Your Unique Journey

Japan has only in recent years begun to receive the international attention that it deserves for its vibrant, varied and entirely unique wine. As such many wine afficionados and enthusiasts are not yet familiar with Japanese wine, a tremendous shame.

We at Dekanta very much want to rectify this and showcase the complexity and quality of Japanese wine and viticulture. To that end we would like to present to you this guide, the perfect start for complete newcomers and enthusiasts looking to broaden their knowledge and familiarity with this exciting industry. We hope this will act as a springboard for your exploration and journey through Japanese wine.

A Rich History

The exact origin of winemaking in Japan is difficult to pin down as several different and often competing theories, tales and myths exist. Whilst many perpetuate the idea that winemaking only began in Japan around 150 years ago as a result of European oenological influence, it is beyond question that wine has been made in Japan for centuries, if not millennia. There is archaeological evidence of winemaking in Yamanashi and Nagano (amongst other locations) from the middle-to-late Jomon Era, approximately 3000 years BCE. Carbonised remains of yama-budo (wild grapes) in these ancient clay pots shows that the Japanese were making wine thousands of years before European oenological influence. Archaeologists have further noted that the ceramic vessels were so technically complex and innovative that they most likely were made by specialists. Thus, it is possible that winemaking was not only conducted but could well have been a profession in Japan some 5000 years ago.

A commonly told origin tale for winemaking in Japan, in particular Yamanashi, is that of the famous travelling monk Gyoki. During the Nara period (710-794 CE) Gyoki travelled extensively around Japan and is said to have visited Yamanashi in 718. There he had a vision of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of medicine and healing, laden with bunches of grapes. Gyoki carved a sacred statue of Yakushi, founded the Daizenji Temple around it and began teaching locals how to grow Koshu grapes for wine. Whether this tale is a historically accurate origin for increased winemaking in the region or not it is interesting to note that this temple overlooks the Kofu Basin, which is still to this day the most prolific winemaking region in Japan.

A monumental shift in Japanese winemaking towards commercialisation occurred in the 1870’s in the wake of the Iwakura Mission and it is at this point that many would consider the commercial wine industry in Japan to be born in earnest. At the centre of this sea-change were two young men, Takano Masanari and Tsuchiya Ryuken, who travelled to France to study their techniques and practices. Bringing back the traditions and methods to Japan the industry began importing huge quantities of European grape varieties to match. Disaster struck however, as after only a few years after this project started the importation of root stock into Japan brought with it a deadly menace – Phylloxera. This outbreak, which affected almost the entire winemaking world, stymied European-style winemaking in Japan almost altogether and commercial production did not pick up again in significant volume until after the Second World War.

It was during this fallow period that a key player in shaping the future of Japanese wine came to the fore. Kawakami Zenbei, known fondly as “the grandfather of Japanese wine”, began experimenting with selective breeding and grape hybridisation in Niigata Prefecture. His goal was to adapt European grapes to the vastly different climate and terroir of Japan. Though selective breeding yielded promising results it was his hybridisation and creation of new, homegrown varieties that would change the industry forever. A notable early success was the creation of Black Queen by crossing Golden Queen and Bailey in 1920. In 1927 he fatefully hybridised the European varieties Muscat of Hamburg and Labrusca Bailey to create Muscat Bailey A, today one of the most popular and sought-after varieties in Japan. Together with Koshu, Japan’s native grape variety, the hybrids that Zenbei created and perfected created some of the most authentically Japanese wines and heralded a new era in Japanese viticulture. This innovative approach to breeding is indicative of the overall approach that was starting to take hold across Japan; innovation and ingenuity became king.

In the modern era Japanese winemaking has continued this quest for quality through innovation. Unshackled by tradition but informed by centuries of experience and experimentation, Japanese wine has never been more exciting to explore.

Wine Regions

Yamanashi Prefecture

The birthplace of Japanese winemaking, Yamanashi prefecture is the largest and most famous of Japan’s winemaking regions. Surrounded by tall mountains, overlooked by Mt. Fuji and bathed in long hours of sunlight it is no wonder that Yamanashi has established itself as the leading region for exceptional quality wine. Only two hours’ drive west of Tokyo this landlocked prefecture is the epicentre of wine tourism in Japan and boasts the highest concentration of wineries of any region. It has a rich clay soil that, whilst unideal for cultivating rice, is perfect for viticulture. The low rainfall, sunlight and sheltered topography of the area help produce some of the finest quality grapes – and most sought-after wines – in Japan.

