Japan has had a history of producing wines for thousands of years. The majority of the wine produced, in the past and now, are made from rice. As far back as 718 AD, grape production began in Japan. It wasn’t until about 700 years later that regular wine production began. This came with Jesuit missionaries form Portugal.
Japanese Wine Grape Varieties
Japan has no natural grape varieties, despite the fact the country’s terrain and climate is very favourable to grape production. Some very hardy varietals has been imported from North America, such as the Delaware and Niagara grapes; though not used for large scale wine production, they are available in small batch wines.
There are two varieties that have been cultivated long enough to be considered native viarities, Koshu and Mascat Bailey A. They have developed over centuries and the specific grape only exists in Japan on any scale, these are Japanese grapes.
Muscat Bailey A
This was developed in the 1800’s in the Nigata Prefecture. Master Vintner Zenbei Kawakami hybridised the grape at the Iwanohara Winery. With a very grape juice flavour, the wine is typically used for very sweet wines. Over the past few decades, dried varieties have been developed allowing for much drier wines.
The Muscat Bailey A is also blended with imported grapes to create a Bordeaux style red that is full flavoured and full bodied. Vintners in Japan continue to experiment with this home-grown grape to create new and interesting blends.
A white wine grape, is believed to have been imported over a thousand years ago, via the Silk Road. It is a European derived grape with a very thick skin that can withstand the wet Japanese summer.
The wines have a fruity bouquet with overtones of citrus and peach. Because it is a softly flavoured wine, it pairs well with Japanese cuisine that is famous for fish and delicate spices and tastes. The Koshu produces a pale, straw coloured wine that has a lovely golden heart when poured into a glass.
The Future of Wine-making in Japan
The Japanese have been making wine for a long time, but it is still rice wine and beer that they prefer as a culture. Nonetheless, the easy importation of wines from around the world, as well as the explosion of wine production in (relatively) nearby New Zealand and Australia, has increased the availability of excellent wines.
One can expect that Japanese winemakers will continue to blend their own grapes with imported fruits to create more flavours. As time goes on, more varieties will be created in the country that are especially suited to the climate.
At the moment, the Japanese vineyards are producing some excellent wines that are most particularly prized for their small batch, hand-crafted qualities. For the wine lover, these are wines that are worth tasting.
Of course, there is always sake, Japanese rice wine, that, while not technically a wine, reflects the culture of this island nation in every glass.