Japanese Rice Wine, often referred to as Sake, is something that excites many visitors to Japan. However, requesting a Sake at a local Japanese bar might cause some confusion. The word "Sake" itself is the Japanese term for various alcoholic beverages, including wine, beer, whiskey, cocktails, and, of course, the renowned rice wine.
My sake of choice is wine. Raised in New Zealand, I was surrounded by vibrant green vineyards from a young age, and I grew up seeing local wine on the dinner table. Although New Zealand has a reputation for producing top-quality wine, Japan, on the other hand, doesn't immediately come to mind as a wine haven.
Wine grapes are particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature and weather conditions. Japan's extreme weather conditions, including typhoons and seasonal fluctuations, make it unsuitable for wine production. Despite this, there are numerous emerging wine regions across Japan, and it is becoming one of the new frontiers of viticulture.
Yamanashi: Cultivating Japanese Wine Legacy
The mountainous prefecture of Yamanashi, located to the west of Tokyo, is the island nation’s wine center and grape cultivation capital of Japan. Nestled amidst sweeping valleys and beneath the watchful gaze of Mount Fuji, this scenic region is home to Japan's first winery, the Dainihon Yamanashi Wine Co, dating back to 1877 during the transformative Meiji Period. In a bid to modernize and westernize, the Yamanashi government sent aspiring winemakers, Tsuchiya Ryuken and Takano Masanari, to study winemaking in France, which laid the foundations for Japanese wine based on French techniques.
This infusion of Western techniques, seamlessly blended with Japan's meticulous craftsmanship, birthed a wine culture that reverberates through time. Today, Yamanashi stands as a testament to the dedication of those early pioneers, with vineyards sprawling across its undulating landscapes, creating a wine legacy that continues to evolve, making its mark both nationally and internationally. The scenic beauty of Yamanashi is not just in its landscapes but in the enduring spirit that has transformed it into the heartland of Japanese winemaking.
Koshu Grapes: The Pride of Yamanashi
Japanese wine stands out for its diversity, owing to the archipelago's variety of geographical regions and ecosystems. The Japanese mainland, stretching over 1600 kilometers, allows for a range of unique grape varieties, including indigenous species and hybrid strains. The native Koshu grape, for instance, boasts a delicate and clean palate with notes of white peach, nashi pear, yuzu, and floral aromas. Perfectly complementing Japanese cuisine, especially seafood dishes, Koshu offers a unique and delightful wine experience.
The Koshu Grapes, Yamanashi's pride, and the where Japan's wine legacy began
Amid this diverse agricultural landscape, the Koshu grape emerges as the pride of Yamanashi, a region synonymous with Japan's burgeoning wine culture. These indigenous vines have not only adapted to the region's terroir but have become a symbol of pride for local winemakers. Resilient and deeply rooted in the history of Yamanashi, the Koshu grape yields wines that encapsulate the essence of the region. Sipping on a glass of Koshu wine is more than a simple tasting experience; it's a journey through the sun-drenched landscapes of Yamanashi, where each drop reflects the rich viticultural heritage and passion of the winemakers who have nurtured these vines for generations. Whether paired with fresh seafood or enjoyed on its own, Koshu wines invite you to savor the unique character of Yamanashi in every sip.
Exploring Japan’s Wine Origins
On a road trip with my husband to visit Japan's central alpine region, we stopped in Yamanashi en route to buy some local wine. Little did we know that our brief visit would become a wine odyssey, traveling back in time from Japan’s current burgeoning wine landscape to its humble beginnings.
Budo-no-Oka, the Koshu Wine Region’s multipurpose wine haven, was our first stop. This facility, declaring itself ‘wine hill’ and offering Japanese Wine products, fine dining, accommodation, and Onsen hot springs, is home to an underground wine cellar boasting over 180 varieties of Koshu’s finest wines.
Japan's wine legacy began in these underground cellars
Before entering the cellar, visitors are bestowed with a tastevin, a wine-tasting cup conventionally used by early French winemakers to evaluate the color and clarity of a wine. I enjoyed sampling a great number of wines as I made my way through the expansive wine cave, feeling slightly guilty for my husband who was the designated driver for the day.
Miyakoen and the Daikoku Budoshu Winery
Returning to the store on the ground floor, I selected my favorite wines from my tasting escapade to take home. Before leaving Budo-no-Oka, the shopkeeper kindly let us know that Miyakoen, the former residence of Miyazaki Kotaro which later became the esteemed Daikoku Budoshu Winery and Vineyard, was offering special guided tours on that day.
