Most people think of Japan’s national drink, sake, when they think of ordering an alcoholic beverage at their favorite Japanese restaurant. Even Asahi or Kirin beers are another likely choice. Few people seem to know about the emerging wine culture that has been slowly capturing the market though.
Japan has long been growing grapes. The Japanese used these cultivations to eat as fresh fruit. In the mid-19th century, when the imperial rule was restored, the idea of drying or fermenting those grapes came about and had a massive impact on Japanese culture.
Because of heavy influences from America and Europe, the Japanese government would import grape varieties from these sources and give them to the farmers. It soon became clear which were ideal for making wine and which were best for a fresh snack. With these foreign grapes, new varieties were bred which now have expanded to 28 varietals for winemaking. Koshu and Muscat Bailey-A are native Japanese varieties that the International Organization of Vine and Wine recognizes.
Since wine harvesting is all relatively new in Japan, particularly when compared to sake, the trend is continuing to grow. Every autumn, they drink sake as part of a tradition. But in the 1980’s, France’s Beaujolais came on the scene. Japan of course created its own version which is bottled early in November right after the harvest. They now have a tradition involving the drinking of wine as well.
Wine consumption in Japan has continued to be on the rise since the beginning of the 21st century. Prior to that time from the 1970’s until around 2000, the wines that the people of Japan drank came from elsewhere, usually France, Italy, Spain, or America. While still in the 20th century, there were big companies that dominated the wine scene in Japan. But in recent years, the emergence of small and independent wineries have taken over.
They’re growing rapidly too, run by families who have often obtained overseas knowledge and experience about wine. Their winemaking techniques are much more advanced than the early winemakers of Japan and thus, the wine coming from Japan today is making the world take notice.
Koshu is a white variety that grows in the Yamanashi Prefecture. It’s light and crisp with a nice fruitiness that feels similar to top-quality sake. Muscat Bailey-A is a red hybrid created in Japan. If you like sweet wines, you will enjoy it though Koshu tends to be easier to pair with the cuisine. With barrel-aging techniques from Suntory, it’s often blended with Western grapes to get a more Bordeaux-style of wine that’s full-bodied and works better with matching to the food.
The next time you indulge in sushi, read over the wine list and choose a Japanese selection. While there are countless guides advising pairings of Japanese cuisine with wines from all over the world, it’s a more extraordinary experience when you fully immerse yourself in the delights of Japan.