Japan's Winemaking in the 2000s

Japan’s wine production only began to achieve a better reputation when it recognized new taste trends and adopted new ideas of wine production in the 2000s. Currently, domestically made wines account for only 30 per cent of the Japanese wine market. The two types of wine producers, small wineries and corporate companies, established after the war, are still the major actors. The number of corporate producers has expanded, and like in the Meiji era, they are all owned by beer companies. In contemporary Japan, the major companies are Mercian (Kirin), Manns wine (Kikkoman), Tomino Oka (Santory) and Sapporo wine (Sapporo Beer). They produce about 80 per cent of all of the domestically made wines, mainly table wines. And like their predecessors, many companies still use imported grape juice or bulk wines. In recent years, they have started to make more of their wines with grapes from their own vineyards located in regions such as Yamanashi and Hokkaido.

Besides regular table wines, Japan’s wine companies have also concentrated on producing a type of specialized wine, which is made without sulphur dioxide (an additive for preventing wine’s oxidation and maintaining the flavour’s stability), to conform with recently rising concern by Japanese over the relation between food and health. However, wines of this kind are now mistakenly understood as Japanese wines by most Japanese consumers. As critics have pointed out, they are only wines made in Japan but not Japanese wines at all because ‘most wines without sulphur dioxide circulating in the Japanese market are partly made overseas, where condensed grape juices are heated to contain about eighty percent of sugar. Such condensed juice is four times diluted by water and added sugars, then fermented to become wines’.[1] Like most regular wines, this type of wine is not made by grapes grown in Japan either.

In recent years, the increase in wine consumption in domestic markets has prompted larger investments in winemaking by beer companies. With more investments, the number of regions producing wine is growing. Places producing wine for the first time include, for example, Tochigi, Niigata, Toyama, Akita and Miyazaki. Now, 36 of the nation’s 47 prefectures are producing wine. And some of these prefectures are displacing the established wine-producing regions. For instance, although Yamanashi is regarded by most Japanese as the wine kingdom, Kanagawa has emerged as Japan’s largest producer since 2001. Kanagawa’s new status can be largely attributed to the Fujizawa Kojo factory, owned by Kirin Group. However, the vineyards in Kanagawa are actually not large enough to provide wine grapes for producing such amounts of wine. In fact, a large proportion of the wine produced there is still made by imported condensed grape juice or bulk wine.[2]

Other important actors are small and medium-sized private wineries. Unlike producers owned by beer companies, these wineries produce Japanese wines made with grapes in Japan. As a contemporary well- known Japanese journalist and writer Shikatori states, ‘most wineries, especially in Hokkaido and Nagano built after 2000, use hundred percent Japanese grapes. Some of these wineries have their own vineyards’.[3] These wineries can be found in every winemaking prefecture in Japan. They have a different vision for winemaking than that of the corporate companies as will be seen in the example of winemaker Misawa Ayana described below. Corporate producers make wine as an industrial product, just as they do with beer. In contrast, small wineries model European makers and view wine as an agricultural product and employ the European concept of terroir[4] [5] as a means of evaluating quality. 0 Therefore, they have become the major players in producing authentic Japanese wines.

  • [1] Shikatori, Nihon wain, 8.
  • [2] Nihon Keizai Shimbun, ‘Wain seisan Kanagawa’.
  • [3] Shikatori, Nihon wain, 9.
  • [4] The word terroir comes from French word gout du terroir. The concept of terroir embraces bothnatural and cultural aspects of a place. Thus, theoretically, a terroir product is assumed to reflectthe nature and culture of where the product comes from.
  • [5] Chan, ‘ Terroir and Green Tea’, 226.
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