Justin McCurry in Tokyo
The country that gave the world premium sake and award-winning malt whiskies has been infamous for producing the kind of plonk that gives wine a bad name â€‘ often blends of cheap imports and even grape juice.
But wine snobs are being forced to think again with the recent arrival in the US and Europe of labels from Japan made from 100% domestically grown grapes.
Though it lacks the heritage of the great winemaking countries of Europe, Japan is hoping to emulate New Zealand and quickly prove its enological credentials. That effort is centred on Yamanashi prefecture, where grape growing began 1,000 years ago, eventually spawning a modest wine industry in the second half of the 19th century.
The central region, where 90 wineries operate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, is now producing drinkable wines from chardonnay and other European grapes.
But it is the Koshu grape, an indigenous variety that found its way to Japan via central Asia and China more than a millennium ago, to which connoisseurs have turned for inspiration.
Yamanashi’s fortunes received a boost in 2004, when researchers found that the Koshu grape is more than 90% vitis vinifera, part of the same European vine genus that gave us sauvignon blanc.
For Ernest Singer, president of MillÃ©simes, a wine merchant based in Tokyo, it represented a crucial step towards realising a long-held dream of unleashing fine Japanese wine on the world’s drinkers.
After an encouraging foray into the US market in 2005, Singer, whose firm owns several vineyards, turned the light-purple Koshu grapes into a wine that met strict EU regulations.
Amid a global boom in interest in Japanese food, Koshu is being touted as the perfect accompaniment to sushi’s subtle flavours and delicate textures.
“Japan has the potential to be a major winegrowing region,” says Singer. “It makes sense that Japan should have a viable wine export industry, when you consider that there are hundreds of Japanese restaurants in New York alone.”
His company’s Shizen 2006, CuvÃ©e Denis Dubourdieu, has won considerable critical acclaim since it appeared on the menu at Umu, a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in London, in February last year.
MillÃ©simes has shipped 480 bottles to England, as well as 5,800 to perhaps the toughest market of all, France, since early 2008. The dry, fruity wine, containing just 10% alcohol, was clearly to the liking of the legendary American critic Robert Parker, who described it as “crisp and pleasant and clearly meant to be a wine to guzzle with sushi or sashimi”.
Just as Japanese distillers learned how to make decent single malt by dispatching researchers to the Scottish Highlands, its winemakers are tapping into the expertise of their more accomplished foreign counterparts.
“By sending researchers to places like France and the US, we have managed to produce dry varieties that have received great reviews,” says Hirotoshi Naito, of industry support division of the Yamanashi prefectural government. “We can’t force people to drink our wine; all we can do is tell them that Japan is serious about winemaking, and that the best labels come from Yamanashi.”
Yamanashi’s marketing campaign will head to London in the middle of next month for a Koshu wine-tasting event that organisers hope will add to the list of exports to the EU, which currently comprises only MillÃ©simes’ Koshu vintage and CuvÃ©e Magrez-Aruga Koshu Isehara 2007, from Yamanashi’s Katsunuma Jozo winery.
Japan’s first commercial wineries appeared in the Meiji era (1868-1912) as part of the county’s attempts to westernise its agricultural base; now it has more than 200 wineries are in a dozen regions, from Hokkaido in the far north to Miyazaki in the south.
“Like any other wine-producing country, Japan has some great wines and, frankly, some awful ones,” says Kunio Naito, managing director of Cave de Relax, a wine seller in Tokyo whose 1,600-strong collection includes 200 labels from Japan. “I can see a spurt in demand from Japanese restaurants in major cities, but you have to remember that in terms of exports, we are starting from scratch.”