Japanese wine

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Vineyards in Kōshū, Yamanashi, Japan

Although viticulture and the cultivation of grapes for table consumption has a long history in Japan, domestic wine production using locally produced grapes only really began with the adoption of Western culture during the Meiji restoration in the second half of the 19th century.

The main region for winemaking in Japan is in Yamanashi Prefecture which accounts for 40% of domestic production,[1] although grapes are cultivated and wine is also produced in more limited quantities by vintners from Hokkaido in the North to Miyazaki Prefecture on the Southern island of Kyushu.


Legend has it that grape-growing in Japan began in 718 AD, in Katsunuma, Yamanashi Prefecture.[2] The first regularly documented wine consumption in Japan was however in the 16th century, with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries from Portugal.[2] Saint Francis Xavier brought wines as gifts for the feudal lords of Kyūshū, and other missionaries continued the practice, resulting in locals acquiring taste for wine and importing it regularly.[2] They called the Portuguese wine chintashu (珍陀酒?), combining the Portuguese word tinto (chinta in Japanese) meaning red and shu (?) meaning liquor.[2] However, the enthusiastic adoption of Western culture during the Meiji restoration in the late 1860s had to take place before regular production of local wine started.1 The first attempt to produce wine locally was undertaken in Yamanashi, in 1875.[2] During the first period, cultivation of American grape varieties formed the core of Japanese wine grapes, however they experienced a setback with a Phylloxera epidemic. Afterwards the demand for domestic Japanese wine decreased, but in every region a few viniculturists remained. It was not until after World War II that the scale of winemaking began to grow. However, in comparison to imported juices and bulk wine, domestic Japanese wine is still at an early stage of development.

Advertising poster of "AKADAMA Port Wine”, the first published in 1922

In terms of Japanese taste for domestically produced wine, astringency and acidity were not readily accepted at the beginning.2 For a long time sugars such as honey were added to moderate the flavor and "sweet" (甘口 amakuchi?) wine was the mainstay. To consumers of the time wine was recognized only by types like Kotobukiya's (Suntory) Red Sun Port Wine (赤玉ポートワイン Akadama Pōto Wain?). This trend continued until the 1970s when wine was still fundamentally known as grape liquor (葡萄酒 budōshu?), and a small minority imported European wine.3

During the 1970s and 80s the skill level of wine making increased and the intake of wine grapes spread. This was due to the hard work of specialists, and came with the beginning of calling their holdings "wineries", and the emulation of Western hedging styles and development of specially cultivated insect resistant grape varieties from European strains. Numerous wineries produced superior wines using only pure domestic cultivation, and began to receive good reviews internationally. Also, in response to the specific tastes of Japanese consumers, the production of organic wines also grew.

After this, moderation of taxes on imported wines, a diversification of Japanese food culture, and growing awareness of the beneficial effects of polyphenol (tannins), an understanding of real wine in recent years has come about, also a groundwork has been laid out by the promotion of high quality domestically produced wines. From 2002 onward, leading with Yamanashi Prefecture, a competition focused on "Japanese wine using only 100% Japanese grapes" began. It is open to anyone from individual makers (vigneron), to large producers competing with only the best quality domestic wines.

Vine Cultivation

Elevated vine trellises, Kōshū, Yamanashi

To accommodate the challenges of climate and terrain in Japan vine cultivation techniques have been extensively adapted. In areas of high humidity during the summer, such as Yamagata, an elevated horizontal hedging technique is used to keep the fruit about 2–3 meters above the ground to allow ventilation. Horizontal trellises have also proven effective in reducing wind damage from typhoons. On sloping land, Italian ryegrass is often planted under the vines to help prevent soil erosion.

In areas higher in the mountains, such as Tochigi, where good sunlight is at odds with the jagged terrain, winemakers have planted their hedges on steep hillsides both to receive a maximum of sunlight, as well as protect the vines against damage from heavy snowfall.

Industry Structure

Japanese Shinshū Wine (信州ワイン) from Nagano Prefecture

There are relatively few independent wine producers in Japan, the industry being dominated by large beverage conglomerates such as Suntory, owner of the Snaraku, and Manns Wine brands, Sapporo trading with brands such as Chateau Lion, Delica, and Kirin through its Mercian Corporation operating subsidiary, owner of the Chateau Mercian label.[3] All the major beverage conglomerates have access to domestically grown grapes, but given the challenge of climate on domestic grape production, three quarters of the wine bottled by Japanese producers relies to some extent on imported bulk wine or grape concentrate.[4] Domestically produced mass market wines using imported wine or grape concentrate are required by law to note this on the label.

Japanese wines produced using only 100% domestic grape content command a price premium and are only occasionally exported.[5] Smaller, family or city owned wineries of note gaining a reputation for producing domestically grown wines of consistently better quality include Marufuji, Kizan, Katsunuma Jozo, Grace (all in Yamanashi Prefecture) Takeda (Yamagata Prefecture) and Tsuno (Miyazaki Prefecture).

