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Believe It: High-Quality Wine from Japan
By Jim Clarke
Apr 21, 2020
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Last October I made my second trip to Japan.  Previously I had not had the opportunity to taste more than a glass or two of Japanese wine; this time, I was able to rectify that error.  And error it proved to be, as Japanese wine is at a very interesting place, and intriguing, high-quality wines are not hard to find.

The country has a lot working against it when it comes to growing wine grapes.  Summer rains and humidity are a major problem, bringing rot and mildew with them.  In some vineyards, farmers even place paper hats over individual bunches of grapes to protect them from the rain, though this is much more common with table grapes, which are expected to be unblemished and visually immaculate when they reach the table.  These well-grown, carefully-tended table grapes garner a huge premium in Japanese markets – a single, perfect bunch of grapes can command a higher price than a bottle of wine in some cases.  Convincing farmers to grow for wine rather than culinary production takes some doing. 

Additionally, single estate production—which has been associated widely with quality for many generations in Europe—can only go so far in Japan.  Law there makes it difficult for a single person or company to own more than a relatively small parcel of vineyard land.  Some producers have found loopholes or work-arounds, but generally even a modest-sized cellar will need to supplement the yields of their own vineyards with purchased grapes.  Prices need to be high enough to justify growing for wine production rather than the table grapes, so Japanese wines often have trouble competing in value terms.  On the plus side, this drives many producers to produce wines that justify that higher price in quality terms as well.

The bulk of the nation’s wine vineyards lie on the island of Honshu.  The Yamanashi prefecture, just an hour from Tokyo, and its neighboring prefecture, Nagano, have the highest concentration of vineyards, but isolated cellars can be found in many prefectures.  These outlying areas aren’t necessarily also-rans in terms of wine quality, either.  Investment in Yamanashi’s vineyards and wineries is substantial, and properties range from boutique and rustic to high-tech to classical in their image and approach.  The area’s tourism infrastructure is well-developed; English language guides and tours are easy to find.  The bulk of the vineyards lie on hillsides edging into the city itself.  It’s one of the least pastoral vineyard settings one could ask for, but its location does make it easy to access, and one can visit a large number of cellars simply by walking.  If you don’t mind a drive at the beginning and end of a day spent tasting, accommodation about 40 minutes to the south affords amazing views of Mount Fuji across Lake Kawaguchiko.

Hokkaido, to the north, is home to several small, boutique cellars, and many of their wines disappear into private cellars the moment they are released.  I’ll save my thoughts about Hokkaido’s wines for a future column.

Resident of the U.S.A. seeking out local wines will find themselves confronted by a bewildering and unfamiliar set of grape varieties.  To be sure, mainstream international varieties are present, and on Honshu this usually means Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc among whites, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for reds.  Petit Verdot also has a strong presence, used both for blending and as a surprisingly convincing varietal wine.  Among these, Chardonnay showed well in the hands of a number of different producers, and was typically well-balanced and not subsumed under too much oak.

Throughout Japan hybrid and cross varieties are common.  Some will be familiar to lovers of wines from the East Coast of the U.S., whereas others are likely to seem much more exotic.  Looking through my notes I see that I tasted wines made from Niagara, Concord, Delaware, and Campbell Early, but also from grapes that were entirely new to me like Acolon and Black Queen.  The former is a German Blaufränkisch x Dornfelder cross, introduced to the world just this century.  Black Queen was developed locally in Japan.  While some of these had the grapey or so-called “foxy” character one finds in some North American hybrid wines, it was clear most Japanese producers and their local customers did not necessarily view such aromas as a flaw or a diminishment of the wine’s quality.  Indeed, when such character is present, it seems htat most drinkers considered it an honest expression of the grape, and in most cases these elements were well-balanced with the rest of the wine.  The confidence and pride behind these styles of wine was refreshing.

Niagara and Concord are actually the most planted varieties in Nagano, but another hybrid, unknown in the U.S., dominates the red plantings in Yamanashi, going by the unwieldy name of Muscat Bailey A. Zenbei Kawakami, a grape grower in Niigata, developed it in 1927 by crossing Muscat Hamburg with the American hybrid, Bailey.  It typically shows the sweet, candied, strawberry notes that many red American hybrids possess, but winemakers have become increasingly sophisticated in extracting more structure and deeper fruit flavors in their wines.  It’s accorded a great deal of respect from many in the Japanese wine scene, but hasn’t quite kept up with its white companion grape, Koshu, in demonstrating its potential as of yet.

