Updated: Mar 17, 2021
The most popular, well-known grape varieties in the world are without a doubt the European varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Noir, but if you visit Japan and try some Japanese Wine, chances are, you will not be having one of these European grape varieties, but rather Japanese natives or American varieties, and there is a reason for that.
Before we dig into the reasons and background, let's first look at some tables that summarize the most popular grape varieties in Japan, in terms of the amount of grapes used for wine production. (source: National Tax Agency, conducted in 2018)
Japanese Wine Grape Varieties - Top 10
Japanese White Wine Grape Varieties - Top 10
Japanese Red Wine Grape Varieties - Top 10
To put things into perspectives. 1 ton (t) of grapes usually can produce roughly 720 bottles of wine. So for example if we look at the 'Japanese Red Wine Grape Varieties - Top 10' table above, we can estimate that likely 2 million bottles of Muscat Bailey A wine were produced in Japan in 2018. Again, this is just a ballpark figure and for our references only.
Now, let's look at some factors behind these rankings on why the top varieties may look very unfamiliar for most of us, and how surprisingly, the major European varieties are not among the top ranked varieties on the list, or did not even make it on the list to begin with.
The short and sweet answer is because of 'Japanese native grape varieties & climate conditions'.
Top varieties for red wine and white wine are both Japanese native grape varieties, Muscat Bailey A and Koshu, which shouldn't be a surprise to many, as they are the most important grape varieties in Japan that sets Japanese Wine apart from wine produced in the rest of the world. Wine made from these native grape varieties are often equipped with very unique Japanese flavors and characteristics, making them the perfect wine to pair with your favorite Japanese dishes. In addition to flavors however, these native varieties are also very suitable for the climate in Japan, making them relatively easier to grow. Both Koshu and Muscat Bailey A for instance, have thick skins that helps these grapes to be resistant to fungal diseases in the humid climate in Japan.
Native varieties are the most produced, makes sense.
But the next thing you will notice is that the second most popular grape varieties are not the European ones, but actually American varieties like Niagara, Delaware, Concord etc, and this is predominantly due to 'climate conditions'. Japan and the U.S. are similar in the sense that both have freezing cold winters and heavy rainfalls. Also, American varieties like Concord, Niagara etc. tend to have more tolerance for fungal diseases, making them easier to grow in Japan than European varieties.
For those who prefer European varieties, and want to try Japanese Wine made from these varieties, don't be disappointed just yet.
There is a high likelihood we will see some reshuffling in rankings in the coming years, as more and more wineries open in Japan, and more and more communication and exchanges of wine-making, vine-growing knowledge and expertise are exchanged among the winery owners or grape farmers in Japan.
Pinot Noir for instance, used to be believed as a very difficult, or near impossible grape variety to be grown in Japan, given its need to be cultivated in dry climates, and its higher vulnerability to diseases, particularly to rot and fungus. But over the years, Pinot Noir has become not only a more common grape variety grown in Japan, but we are starting to see Japanese Pinot Noir Wines produced at a level that they are starting to receive awards and recognition at international events.
So we shall see how this ranking reshuffles in the coming years!