Major wine producing regions of Japan

In Japan the main regions for wine production are Hokkaidō and Yamanashi Prefecture. In Hokkaidō, the town of Ikeda recovered economically from a state of bankruptcy with regional planning toward grape growing and wine production and within 20 years following 1960 was able to make it successful. Thereafter, every region began to foster production, the main cause of which was the influence of the nationwide "One Village, One Speciality Movement" (一村一品運動 Isson Ippin Undō?). In Yamagata during World War II wine was produced in large amounts for the military to provide the dietary supplement cream of tartar, and because the soil in Yamagata is suitable for fruit cultivation, today it is one region that is home to numerous well known producers. In the recent past Aichi Prefecture was also a large producer of wine.

Japanese grape varieties

Japan supports a wide range of grape varieties although the vast majority of this production is for table consumption and only a small percentage is used in domestic wine making. Strictly speaking there are no vines native to Japan.[6] Hardy varietals imported from North America such as the Delaware and Niagara grape were widely planted in the post war period, but since 1985 have significantly declined in popularity.[7] Premium table consumption grapes such as Kyoho and more recently Pione, a hybrid cultivar of Kyoho and Cannon Hall Muscat, command significant price premiums for producers.

Grapes used only used for winemaking are produced in limited quantities as price margins for table grapes are often significantly higher. Imported wine grape cultivars include Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Koshu grape used in the production of white wine, has however evolved locally over many centuries and is therefore considered a local varietal.


Koshu grape

Koshu is a white wine grape variety grown primarily in Yamanashi Prefecture. The grape varietal developed from vines likely imported from the Caucasus through the Silk Road, at a period estimated to be around a thousand years ago.[8] The grape belongs to the same Vitis vinifera family as European grapes and benefits from a relatively thick skin able to withstand the damp of the Japanese Summer.[9] The name “Koshu” is a former name for Yamanashi.

Characteristics of wines made from the Koshu grape are typically a pale, straw colour and a soft, fruity bouquet with overtones of citrus and peach. The taste is often described as clean, delicate and fresh, considered a good match for Japanese cuisine.[10]

Muscat Bailey A

"Muscat Bailey-A" (マスカットべリーA?) is a red wine grape hybrid developed by Zenbei Kawakami (川上善兵衛 Kawakami Zenbei?) (1868–1944) at the Iwanohara Winery (岩の原わいん?) in Niigata Prefecture. Kawakami's goal was to develop a grape for wine adapted to Japan's climate. He did this by mixing the "Bailey" (ベーリー?) type grape with "Muscat Hamburg" type grape to give birth to a red wine grape that is widely used in Japan. Also developed by Kawakami was the variety known as "Black Queen" (ブラッククイーン?). The characteristics of Muscat Bailey-A are a very grape juice-like flavor and it is most widely used in sweet amakuchi wines. However, in recent years, drier varieties and barrel aged varieties have also been developed. Muscat Bailey-A has been blended with western grapes creating a very full bodied, Bordeaux style flavour. In addition, different blending has led to smoother Bourgogne/Burgundy varieties.

Designation of Origin

"Mark of Origin" (原産地表示 Gensanchi Hyōji?) is a system of legal designation for wine produced in Japan, much like France's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) laws and the United States' American Viticultural Area (AVA) designations.

In Japan there is no nationwide organization of legal designation, regardless of domain of origin or types of grape, anything that is fermented domestically can be labeled as "Japanese wine". Because of this, there are some products labeled as Japanese that are produced using imported grape juice.4

However, independent self-governing municipal bodies have begun systems of regional appellation. For example, Nagano Prefecture's "Appellation Control System" (長野県原産地呼称管理制度 Nagano-ken Gensan-chi Koshō Kanri Seido?), and Kōshū's "Wine Domain of Origin Certification Regulation" (ワイン原産地認証条例 Wain Gensan-chi Ninshō Jōrei?).


  1. Yamanashi Prefecture Government Local products
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Robinson, Jancis (1999). The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford University Press. pp. 377–380. ISBN 0-19-866236-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Robinson, Oxford Companion to Wine, p.380
  4. Johnson, Hugh (2013). World Atlas of Wine (Seventh ed.). London: Octopus Publishing Group. p. 376. ISBN 978-1-84533-689-9. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Murray Brown, Rose (July 12, 2014). "Japanese Wines Hit British Supermarkets". The Scotsman. Retrieved 27 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Robinson, Jancis (1999). The Oxford Companion to Wine (Second ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 378. ISBN 0-19-866236-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Sasaki, Shigeyuki. "Japanese Fruits - Fruits Grown in Japan". Takasago International Corporation. Takasago Corp. Retrieved 23 September 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Koshu of Japan website, page of “About Koshu”.
  9. “KOSHU wine gets uncorked abroad”. Felicity Hughes, The Japan Times, Jun 10, 2011
  10. Koshu of Japan website, page of “Taste”

External links