Koshu occupies more than half of Yamanashi’s vineyards, and thanks to a marketing push begun in 2009 has truly become the region’s signature variety.  It’s as close to a native wine grape variety as one could find in Japan; it’s been a table grape there for over 1,000 years.  It’s believed to be about 30% vitis vinifera, with the rest of its parentage stemming from a mix of Asian species.  It’s resistant to moisture and mildew, making it ideally suited to the region’s hot, humid summers.  Many Koshu vines (and others as well) are trellised via an immense pergola, keeping the grapes five or more feet off the ground to allow airflow and keep them away from the moist earth.  A single vine, with a thick, tree-like trunk, may occupy a space that dozens of vines would in a conventional trellising system.  This works for table grapes, but is a questionable approach in terms of creating a balanced, concentrated wine.  Some producers are managing, nonetheless. 

 Koshu has a large, pastel-pink berry, and at its simplest produces a floral, peachy wine, with soft acidity and a light body.  While this style used to be the norm, some producers have shown the grape can produce concentrated, dry, minerally wines, often with vibrant acidity and a pronounced saline, oyster shell character. 

My hopes when I visited Japan was to be able to recommend these wines for visitors who might be headed to Japan for the Olympics this summer.  Sadly, that will have to wait.  A few producers’ wines have made it to the States.  The high cost of production and passage through the three-tier system means they might not be the most competitive wines in terms of quality-price ratio, but it’s an exciting scene and one curious wine drinkers should keep their eye on.  Here are some producers worth seeking out:

MGVs: Hiroshi Matsuzaka grew up in a winegrowing family but made his fortune building semiconductors.  He returned to the family trade in 2017, designing a supremely high-tech winery that borrows air filtration technologies from the semiconductor world.  Matsuzaka feels Koshu and Muscat Bailey A are the two grapes suited to Yamanashi’s growing conditions.  His science-minded approach means he creates a wide range of wines from these two varieties, tweaking a combination of grape, vineyard, yeast strain, and other factors to patiently sort out what works best.  Once he determines the approach best suited to each vineyard block the range will narrow down.  His Koshus are among the most saline and focused I tasted on our trip.  The reds, two, were quite good and well-balanced.  MGVs is pronounced “Magvis.”

Rubaiyat: Produced by the fourth generation Marufuji winery, based out of a classic building for the area, an old silkworm farm.  CEO Haruo Omura studied in Bordeaux in the late 1970s, and Bordeaux varieties are a focus, but Rubaiyat also makes Chardonnay and Koshu wines.  The whites, which also include a Sauvignon Blanc, are quite expressive and focused.  The flagship red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot; it’s a restrained, elegant wine, with a classic nose and good length.  The Rubaiyat varietal Petit Verdot is also remarkable, albeit produced in very small quantities. 

Lumiere: Established in 1885, Lumiere is the oldest family-owned winery in Japan.  Sourcing from over 30 hectares of vines, it’s also larger than many.  Grape varieties include U.S.  and Chinese hybrids, Koshu, and European varieties.  Their Koshu line-up includes successful sparkling and skin-contact, orange versions.  Perhaps most surprising is their Tempranillo; it’s a lighter style than one would expect from most parts of Spain, but aromatically very convincing.

Katsunuma: A Koshu specialist, Katsunuma produces several different examples, ranging from light, off-dry examples to more concentrated, barrel-fermented wines.

Kurambon: Another producer with several versions of Koshu on offer, albeit staying within a more serious, drier style.  Kurambon’s Koshu’s are remarkably complex in their aromas and textures.  They also produce a Chardonnay, and a handful of reds, and have begun experimenting with Albariño.

Kisvin: This tiny cellar works with a several varieties, including some not much found in Japan: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Viognier, as well as the local specialty, Koshu.  Owner Yasuhiro Ogihara is a former professional, competitive bass fisherman and motorcross racer; he discovered a love for wine while snowboarding in California.  Their 2017 Chardonnay Reserve was a highlight of the trip, and the Zinfandel rosé and Koshu Reserve also showed very well.

Chateau Mercian: The largest producer in Japan, Chateau Mercian is owned by Kirin Brewing.  As such they produce a wide range of wines from many different prefectures in Japan.  Their Yamanashi Syrah was a standout during our visit.

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Editor's Note:  I take responsibility for the assertive title of this column, for which we at Wine Review Online thank Jim Clarke...especially for taking us out of our various states of sequestration and into a new location for most wine lovers.  Jim didn't submit his column text with a title, but I'm confident in my "Believe It..." assertion partly on account of having tasted with Jim for years, and partly because I was lucky to live in Japan as a university student and then visit multiple times thereafter.  Jim is way ahead of me on Japanese wine, but I'd bet we agree on this:  Nobody should ever count out the Japanese on anything, due to the nation's remarkable willingness to adopt the best of whatever the world has to offer...and then apply the most intense devotion imaginable in the hope of making it even better on Japanese soil.  Whenever I can start getting back on airplanes again, I'm right behind you, Jim!     ~M.F.

Read more columns by Jim Clarke:   Jim Clarke 
Connect with Jim on Twitter:   @JimWineBeer