Neil Hogan on May 20, 2016 0 Comments When I’m in Japan I tend to spend most of my time in various types of Izakaya, enjoying the delicious food and heady drinks. It was only recently that I thought to try something other than rice wine (sake) or plum wine (umeshu), as grape wine is not usually on the menu. It is fairly unknown that Japan has a wine industry, as much of that wine is consumed domestically. Not only that, but labels are usually only in Japanese, so a major rebranding and relabeling would need to be created to begin exporting to English speaking countries. There is also the slight problem of Japanese only consuming about on average three bottles of wine a year. So the market is still quite young. Things are changing though, and more importers around the world are marketing to Japanese in their own country and making Japanese grape wine more available. Within Japan, Suntory has begun shipping Japanese wine through its US company Beam Suntory, direct to restaurants in Asia, while Kirin and Sapporo Holdings have begun exporting to Singapore. So, the export of Japanese grape wine has finally begun! Japan Wine History Wine drinking in Japan goes back to the arrival of Saint Francis Xavier from Portugal with his gifts of wine to the rulers of Kyushu in the 16th century. However, it wasn’t until the Meiji Era (1868-1912) that serious wine production began, with the launch of the first wine producing company, Iwaimura Winery, in 1879. Iwaimura Winery made huge inroads into the exploration of wine and wine practices suitable for Japanese conditions but, unfortunately, the company couldn’t survive, and closed in 1886. It is believed this was due to the public not being attracted to the dry Bordeaux style, preferring sweeter and spicier drinks. Other producers began creating wine with sugar, herbs and spices added and promoted them as healthy drinks. This adaptation of the wine to the Japanese sweet and salty palate led to wine being used as a restorative or a medicine, rather than simply being enjoyed socially. This attraction to using the drink as a healthy addition to the diet also encouraged more small wineries to start — viniculturists creating their own wines in their backyards and selling their wine at local markets. Even so, there were lovers of European styles who wanted to create real wine, and larger wineries quickly sprang up in Aichi, Hokkaido, Hyogo, Ibaraki and Yamanashi Prefectures. Yamanashi Prefecture is now the largest area of wine production in Japan, producing Japan’s two main grape varietals: Koshu for white wine and Muscat Bailey A for red wine. But while Yamanashi is now the place for the majority of wine in Japan, the area owes their success to the one Japanese man who started it all: The grandfather of Japanese wine. Zenbei Kawakami, founder of Iwanohara Winery, Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture In 1890, while the country was growing massive vineyards, a lone viniculturist, Zenbei Kawakami, began cultivating a small vineyard in his garden in Joetsu, in the colder northern region of Niigata Prefecture. He created a snow-based wine cooler for maturing wine, along with other unique techniques, and constantly worked on refining and building the business until Iwanohara Winery became one of the most successful wineries in Japan. He also assisted Suntory with their wine production in Yamanashi. Over a hundred years later, the Iwanohara Vineyard is the recognized place to buy wine in the Niigata Prefecture. Iwanohara is also now the oldest continuing original wine making company in Japan, having celebrated 125 years in 2015. As a result, Zenbei Kawakami is now known as the grandfather of Japanese wine. Muscat Bailey A Zenbei had worked hard to find the right grape varietal that could withstand the freezing conditions and heavy snowfalls of a Niigata winter. In 1927, after many years of cross breeding and testing, Muscat Bailey A was born, which was ideal for growing conditions in the region. The grape would bud at a time that avoided the spring frosts and ripen quickly enough to avoid the frosts in autumn. It became the dominant red grape from the winery, and then Japan. The Iwanohara winery has won many awards since, the most recent a gold medal for their Muscat Bailey A vintage 2007. The Japanese Zen Red Muscat Bailey A: “Wine Goodness of the Rock” Being attracted to old vine wines, I was eager to sample this wine on a recent trip to Japan and, while I couldn’t get the 2007 vintage, I wasn’t disappointed. Taking the opportunity to enjoy the wine on a park bench over the river (something I can’t usually do in my own country!) I was struck with how pleasant it was to be able to enjoy such a wine in such a beautiful area…so this review may be slightly biased! The color is a light reddish-purple and on the nose it is sweet, and smells of fresh fruit and young berries. The taste is also sweet with touches of darker berries, perhaps even cherries and blackcurrants, with a slight tart taste like strawberries, but the flavor isn’t overpowering. Certainly not a dessert wine. The tannins are gentle and it is easy to drink. I am tempted to say that it is closer to a Bordeaux style. With barely any alcohol (12%) it was an easy-to-finish wine. Food Matching Muscat Bailey A wine is ideal with tuna sashimi or other heavier sashimi fish. While salmon sashimi could also be a good match, the oiliness of the salmon may disguise some of the flavors. I feel that it makes a good complement to any meal that has umami flavors such as soy or dashi ingredients and would work well with cooked oily fish and heavier meats. While it is generally recommended to have white wine with white fish, sushi or sashimi, if you are more of a red drinker, this is one to try with your seafood. So, the next time you’re in Japan, don’t try the imported wines, give a Japanese wine a try.