Get Psyched For Japanese Wine

What is the main grape native to Japan and how is it traditionally grown?

on 09 May 2017

With my WSET Diploma Unit 3 exam looming in the not-so-distant future, I’ve been practicing writing essays on a variety of wine industry topics, and friends suggested I post them here. My friend Julien Marchand had a few excellent prompts.

Julien managed to pose a question I haven’t seen in any of my study materials: What’s the main grape native to Japan, and how is it traditionally grown?

Koshu grapes from Grace Winery

Considering the Japanese affinities for flavor balance, craftsmanship, and culinary technique, the nation’s thousands of sommeliers and distinction as the first modern wine industry in Asia make sense. From a meteorological perspective, however, it’s amazing the country produces any high-quality wine at all.

Japan’s climate is extreme, with icy Siberian winds in winter, monsoons in the spring and summer, and typhoons in the early fall putting growers on year-round disaster alert. Yet wine is made in 36 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, determinedly, despite the climate and a population density in many areas that makes available, arable land difficult to find. The best and historically most important prefecture for wine is Yamanashi, not far from Mt. Fuji and an easy distance from the capital. Here, a long growing season and high average temperatures give grapes the best shot at ripening (though chaptalization–the addition of sugar before fermentation to ensure sufficient potential alcohol–is often necessary). Everywhere wine is made in Japan, drainage, rain protection, and long sunny days are crucial.

The most internationally well-known Japanese grape is koshu, which is believed to have arrived in the country in the 8th century along with Buddhism. Koshu is a genetic combination of vitis vinifera and a native variety UC Davis has, so far, been unable to identify. The grape is thick-skinned enough to weather humidity, cold, and rain, and it ripens late but retains natural acidity. Traditionally, the grape was trained on pergolas to promote air flow and combat humidity, but as this system was meant to optimize yield rather than flavor, many wineries are switching over to vertical shoot positioning for lower yields, smaller berries, and, ideally, more concentration.

The photo above comes from the koshu-producing Grace Winery in Katsunama, a countryside wine hub north of Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi. Somewhat like wines from sémillon, koshu wines may be dry or sweet, oaked or unoaked. Of course, the inevitable onslaught of French grapes such as merlot, chardonnay, and even cabernet sauvignon can also be found around the country, as well as the more cold-suited kerner and zweigelt.

While sake is still the premium beverage most associated with Japan, its fast-growing wine industry is a fascinating one to watch. It’s not easy to find Japanese wine in the United States, but if you enjoy Japanese cuisine, keep an eye out for it on restaurant menus.

Julia Burke is a wine educator and writer.