Thinking of Japanese wine — present and future
Japan has not yet established her wine law. While sake is deep-rooted in the culture for hundreds of years, wine is not universally recognized as a part of our gastronomic experiences. Winemaking is regulated under traditional “Sake” making practices. This restricts winemakers from using winemaking tools and technologies as some of them are not used in sake cellars; a good example is inability for Coravin to enter the Japan market as argon gas is prohibited until recently. It uses nitrogen gas in place of argon in Japan.
Another challenge is the lack of legal definitions such as “Japanese Wine”. Wines consumed in Japan, and overwhelming 80%+ commercial “Japanese” wines, are the product made out of imported frozen bulk must. The must is typically imported and processed by major drink companies, such as Kirin and Suntory, from Chile and Australia. They are sold in various easy packages (BIB) for early consumption and priced 500-750 yen ($4.50-$6) as daily fare.
Japanese government apparently recognized the problem, whether out of concern for starting up a healthy wine industry, or calculation for the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games. The latter will be a great showcase to feature globally popular Japanese cuisine, and of course, the Japanese wine to foreign guests. Thus, the legal definition of “Japanese wine”, wine using grapes grown in Japan and vinified in Japan, will take an effect in October of 2018. I wonder if this signifies the recognition that wine is finally becoming a good part of our culture?
Despite the late movement at the governmental level, winemakers and wine grape growers are facing true and real challenges; in the country where super high price is paid to fresh grapes of the American origin (Vitis lubrusca), not many farmers show interest in switching to unknown (in Japan) wine grapes of European origin (Vitis vinifera). Large berried, thin skinned, seedless Concord and Delaware are the popular grapes in Japan where vigorous soil and hostile climate with heavy rains during growing season makes it challenging to grow wine grapes. Therefore, the Japanese winemaking tradition is the wine made out of left-over (unmarketable due to imperfect shapes) American varieties by grape farmers themselves. The quality of such wine is obvious as proven by the American history when European immigrants had tried to make decent wine out of indigenous varieties without success.
During my most recent trip to Japan, I have met many passionate and innovative winegrowers. Their efforts and trials to improve the quality of wine grapes are truly admirable in such adverse terroir. Many of them have studied and worked abroad in Bordeaux and Napa, for example, while others are young generation of traditional grape farmers who fell in love with wine. Major corporate producers are also investing in own vineyards and making new trials for innovation. Worrisome factor, however, is the outlook for shrinking grape supplies, as most grape growers are reaching the retirement age without prospective new generation. Aggravating the situation is the new entries of young ‘winemakers’ dreaming of own wine labels, despite the shortage of wine grapes, not alone quality wine grapes. The basic fact needs to be reiterated; fine wine is only made out of fine grapes.
In Japan, consumers are willing to spend over $20-35 for domestic wines made of Koshu, Muscat Baily A and Concord even though that same range can purchase good quality imports. Despite the obvious popularity, I am convinced through numerous interviews that no one really thinks that the Japanese wine is truly delicious and of high quality just yet. The sentiment that “the Japanese winemakers are trying so hard to conquer the adverse terroir!” and therefore, “I want to support their efforts” is the push behind the sales.
As an outsider, I was typically a bit aloof toward such patriotic intimacy between the consumers and the wine producers in Japan. Yet over these years of witnessing how hard the producers have worked to improve the quality, I came to appreciate the support system. Despite all the understanding, I still think that the Japanese consumers are not doing a true favor for the producers, simply because their “protectionism” is shielding the winemakers from true quality-competition in the international scale. So my advice to Japan is to look beyond the border and realize that the level of Japanese wine is still not competitive enough, for the value. It is my hope that the “Japanese wine” will have all the right stuff to be proudly presented to anyone and anywhere, and that some will become international brands…someday.