Yamanashi’s quest for quality and authenticity can be typified through its successes in becoming Japan’s first Geographical Indication (GI) for wine and championing legislation introduced in 2018 to only allow wine made with 100% Japanese grapes to be labelled “Japanese Wine”. It is impossible to talk about Yamanashi without mentioning Koshu Grapes, Japan’s native grape variety. Yamanashi has been growing Koshu grapes for centuries; the name “Koshu” was the ancient name for Yamanashi. Yamanashi has also been at the forefront of hybridising new grape varieties (such as the outstandingly soft and luscious Muscat Bailey A) that make the most out of the unique climate and terroir.

A wine from Yamanashi is the traditional starting point for those exploring Japanese wine for the first time and it is a region that enthusiasts find themselves returning to time and time again.

Chateau Mercian Yamanashi Koshu Kiyoka Cuvee UENO 2016

Just $159.99

Izutsu Wine Silver 2017 Merlot

Izutsu Silver Nagano Merlot 2017

Just $189.99

Nagano Prefecture

At high altitude in the very heart of the main island of Japan, Nagano prefecture is home to four basins which provide the shelter for some of the finest vineyards in Japan. These four “Wine Valleys” specialise in growing international grapes as well as the famed Japanese hybrids. Such are the results of winemaking in these valleys in the Japanese Alps that Nagano is now the second largest producer of Japanese wine, only behind Yamanashi.

The unique locale of Nagano blesses the vineyards with low rainfall and copious sunlight. Growing at such altitude slows the ripening of the fruit over a longer period before being picked in the autumn and increases the tannin, balance and flavour intensity of the wine. High altitude also means there are large day-night temperature swings, this is beneficial to not only the ripening of the fruit but the retention of natural acidity. The nightly drop in temperature also has the effect of aiding sugar content and coloration. The soil here is rocky and volcanic, providing not only excellent drainage but a wealth of mineral content.

The fantastic opportunity that this terroir presents has been delivered on by the winemakers here and today Nagano offers one of the most diverse ranges of unique and exceptional quality wine in Japan.

Hokkaido

The northernmost island of Japan Hokkaido may be famous for its snow and skiing, but it has become one of the leading regions for winemaking in Japan. What many would consider a problem, Japanese winemakers saw as an opportunity. Whilst snow covers the land in the winter during the spring, summer and autumn Hokkaido enjoys lower rainfall and humidity than the mainland. The region also enjoys no rainy season and very few typhoons. Because of the cold pests are deterred naturally and Hokkaido is now at the forefront of organic winemaking in Japan. Despite the pervasive notion that Hokkaido must be cold and inhospitable the climate of many of its most famous vineyards has been compared to those of Alsace and Champagne.

Niagara and Campbell Early are the two most commonly grown grape varieties here but there is a wealth of different grape varieties commonly used in Hokkaido. In particular the Pinot Noirs and German varieties such as Kerner grown here are renowned for their quality, character and depth of flavour. More and more wineries open in Hokkaido every year and its status as the fastest growing region in Japan for winemaking speaks for itself.

Yamagata Prefecture

Known as “The Kingdom of Fruit”, Yamagata is renowned for excellence in its fruit, including its grapes. Situated in the far Northeast of the main island, Honshu, Yamagata is flanked by both the Sea of Japan on its West side and the Ōu mountain range on its East. This unique climate is fantastically beneficial to viticulture; there are long hours of sunlight in the summer, low rainfall whilst the grapes ripen and large day-night temperature extremes. For seasons where there is higher rainfall the design of the vineyards, built on slopes with gravel, comes into its own.

Yamagata predominantly specialises in hybrids such as Muscat Bailey A, Delaware and Niagara but focus has increasingly been given to European varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Osaka

Famous for its history and beautiful Sakura blossom Osaka is also home to some of the most characterful and unique wines in Japan. Bounded almost entirely by tall mountains which only give way to the picturesque coastline of Osaka Bay the vineyards here are sheltered, allowing grapes to reach the exacting specifications demanded by Osaka’s winemakers.

Osaka is a hotspot in Japan for growing Delaware grapes, an originally American hybrid variety that is extremely versatile, to create precisely balanced white, rose and sparkling wines of supreme elegance. They have been adapted by the expert viticulturalists in Osaka over decades to the unique and exacting terroir of the prefecture. Wines from Osaka are perfect for those who have already started their journey into Japanese wine and are looking to explore even further into Japan’s rich and varied offerings.

