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.