A 'Unique' Japanese Winemaking from 1950s to 1990s

After the Second World War, Japan’s wine was again produced for consumption. However, the wine produced in this period did not meet the international definition ofwine. Since sweet wine remained popular, even in the 1970s, the majority of non-sweet wines produced in Japan were still used as ingredients for blending sweet wines.[1] The red wines were made with Concord, Cambell Early, and Muscat Bailey A, and the white wines were made with Niagara, Delaware, and Koshu grapes. Unfortunately, all these grapes were not wine grapes. This was because as base ingredients for sweet wines, these red and white wines did not need to conform to strict standards of quality.[2] The use of table grapes in winemaking did not mean that Japanese people were not familiar with wine grapes. As early as the 1870s, Japanese people had known the difference between wine and table grapes. The government imported and planted a large number of European wine grape seeds. But, phylloxera (an aphid attacking vine root) destroyed almost every imported grape. After that, varieties such as Delaware and Koshu which had survived the disaster became major grapes grown in Japan. Thus, the grapes used in winemaking were table grapes (as we will see in the following, Koshu only recently came to be regarded as a wine grape).

The popularity of sweet wine started to decline in the 1960s as other types of sweet drinks such as coke, juice and milk drinks appeared in the market.[3] Moreover, in the 1970s, foreign wines, both fine and ordinary, were increasingly brought to the Japanese market by free trade so that affluent consumers became familiar with global wines. Finally in 1975, the national consumption of dry wine overtook that of sweet wine for the first time.[4] Japanese wine producers faced a crisis. Sweet wines had been the major type to be produced by Japan’s winemakers since they had first appeared at the end of the nineteenth century until the 1970s. Technically, they did not qualify as genuine wine by international standards. So, the focus on making wine as a base ingredient for sweet wine prevented the progress of Japan’s wine quality. However, the wines used for making sweet wine were still important in Japan’s wine production and consumption history. In terms of production, they prevented the complete collapse of Japan’s early wine production weakened by inexperienced grape growers and winemakers, an erratic national policy for wine production and the global epidemic of the phylloxera. As for consumption, sweet wines played an important role in helping to propagate a wine drinking culture in Japan as people regarded it as healthy.[5]

When the Japanese consumers’ preferences changed from sweet to genuine European-style dry wine, most of the nation’s corporate winemakers remained to produce wine in the way they had done. They used imported bulk wine and grape juice instead of grapes. There were several reasons for this. One was the insufficient grape supply. At the time, the view that Japan’s soil and climate was not suitable for growing wine grapes was strongly accepted by Japanese oenologists, grape growers and winemakers.[6] Secondly, it was difficult for corporate companies to access the already limited supply of grapes. After the Second World War, besides the large producers owned by beer companies, grape growers had their own small wineries. Their products, however, were only consumed within their own community and did not reach the larger market. As the corporate companies did not plant grapes, they relied on grape growers. But, since growers also needed the grapes for their own wineries, they could not supply the larger companies sufficiently. Thus, the lack of domestically grown grapes led Japanese corporate winemakers to use a substantial amount of imported ingredients for making Japanese wine until the 1990s.[7] However, although the companies did not meet international standards, they were still concerned about the quality of their products. In the 1980s, they began importing fresh grapes and grape juice to boost quality.[8] Thirdly, the government’s domestic regulation and international trade policies further prevented winemakers from meeting international quality standards. As explained above, domestic grapes were hard to attain, while simultaneously the alternative ingredients became more accessible. In 1962, due to changes in Japan’s Liquor Tax Act, dried grapes and condensed grape juice could now be legally used for making wine.[9] Moreover, in 1970, free trade policy removed the restrictions on foreign wines imported to Japan. Imported bulk wines became cheaper. Many local winemakers turned to cheap imported condensed grape juice or bulk wines rather than the expensive domestically grown grapes in order to maintain their businesses. This situation accelerated in the 1980s, as the appreciation of the Yen made imported bulk wines even cheaper. As a result, winemaking with imported bulk wines cost much less as compared to using grapes grown in Japan.

In summary, since the 1950s, the method of using imported bulk wine and grape juice or domestic table grapes by the majority of producers resulted in the overall quality of Japanese table wines remaining low. Some Japanese fine wines made with wine grapes could meet international standards and received awards in international contests. However, these wines were exceptions and not representative of mass produced wines. Moreover, global wine production changed dramatically during the same period. The global wine trend was shifting from strong tannic to fruity aromatic flavours initiated by the new producers in America and Australia.[10] Japanese winemakers, however, continued to focus on producing strong tannin, as the aged wine was still highly regarded.[11] As a result, by the mid-1990s, Japanese winemakers had been aiming to make powerful instead of fruity wines.[12] All of these factors have made Japanese wine appear to be inferior in both the domestic and international wine world.

  • [1] Asai, ‘Wain gyokai’, 524; Hozumi, ‘Yamanashiken wain seisan’, 555.
  • [2] Kawai, Usuke boizu, 8.
  • [3] Asai, ‘Wain gyokai’, 525.
  • [4] Ibid, 525.
  • [5] Ibid, 524.
  • [6] Maeshima and Higawa, ‘Ni ryu kara’, 15; Shikatori, Nihon wain, 5; Kawai, Usuke boizu, 41.
  • [7] Maeshima and Higawa, ‘Ni ryu kara’, 15; Kawai, Usuke boizu, 10.
  • [8] Asai, ‘Wain yo budo no genjo to mirai’, 342.
  • [9] Shikatori, Nihon wain, 5.
  • [10] Lukacs, Inventing Wine, 278—314.
  • [11] Nakada, ‘Koshu wain no Yoroppa senryaku’, 33.
  • [12] Kawai, Usuke boizu, 14.
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