Without discussion, we found Miyakoen on Google Maps and drove through the sun-kissed rolling hills towards the cultural heritage property. A monument, engraved with Chinese characters detailing a ‘heavenly view’, stands on the side of a serene country lane to mark the entrance to Miyakoen. Parking the car below the South Gate of the villa, we stepped out into an unassuming rural landscape. If not for the plaque declaring the facility as the ‘purveyor of wine to the Imperial Palace’, the average passerby could miss Miyakoen completely ignorant of the property’s historical significance.
As we approached the main house, the sight of Daikokuten, the Japanese deity of business and prosperity, brought a smile to my face. This jovial figure, conflated from the Buddhist deity Mahakala and the Shinto god Okuninushi, is the ideal emblem of Miyakoen and represents how Japan’s syncretic society adopts not only foreign philosophies but also cuisine to craft an authentic Japanese taste.
The front entrance to Miyakoen, the origin of the wine industry in Yamanashi Prefecture
Taking our shoes off in the Genkan entrance area, we entered into a traditional Japanese house complete with Tatami mat flooring, Shoji paper sliding doors, and Tokonoma alcoves for displaying special ornaments. A closer look reveals various features integral to winemaking.
The inside of Miyakoen still has a standard Japanese tatami room
The museum attendant escorts us to the second floor where an impressive selection of cultural artifacts stand proudly behind the casing. Gesturing to a collection of glass bottles with meticulously detailed labels, she uncoils the wire of time. She spins animated anecdotes about how Miyazaki discovered the secret to success in marketing wine to the Japanese.
She told us that Dainihon Yamanashi Wine Company’s initial wines failed to break into the Japanese market. These French-inspired dry white wines were not palatable for the general public and the company was dissolved less than ten years after its establishment. Miyazai’s persistence in perfecting a new syncretic style of winemaking, blending French techniques with a Japanese flavor palate, gave life to a sweeter wine with a complex nose of honey and dried fruits. In addition, the genius of using Daikokuten’s amiable face for marketing saw Miyazai Kotaro’s wine rise to popularity nationwide.
You can see grapevines for days within the rolling hills in Yamanashi, with gorgeous mountains in the background
After exploring the museum’s interior, the guide took us off-site and led us through quiet country roads fringed by expansive vineyards on either side. The historic Ryuken Cellar came into view on a nondescript street corner. This partially underground brick wine cellar is Japan's oldest and was constructed by Ryuken and Masanari after their apprenticeship in France. I had the rare opportunity to see original wine barrels in the historic 126-year-old cellar, which is generally not open for viewing.
The 126-year old Ryuken Cellars that are not often open to the public.
Japan’s wine industry has matured significantly since its humble beginnings. After visiting the Miyakoen Museum we ventured onwards to the boutique Sadoya Winery. I was impressed to encounter wines bursting with citrus notes and pineapple aromas, rivaling Sauvignon Blancs produced in the sundrenched Marlborough region of New Zealand. At the same time, I discovered numerous varieties of wine with unique flavor profiles that captured the essence of Yamanashi’s pristine natural environment, rich soils, and abundant pure waterways.
Had to buy the very grapes that make the delicious Koshu wine. Not pictured is the haul of bottles I took home that day
In just one afternoon my husband and I journeyed through the past and present of Koshu’s wine industry.
Japan's Current Wine Culture
In recent years, Japan's wine culture has experienced a notable evolution. The traditional image of Sake as the primary beverage choice is gradually expanding to include a growing interest in wine. Wine bars and wineries are becoming more prevalent, particularly in urban areas, offering a diverse selection of both domestic and international wines. There is a growing number of wine festivals around Japan, including the Japan Wine Festival, the Pieroth Wine Experience, and the Japan Wine Challenge.
Wine is becoming a classy drink option for young adults in Japan
The younger generation, in particular, is embracing wine as part of their social and culinary experiences. This shift is not only reflected in the beverage choices but I’m also seeing the increasing number of wine-related events and festivals across the country. From wine tastings to vineyard tours, Japan's current wine culture reflects a dynamic fusion of tradition and modernity, creating exciting opportunities for enthusiasts to explore and appreciate the world of Japanese wine.
Japanese Rice Wine might be the obvious choice in the local Japanese bar, surrounded by mouth-watering sashimi platters, tantalizing tempura, and grilled chicken skewers. However, Japan's sake scene extends far beyond the traditional grain-based drink. The island nation's wine industry is a fresh, unique, and rapidly rising star. Catch the eye of the bar staff and ask for a glass of Japanese Wine. You surely won't be disappointed.