Grape Varieties

Grace Koshu Wine 2018

Grace Koshu Yamanashi 2018

Just $199.99

Koshu

The indigenous grape of Japan, Koshu produces distinctly elegant citrussy wines coveted both for their supreme balance and their impeccable heritage. There are many tales of the origin of Koshu, from being discovered growing in the wild in Yamanashi prefecture to being planted by the famous monk Gyoki, what we know for certain is that it has been carefully grown and perfected for many centuries in Yamanashi and now flourishes across Japan’s winemaking regions. Coveted for the precision of balance it allows in light bodied white wines and the unique combination of citrus, soft fruit and saline flavours, Koshu is a must-try for anyone seeking a uniquely Japanese style of wine.

Koshu has a remarkable versatility, rewarding exploration. Styles range from the classic (light and citrussy) to more intense and peachy expressions achieved by growing at high altitude, highly complex and bready expressions through contact with the lees and oak aged bottlings that ooze nuttiness and sweet fruit. Notably some wineries have started to produce “orange” Koshu, a style achieved through higher lees contact and barrel ageing with a character of luscious fruit balanced by savoury breadiness and salinity.

Due to the uniquely light, crisp and citrussy nature of most Koshu wine it is a fantastic accompaniment to Japan’s equally unique cuisine. We highly recommend pairing white Koshu with sashimi and sushi but it is also ideal paired with many Japanese seafood and sticky rice centred dishes. For oaked and orange Koshu then more robust and meat dishes are the perfect accompaniment, even red meat.

Koshu is the quintessential grape of Japan, a must-try for those beginning their exploration into Japanese wine and a favourite of connoisseurs seeking the sublime precision of this most famous of grapes.

Muscat Bailey A

The brainchild of the famous Kawakami Zenbei, the grandfather of Japanese winemaking, Muscat Bailey A is a hybrid grape variety perfected to capitalise on the unique climate and terroir of Japan. Created by Zenbei-san on Niigata’s coast in the 1927 by hybridising Muscat of Hamburg with Labrusca Bailey this grape is used to create stunningly soft and luscious red wines. The unique timing of Muscat Bailey A’s budding and ripening matches perfectly with the climate in Japan and allows winemakers to create wine with a stunning subtle complexity. Japan has a love for elegance and precision in its alcohol, a love which is reflected wholly in these wines.

Muscat Bailey A is typically elegant, soft and vivaciously fruity. Its softer tannins leave room for more subtle and nuanced flavours to be detected, producing aromatic and fresh wines with a unique intricacy. Given its thick skin and early ripening Muscat Bailey A is grown across all of Japan and is in fact Japan’s most widely planted variety of red grape. This again leads to exciting variety and complexity across wines from different regions and different wineries – a trait that leads connoisseurs to explore Muscat Bailey A time and time again. The wine is additionally well-suited to oak ageing and some especially luxurious expressions are matured in Mizunara (native Japanese oak) to critical acclaim.

Izutsu Winery Muscat Bailey A Nagano 2017

Izutsu Muscat Bailey A Nagano 2017

Just $109.99

Alps Musee Du Vin Black Queen

Just $99.99

Black Queen

Black Queen is a hybrid grape first created in Japan and produces light-bodied red wine of signature fruitiness and richness. Created by the famous Kawakami Zenbei, the grandfather of Japanese winemaking, by crossing Golden Queen and Bailey in 1920 this grape was designed to thrive in the unique climate of Japan and produces equally unique wine.

Budding late in the season and ripening quickly, Black Queen masters a delicate balancing act between lightness of body and richness of flavour. With characteristic flavours of cocoa, vanilla and black fruit this sophisticated style of wine has only a gentle dose of acidity, to match the softness of the tannin. Complexity, elegance and balance ultimately typify wines made from Black Queen.

Merlot

One of the most popular grapes in the world, Merlot has also proved extremely popular with Japanese winemakers. Merlot famously adapts to many climates and takes on the character of the location it is grown in. These leads, even within Japan, to a very wide variety of styles and flavours of Merlot wine, from soft and smooth fruity expressions to bold, rich and herbaceous. This chameleon effect allows each winemaker to create their own signature take on Merlot and this diversity of character truly warrants exploration of Merlots from a selection of different wineries and regions in Japan.

Cuvee Y Merlot 2017

Cuvee Y Merlot 2017

Just $129.99

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