Japanese wine is necessarily wine brewed in Japan using grapes produced in Japan. Until recently, it was called “domestic wine” as it included grape juice being imported from abroad and brewed in Japan.
However, with the improvement of skills to make wine, and with the growing interest in wine in Japan, both producers and consumers have called for branding of wine that does not use imported grape juice.
In 2015, the definition of ‘Japanese Wine’ was stipulated as above by law.
Grapes used in brewing Japanese wine can be broadly divided into four categories. The first is grapes that have been cultivated in Japan for a long time, or grapes whose breeds have been developed in Japan.
The main ones are Muscat Berry-A for red wine. This grape is characterised by a sweet aroma, and changes to fruity red wine with a gentle mouth feel and smooth taste.
Another is Koshu for white wine. This grape has fresh and elegant acidity, and makes wine with a delicate taste.
The second is the so-called ‘Yamabudo’, a wild grape that grows naturally in Japan.
The third category is the grapes whose young plants were imported from Europe and have come to be able to be cultivated in Japan after trial and error.
The main ones include Merlot, which has deep colour and changes to wine with mellow and palatable taste; Cabernet Sauvignon, which changes to wine with heavy and satisfactory feeling in red wine; Chardonnay, which has various taste depending on the locality and the climate; and Sauvignon Blanc, which changes to wine with refreshing flavour for white wine.
The fourth category is grapes whose seedlings have been imported from North America and grown in Japan. The main ones are Campbell Early, which changes to fruity and slightly sweet wine; Concord, which changes to wine that tastes like grape juice for red wine; Delaware and Niagara, both of which are raw edible grapes for white wine.
Japanese wine is brewed in almost all the prefectures, but the main production areas are Hokkaido, Yamagata, Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures.
Hokkaido is mainly produced in Shiribeshi area in the western region, the Sorachi/ Kamikawa region, including Furano, and Tokachi area in the eastern region.
Because these are areas with cool climate, varieties that are derived from North America, Campbell Early red wine and Niagara for the white wine are the main varieties.
In Yamagata Prefecture, wine grape is mainly produced in the Yamagata basin in the southeastern part (Tendo city, which is famous for producing shogi pieces), the Okitama basin (Yonezawa city, which is famous for beef), and the southern part of the Shonai plain on the Sea of Japan side.
The main varieties produced in Yamagata Prefecture are Muscat Berry-A for red wine, Delaware, Niagara and Chardonnay for white wine, and some wineries in the southern part of the Shonai plain brew ‘Yamabudo’.
Nagano Prefecture has four main production areas, and each area has the name ‘Wine Valley’. It is said that red wine is produced a lot in this prefecture because of the light rain and the large temperature difference between day and night, but the varieties that are mainly cultivated differently from area to area.
The Chikuma River basin in the north-east is called the ‘Chikuma River Wine Valley’ and is famous for Chardonnay. Matsumoto basin in the central region (including Matsumoto city, which is famous for its castle) is called the ‘Japanese Alps Wine Valley’ because it is close to the ‘Northern Alps’.
The Kikyogahara Wine Valley (around Shiojiri city), just south of the ‘Japanese Alps Wine Valley’, is a region with a particularly high wine production in Nagano Prefecture. Niagara, Concord, and Merlot are the main varieties, and Merlot is said to be particularly excellent.
Then, there is also the Tenryu River basin in the southern region. This is the area around the Ina basin between the Central Alps and the Southern Alps, which is one of the most mountainous areas in Japan, and is called the ‘Tenryu River Wine Valley’.
In this area, wine is brewed mainly with ‘Yamabudo’. For reference, one of the breweries in this area, Hombo Shuzo, also brews whiskey and shochu.
Yamanashi Prefecture is the prefecture with the highest wine production in Japan, and the production areas are concentrated in the Kofu basin in the central part. Mainly Muscat Berry-A, Koshu and Delaware.
But in the north-west, European varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are also cultivated.
Besides the above prefectures, much wine is brewed in Iwate, Niigata, Osaka, Okayama, Shimane and Miyazaki prefectures.
Japanese wine has a delicate taste compared to Western wine, and is considered to be more like Indian wine. In addition, Japanese wine is easier to match with fish dishes than Western wines.