You could be forgiven for thinking that wine is not really ‘a thing’ in Japan. The nation’s advertising boards are awash with the big three beer brands, and you can’t even think of Japanese culture without considering the world famous sake tradition: you can’t spell Nihon without Nihonshu.
Japan is currently the worlds 16th largest wine market, with 47.4m people, or 46% of the population, drinking wine most days or daily, a proportion that has almost doubled since 2012 according to Graham Holter from Wine Intelligence. This increase is perhaps driven by the aggressive marketing of the aforementioned young Beaujolais as well as trade agreements with wine producing nations such as Chile, but it is in fact domestic wine that is most readily consumed.
Although most of this is of the cheaper “made” wine variety, wine from grapes has been cultivated in Japan since the 17th century. The first wineries are thought to have been in Yamanashi: too dry for growing rice, locals wanting to get squiffy turned to fermented grape instead of the more traditional sake.
Today there are many wineries in Japan, mostly focused around the Japanese Alps regions, so as someone who doesn’t mind a tipple, when on a recent trip to Nagano I decided to swing by a vineyard for a visit. Well, ‘swinging by’ isn’t entirely accurate. Being blessed with neither a driver’s license, nor the temperament required to obtain one, I had to resort to doing it the proper Japanese way: by bus tour.
We were collected from our (rather plush, I have to say) hotel in Kurohime at 1pm on the dot. Well, our group was; my partner and I turned up at 5 minutes past, though no one complained (to our faces, anyway). We squeezed in to the remaining seats and, this being a nation where sleep is prized above all else, everyone but myself and the driver were soundly snoozing before we left the car park. I would have tried to doze a little myself, but I was at the same time too excited by the prospect of all that wine, and petrified that the driver may follow not the planned highway, but instead join the others on the road to the land of nod.
As a Frenchman, my roommate believes himself to be an authority on wine. “You’re going on a vineyard tour in winter?” he scoffed with a mix of Gallic bemusement and scorn. “There will be no grapes, what will you see?” He had a point. As we pulled into Villa d’Est Garden Farm and Winery vineyard I was disappointed to find there was plenty of yard, but very little vine.
Now you’re probably thinking ‘who is this dipshit, and what was he expecting?’ Well, I’m not as green as I am cabbage-looking. I have visited vineyards in Tuscany, Italy; Margaret Valley and Yabba Valley in Australia; as well as working for a month picking grapes in Mildura. But this was the first time I had been witness to the rows and rows of stripped brown bark, stretching out under a dull grey sky. Hardly the scenic wonders of Toscana I had to admit.
It seemed however that I was in the minority in my concerns. In fact I seemed to be the only one who took even the most cursory of glances at our surroundings as the rest of my tour group had made a beeline for the gift shop, hurriedly busying themselves amongst the stoppers, coasters, bottle openers and decanters, contributing, each and every one of them, to the countless meibutsu billions generated in Japan every year.
Eventually we were rounded up and gathered, clutching plastic bags of god knows what, and led by our tour guide, a bookish type in expensive casual dress with the wealthy winsomeness of a Greenpeace executive on a relaxed hiking vacation, out to survey the view.
And what a view it now was. Suddenly gone were the overcast skies, the sun had come out and burned away the cloud cover and we were met with the rugged handsomeness of the surrounding mountains, gleaming with a dusting of snow. Our guide pointed out the various groves for the differing wine, a pinot noir here, a sauvignon blanc there, and you could imagine the sprawling land decorated with the greens of vines in bloom.
After everyone had taken squillions of photos (natch), we shuffled en mass around to the villa’s rear to see the immense barrels in which the current year’s haul was fermenting – this was no ‘made’ wine, it was the real wood aged deal.
Eventually, after a further wander round we were escorted into the warmth where it was time for the moment we had all been waiting for: the testing. With two glasses in front of us – one white one red – we were treated to an explanatory speech by the villa’s wine master. On previous vineyard tours I have taken people asked countless questions about the wine we were supping.
Despite my cripplingly awful grasp on the Japanese language, I gathered that this speech must have been informative in the utmost as no one chose to raise a querying hand, though a more logical conclusion would have been that my fellow tourists followed the pattern of most Japanese wine consumers in not being confident of their wine knowledge, tending to follow recommendations rather than curiosity. (Again, this is according to Wine Intelligence).
This notion was perhaps supported by the fact that, after we once again boarded the bus the only person to have purchased actual wine from the winery was a flamboyantly sunglassed fellow who was carrying half a dozen bottles of the youthful purplish pink pinot from the testing table.
But just because there is currently a lack of wine understanding, it doesn’t mean that this shall always be the case. Because, as I looked around our hotel’s restaurant that evening, there was not a table that did not boast a bottle. The enjoyment is there, the knowledge will follow and, as Japan has forcefully stamped its authority on the whisky industry, do not be surprised if its wine follows suit.
The vineyard I visited was Villa d’Est Garden Farm and Winery in Tamo, Nagano.