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Wine in Japan can be traced back to the 8th-century hermit, Gyōki, who planted vines at the Daizen Temple. A nascent wine industry began with the dispatch of two ex-samurai, Tsuchiya Ryuken and Takano Masanari, to study winemaking in 1877 in France. Hybrid varieties were routinely planted because of their tolerance of wet climates and resistance to disease. Today, the indigenous variety Koshu and the international grapes, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, dominate Japanese wine production, although only one in five bottles is made from fresh Japanese grapes. These are mostly grown in the four main wine-growing prefectures of Yamanashi, Nagano, Yamagata, and Hokkaido.


With Mount Fuji for backdrop, Yamanashi’s 81 wineries account for around 30% of Japanese wine production and just over half of what they produce is Koshu, followed by the hybrids, Muscat Bailey A and Delaware. Grapes are grown on traditional overhead pergolas to maintain air-circulation and protect against the perils of humidity and monsoon rains. European varieties, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, account for five percent of production. Grown largely in the Katsunuma area of the prefecture, Koshu covers some 450 of Yamanashi’s 4,350 hectares of wine grapes, and comes in a variety of styles, mainly dry unoaked white, but also oaked, medium, sweet and sparkling. 


Surrounded by the 3,000 metre high Japanese Alps, Nagano, ‘the roof of Japan’ in central Honshu, is an emerging quality region for wine grapes thanks largely to its high altitude and cool climate. Rainfall in Nagano is relatively low and free-draining; rocky soils, and cool summer breezes help maintain the health of the vineyards. Broad day and night temperature swings are ideal for ripening and the retention of natural acidity. There are 35 wineries across Nagano’s four wine valleys, Kikyogahara, Chikumagawa, Nihon Alps and Tenryugawa Wine Valley. In this region, traditional hybrid varieties such as Concord, Niagara and Ryugan are making way for European varieties. 


The first wine grape plantings in this cold, northerly region of Japan were of resistant hybrid varieties such as Muscat Bailey A. The climate is extremely cold in the winter, but Yamagata’s 14 wineries - clustered around low-lying plains with their free-draining, clay-gravel soils on the banks of the Mogami river - are sheltered by the Ōu mountains to the east and the Asahi Mountains to the west. The biggest production is still of the hybrids Delaware, Muscat Bailey A and Niagara, but gradually, as growers have adapted traditional pergolas to vertical trellises, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are coming into their own.


Sitting between 41 and 45 degrees north, Hokkaido is on a similar parallel to France’s Rhône Valley. Yet thanks to the cold Chishima ocean current, its 35 winery's vineyards are buried under up to two metres of snow between November and March. Relatively dry in the summer and autumn months, with rainfall and humidity lower than on the mainland, climate change is gradually turning Hokkaido into the trendy new frontier of cold climate viticulture. Vitis vinifera started in the 1970s with German and Austrian varieties, but today, the most favoured grape varieties are the Burgundian grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

Japanese wine at Japan House London

It is rare to see Japanese wine in the UK. However, at Japan House London Japanese wine is available at AKIRA restaurant and also in The Shop. Akira’s wine list includes nine Koshu wines from the Grace, Lumiere, Aruga, and Soryu wineries in Yamanashi Prefecture.

To enjoy Japanese wine at home, or as a gift, The Shop at Japan House London offers Yamanashi Koshu sur lie and Koshu Gris de Gris from Château Mercian and Lumière sparkling Koshu, all from Yamanashi Prefecture.

Learn more about Japanese wine

This story was produced by Anthony Rose, award-winning wine and sake critic and judge for Decanter World Wine Awards and the Sake International Challenge. Read his book ‘Sake and the wines of Japan’ to learn more about Japanese wine.

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