2012 vintage of their premium Muscat Bailey A won an important wine competition in Japan and sold out immediately.
Yamanashi just west of Tokyo, overlooked by the majestic Mount Fuji (pictured here from Grace's winery), is traditionally the most important prefecture for viticulture but Nagano north of Yamanashi has been colonised by the vine on the basis that it is a little less prone to typhoons. (Members can see this wine map of Japan from the 7th edition of The World Atlas of Wine.) The most fashionable areas for Japanese wine production today though are the northern island of Hokkaido (where the seven year-old boy left in the woods by his parents was recently found) and, also in the north, Yamagata. Pre global warming they were thought too cool for the vine but are currently benefiting from global warming - to a certain extent.
The sunshine hours are relatively short, so even with a variety as early-ripening as Pinot Noir, it can be a struggle to produce a wine with enough fruit, and to prune the vines before the snows arrive in November. The cult wine to which I refer above is a Hokkaido Pinot Noir.
I was due to dine with Japan's lone resident Master of Wine Kenichi Ohashi (Mai Tanaka was the first Japanese MW but lives in London) one evening in Tokyo last March. He was the last member of the party to arrive and came tearing in bearing a half-empty bottle of Takahiko Soga, Nana-Tsu-Mori 2014 Pinot waving it as though it were a hard-won trophy.
It was recognisably the same grape as red burgundy but was very light in every way, with the trademark smell of green stalks I associate with wines made from less-than-fully-ripe grapes that are not destemmed. Part of this wine's appeal in Japan is that none of the antioxidant sulphur dioxide is added and it certainly tasted a little shaken. But it was admirable, and was certainly one of the more impressive of the Japanese wines I tasted during my few days there.
But the Japanese wine style that may appeal particularly to foreigners is Koshu, the dry whites made, mainly in Yamanashi, from the Japanese table grape of the same name. Koshu has usefully thick pink skins which tend to protect the juice from the worst predations of typhoons, and the aromas of the best examples, oddly, remind me a little of rice and sake. They are light, crisp and so neutral they are positively zen-like. They seem quintessentially Japanese and go particularly well with sashimi, it seems to me. Unlike many a classic European wine. Various bottlings of Koshu have steadily been making their wine on to wine lists and even the odd shelf (M&S in particular) in the UK. Grace, Lumiere, Soryu, Kurambon and Rubaiyat have all been shipped to the UK. Grace wines are also available in Belgium, Denmark, and Switzerland where Rubaiyat also has an importer.
American somms do not (yet) seem to have discovered this particular exotica.
These were my favourites of nearly 50 Japanese wines tasted so far this year, in alphabetical order.