Senior Project Executive Ya-Ting Fan on the emerging winemakers of Japan
When it comes to alcohol, Japan is known for Sake, whisky and beer – not necessarily wine. However this is changing, as northerly latitudes warm. Just as growers and winemakers in similarly northern climates as UK and Canada become more skilled in producing a high quality product, so too the long-established – but relatively little known – Japanese wine category is starting to make waves, according to a Wines of Japan masterclass hosted in London by Patrick Schmitt MW a couple of weeks ago.
Although Japan has been cultivating vines for at least 1,000 years, its wine industry is relatively young compared to other key wine markets. It is said that the first attempt of winemaking was around the late 19th century in Kofu with the picturesque Mount Fuji in the background.
Ever since then, the number of wineries has been growing. According to the National Tax Agency’s latest data on the Japanese wine industry, published in February 2019, there are currently 418 wineries that spread across 36 of 47 prefectures of Japan, most of which are classified as small-to-medium wineries – as it happens, a similar number and size distribution that we see in the UK. As with the UK’s south east region (which also has a track record of grape production dating back at least 1,000 years) , the Kofu region plays a crucial part in the Japanese wine scene. This one area produces almost a third of Japanese wine, and is home to an indigenous Japanese white grape varietal – Koshu.
During the event, we tasted different styles of Koshu white wines, which Patrick Schmitt MW deemed as the “Emerging Modern Classic” of wines due to its range of possible flavours. The types of wines we tasted ranged from crispy white wines, full-bodied, rounder oaked wines through to the delicate champagne-method fizz. Five of the ten wines we tasted were made from the same varietal, yet each glass tasted so different from each other. I found that Japanese winemakers are just as capable of producing high-quality premium wines as other key wine markets.
And the Japanese have no intention of keeping this a secret from the global wine stage. Over the past decade, Japan has been quite active in showcasing their wine expertise. For example, on the trade level, an organisation was established by fifteen wine producers in Yamanashi to promote Koshu wines. On a government level, a label regulation was put in place to protect the growing wine industry. Before October 2018, the term ‘domestic wine’ was being used for any wines bottled in Japan, including bulk wines imported from abroad, so often people didn’t know exactly what a domestic wine from Japan meant. But since then, wines labelled as ‘Japanese’ need to consist of grapes 100% harvested and fermented in Japan, which has led to many winemakers putting more effort in planting local grapes instead of using imported wines.
This protective move comes around the same time that Japan established a new trade deal with the EU, which will lift the trade tariffs for any EU products entering Japan, making European wines much more affordable for Japanese drinks. Therefore, as of February 2019, when the trade deal becomes effective, we may see wine drinkers moving from local premium wines to a more affordable French Bordeaux or French Champagne. For a market which is already dominated by imported wine, the deal may make it even harder for domestic wines to find a place at home.
But the trade deal also works in the other direction, making it easier for Japan to export its domestic wine abroad. While the EU trade deal poses a threat on the Japanese wines at home, some winemakers think the deal is a great opportunity for Japanese wine to establish itself in the global wine market. Therefore, some large winemakers are actively expanding their vineyards to raise wine production volumes (currently about 23 million bottles in 2017-18), and some are participating in wine competitions around the world to establish a reputation. In addition, producers have also been working closely with influencers in target markets in an effort to raise awareness of Japanese wine.
The trade agreement between the EU and Japan also includes an agreement on mutual protections, which includes the list of alcoholic beverages that are GI-protected – and Japanese Yamanashi and Hokkaido wine made the list. Because of this protection, winemakers believe the world will get to know more about premium Yamanashi and Hokkaido wines just as the world knows about Chablis, Champagne and Prosecco, etc.
For more information on wine in the Japanese market, the Wine Intelligence Japan Landscapes 2019 is due to be published at the end of March 2019.
Author: Ya-Ting Fan