Japan landscape 600x600 - Expanding horizons

The Japanese are moving beyond traditional, Old-World favourites to embrace a wider repertoire

One classic indicator of a burgeoning wine market is a diversification of wine repertoire on the part of consumers. As palates mature and interest in wine is piqued, traditional high profile wine regions just aren’t enough for drinkers who are beginning to see –and taste – beyond the glitz and the glam of traditional favourites.

The Japanese wine market is a case in point, albeit one that frequently evades the limelight, so often focussed instead on the Chinese colossus to the southwest. Recognising the unsung potential of Japan in the world of wine, our recent Japan Landscapes report takes steps towards rectifying this situation by shining a glaring spotlight on the various patterns and intrigues of the Japanese wine market. Predictably for a growing market, one thing is clear: when it comes to picking wines off the shelf, the Japanese are broadening their reach.

There are winners and losers in this new world. In Japan it seems that a surge in wine interest comes hand in hand with a decline in the importance accorded to prestige and tradition, as testified by the recent decline in consumption of French wines. Japanese consumers are also exhibiting both a long-term and short-term decrease in awareness of renowned Old-World regions such as Bordeaux, Beaujolais and Bourgogne – these regions are just not on their radar in the way they used to be.

Instead, Japanese wine consumers are looking to new shores to quench their growing thirst. Chilean wines, now widely regarded in Japan as better value, no doubt aided by the mutual Free-Trade Agreement between the two countries, are enjoying a significant, long-term rise in purchase. Additionally – and ironically – in Japan the process of expanding horizons also entails honing in on what’s on offer at home, with native, Japanese wines enjoying a recent boost among the drinking public.

Home-grown, Japanese wine accounts for around one third of the grape wine drunk in the country, and Japan is well placed as the top country of origin among Japanese regular wine drinkers in terms of both consumption and conversion to purchase. In terms of awareness, it is second only to a France whose overall significance to the Japanese wine market is, in any case, in a state of atrophy. The current and growing strength of native, Japanese wines is testament to wine’s march toward the mainstream in the country: Japanese drinkers are increasingly “adopting” what was initially a foreign introduction as their own.

This trend of branching out is not isolated to regions, however, and translates to varietals too, with less mainstream white varietals such as Colombard, Torrontés and Verdejo gradually gaining a foot-hold in the repertoire of Japanese drinkers.

What’s particularly striking in this picture is the lack of significance – so far at least – of brands in this development. Brands do not feature prominently as a choice cue when buying wine, overshadowed by the priorities of country and region of origin, and of grape varietal. This corroborates the significant increase in Japanese drinkers who claim to have a “strong interest in wine”, seeking to discover and choose according to the wine’s provenance and content rather than according to a familiarity with the label or packaging.

This branching out and diversification naturally has implications for new wines seeking to establish themselves in the Japanese market. Increased interest in wine is in turn bringing about an increased interest in food pairing, meaning that well-balanced, versatile wines are more likely to succeed, as are lighter, cooler-climate whites for their suitability with Japanese cuisine. Also given an edge will be natural and organic wines, currently enjoying success in a climate of heightened health awareness. Amidst all the present fluctuations of the Japanese wine market, having ambassadors in terms of influencers, be it bloggers, specialist magazines, or on social media, will be paramount to establishing a reputation and encouraging ever more curious consumers to try out your wine rather than one of a waxing plethora of alternatives.

Ironically, the ultimate product of increasing diversification is a growing rigidity in purchase habits as consumers settle in to a pattern of buying what they prefer. Although nigh on impossible to tell what this will be in the case of Japanese consumers, or indeed when this is likely to happen, what is for sure is that consumer tastes are shifting, and, when it comes to wine, Japan is well deserving of a little time in the sun.

Find out more in our Japan Landscapes 2016 Report, available for purchase now.

Author: David Thompson

Email: david@wineintelligence.com