In this article dedicated not only to aspiring sommeliers but to all fans of the Rising Sun grown up in manga like me, I want to talk to you about Japanese wines and, more generally of the wine in Japan. Having for years among my clients as a web designer a Japanese importer of Italian wines, TAPS Inc. I got some very specific ideas about it. In the final part of the article you will find a series of considerations that I am sure will be useful if you are trying to find your way around Japanese importers of Italian wines.
In Japan the culture of wine is quite recent due to the fact that its spread has always been limited by the ancient traditions of this country, which has always been closed to Western influences, which linked it to the consumption of tea, Sake, beer and Whisky.
Japanese wines: a bit of legislation
We know how fundamental legislation is to help companies in their work and the Japanese one has never been decisive for the development of viticulture in Japan. An old law, in fact, allowed to label as "Japanese wines"Of products obtained with grapes and foreign musts, even if only bottled in Japan. Currently the Japanese wine label shows the wording "domestic wine" or bottled in Japan, both for Japanese wines obtained from grapes grown in Japan, and for Japanese wines produced in Japan with foreign grapes. The possibility that only the first (kokunai san) can carry the wording is opposed by large companies that have no interest in this change due to the limited production of grapes. The regions have therefore introduced the Gensanchi Hyoji - wines made only from Japanese grapes and only from certain areas - a concept similar to our American DOC or AVA.
Japan is one of the largest whiskey producers in the world and the producing companies have had the interest of diversifying their proposals to also have alternatives to traditional drinks. Thus the boutique winery appeared, very small wine producers who use modern technologies and European styles such as the small barrel, and with the advent of the "Japanese fashion" of wine that quickly infected books and comics, they became aware of their ability to obtain quality wines also suitable for export.
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Paradoxical is how Japanese wine is within a tiny niche of the market while its cuisine, and in particular Sushi, is famous and appreciated all over the world. The most famous dish of Japanese cuisine, which is an intangible asset of humanity and is protected by UNESCO for its benefits for the human body (it is no coincidence that the Japanese population is the longest-lived and with a very low rate of cancer), is Sushi, where raw fish and rice cooked with sugar, rice vinegar and salt and worked with wasabi is the emblem of this minimalist and healthy cuisine often enriched with soy sauce.
Japanese Cuisine, traditionally based on raw or cooked fish and rice, has a variant in the cuisine of the Okinawan islands which have been influenced by China and whose cuisine is mainly based on pork, beef, goat and chicken and vegetables. . It should not be forgotten that Japan is a producer of one of the finest meats in the world, Kobe beef, which comes from happy animals born and raised strictly in the prefecture of Hyogo and which are legendarily massaged with sake and fed with wheat that can be accompanied with a Private Reserve Kikyogahara Merlot of Château Mercian, characterized by great finesse and elegance.
However, the Japanese cuisine deserves a discussion in itself and for this reason I stop here for now and I plan to write one of the next articles.
Japanese wines and pairings: sushi
The perfect combinations for sushi are a riesling from Hokkaido, while if you add soy sauce to contrast its flavor you can look for a sugary residue like that of Koshu, a pink grape variety vinified in white originating from the Caucasus that arrived in Japan thanks to the Silk Road is now cultivated in Yamanashi Prefecture, hence its name (Koshu is the ancient name of Yamanashi). Its notes of peach and candied citrus fruits, its softness and fresh flavor make it perfect to combine with a sashimi (raw fish cut into not excessively thin slices) soaked in soy sauce.
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Japanese wine: some key points
- Weather = very wet and rainy.
- Land = too acid and fertile.
- Key vines = white berry: Muller thurgau, Riesling, Gewurztraminer - pink berried: Koshu - black berried: muscat bailey A (very simple red or rosé wines, with very light floral and fruity aromas, sometimes subjected to carbonic maceration to obtain a wine similar to Beaujolais Nouveau), Cabernet Franc, Merlot.
- Viticulture = low planting density, training system a marquee. Small attempts at spurred cordon or guyot.
- Key areas = Hokkaido Island (kerner), Kofu Valley, Yamanashi (famous for Scottish style Whiskeys, today European vines and biodynamic cultivation. In particular, the Koshu-en Winery produces syrah planted with rooted cuttings from the Rhone valley, riesling from Schloss Johannisberg e Merlot from Bordeaux. Black Queen from a vine of the same name with black acidic grapes to the point of requiring drying, ruby red, spicy and fruity with a discreet structure), Yamagata, Nagano (Chateau Mercian produces Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon) Tochigi.
Pictured above Mitsuhiro Anzo, chief winemaker of Mercian Corp., poses for the photographer in the cellar of Chateau Mercian in Katsunuma, Yamanashi prefecture in Japan on Friday, September 7, 2018. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by James Whitlow Delano.
I promised you some valuable information dedicated to the wine market in Japan. This topic also deserves a separate discussion, but I anticipate that Italian wine in Japan is growing both in value and in quantity, albeit more slowly than other markets (source Nomisma Wine Monitor). However, from my experience it is the Italian red wines that find the greatest appreciation, also thanks to the excellent value for money compared to French wines and the power of the Made in Italy brand in Japan. However, Italian sparkling wine is recording a very interesting growth, certainly driven by the phenomenon Prosecco, which is also giving some space to other denominations. In particular, I find it particularly interesting that 10,1% of the total value of sparkling wines imported into Japan is Italian, against 5,1% of the total still wines bottled (source Nomisma Wine Monitor). So, even if in terms of consumption sparkling wines cannot compete with red wines, I find for Italian wineries, in particular those that produce classic method sparkling wine, the Japanese wine market is particularly interesting. What do you say, if I publish soon an in-depth analysis of this market and the competitiveness of Italian wine in Japan?