Updated: Jan 10, 2021
Many of you may have tried Japanese Sake, Japanese Beer, or even Japanese Whiskey, but how many of you have tried ‘Japanese Wine’?
Wait a minute…
“Does Japan even produce wine?”
“Thought Japan only produces rice wine or plum wine, do they produce red or white wine as well?”
Today, we will take a look at exactly what Japanese Wine is, and what you need to know about it.
This may be to your surprise, but there actually is strict definition around the conditions that need to be met to be considered and labeled as "Japanese Wine (Nihon-Wine)".
So what is Japanese Wine?
Japanese Wine are wine that are:
produced in Japan
100% made from locally-grown grapes
This strict rule was put in place on October 30th of 2018.
In addition to defining what can be labeled as Japanese Wine, there are other rules as well. For example, only Japanese Wine are allowed to label information such as the region, the grape variety, and the vintage (year) the wine is made from.
This exclusive right is not granted to all Japanese Wine however, there are further guidelines around the conditions that need to be satisfied before Japanese Wine producers can label these information, to make things simpler, let's call it "the 85% Rule".
Region: in order to label the region the wine is made from, 85% or more grapes used need to be from that region, for instance, we may see 'Nagano Wine' on the label (Nagano is a prefecture in Japan).
Grape Variety: in order to label the grape variety the wine is made from, 85% or more grapes used need to be from that grape variety, for instance, we may see 'Koshu' on the label (Koshu is a native white wine grape variety in Japan)
Vintage: in order to label the vintage of the wine, 85% or more grapes used need to be from that vintage year, for instance, we may see the year '2020' on the label.
Enough of these rules, let's look at an actual example of a bottle of Mascot Bailey A (a native red wine grape variety in Japan).
From this back label, we can identify that:
This bottle of wine was produced in Japan, and is 100% made from locally-grown grapes, as it is labeled as "Japanese Wine (日本ワイン)"
This bottle of wine was made from grapes from Yamanashi Prefecture, as it is labeled as "ぶどう(山梨産)", which means "Grapes (made in Yamanashi)", under ingredients. Which again can only be labeled as such, if more than 85% of the grapes made up of this wine are from Yamanashi. If the condition is not satisfied, we would instead see the more common generic labeling of "ぶどう(日本産)" which means "Grapes (made in Japan).
"Wow, this rule is quite strict, so what happens if a bottle of wine is produced in Japan, but is not 100% made from locally-grown grapes, but rather a mix of Japanese Wine & Imported Wine/ Condensed Juice?"
In that case, the wine producers will need to clearly label the bottle of wine indicating that it has used imported wine (輸入ワイン使用), and obviously will not be able to label itself as Japanese Wine, nor can grape variety, vintage, region etc. be labeled.
Why was this rule around the definition and labeling of "Japanese Wine" created in the first place?
Both for branding purposes and for the clarity of consumers.
Despite having a still very short history, Japanese wine has been making significant improvements in the recent years, receiving international attention and recognition.
As more and more consumers both locally and internationally demand for good quality Japanese Wine, the generic term of "Domestically-Produced-Wine 国産ワイン" (which used to be the only labeling available), became insufficient and confusing for consumers who want to identify wine that are truly made from only grapes grown in Japan, which is why the strict rules around the definition and labeling of "Japanese Wine" was introduced.
So what is the history of Japanese Wine?
Wine-making in Japan started actually just roughly 140 years ago, back in Meiji Period in 1870s.
2 young men, Tsuchiya Ryuken and Takano Masanari from Yamanashi Prefecture, went to France to study winemaking, and the first Japanese wine-making company "Yamanashi-Budoshu-Gaisha" was established upon their return.
Interestingly enough however, wine-making in Japan actually started because of "Rice".
During the Meiji period, there was a shortage of rice. Since rice was largely consumed to make Japanese Sake (nihon-shu), brewers looked for an alternative alcohol to make, and that alternative was wine.
What grape varieties are grown in Japan?
Grape varieties grown in Japan include and are not limited to the following:
Muscat Bailey A
Worthwhile to point out however, the major grape varieties that are "native" to Japan, 2 reds & 1 white.
Muscat Bailey A: Red wine grape variety that is a hybrid developed by Zenbei Kawakami. Developed to adapt to Japan's climate. Mix of "Bailey" and "Muscat Hamburg" type grapes
Black Queen: Red wine grape variety also created by Mr. Kawakami Zenbei by crossing two variants of grapes – the bailey and the Golden Queen
Koshu: White wine grape variety grown primarily in Yamanashi Prefecture Hybrid variety indigenous to Japan. Benefits from thick skin able to withstand hot Japanese summer. Name “Koshu” is a former name for Yamanashi
Wineries in Japan
There are actually more than 300 wineries in Japan, but around 96% of these wineries are small-to-medium size companies, with capital below 300 million yen and fewer than 300 employees.
This small-scale characteristic of Japanese wineries goes hand in hand with the still very young winemaking history of Japan, but at the same time, can be very exciting for consumers like ourselves to explore the stories behind many of these family-owned, un-commercialized Japanese wineries.
Next time when you have the opportunity to visit Japan, why not ditch the touristy destinations that everyone goes to in downtown Tokyo, and visit the beautiful countryside of Japan to enjoy authentic Japanese Wine!
source: National Tax Agency
Wine Market in Japan
The wine market in Japan has been on a steady increase in the past decades.
Amount of wine consumed in 2020 was roughly 370,000 kiloliters, including both imported and domestically-produced wine, which is a 40% increase from 2017 when the annual wine consumption was just 260,000 kiloliters.
Looking at average consumption per person, Japan also has had an increase of 54% across a 10-year period, but still low versus the global average.
2018 data of average wine consumption per person in Liters:
United States of America: 12.4
Apart from official statistics, younger generation in Japan has been showing more interest in having wine at restaurants as opposed to the more dominant traditional alcohol in Japan, like beer, sake, or whiskey.
There has also been signs of growing interest in Japanese Wine from retailers. For instance, ’Seijo Ishii’, a famous high-end supermarket chain in Japan recently started selling its original series of Japanese Wine, produced in collaboration with wineries in Japan.
Don't be confused with these Japanese "Wine"!
Rice Wine (aka 'Sake' & 'Nihonshu'): this is probably the first thing that comes to your mind when someone mentions the term 'Japanese Wine'. For those who have not tried it yet, Japanese Rice Wine is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice, you can have it chilled, at room temperature, or even served hot (atsukan)
Plum Wine (aka 'Umeshu') another very popular drink in Japan. Japanese Plum Wine is made from Japanese Plums fermented in sugar and yeast, a very famous brand producing Japanese Plum Wine is Hoya.
Next time when visiting Japan, try ordering by saying 'Nihonshu' for Japanese Rice Wine and 'Umeshu' for Japanese Plum Wine, while using the term 'Nihonwine' when you want to enjoy some authentic Japanese Wine!