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The origin of Japanese wine is still open for debate…
Recently, evidence of ancient grape fermentation has been used by those who support an early origin story. The Jōmon people who inhabited the Japanese archipelago from 14,000 BCE to 1000 BCE are said to have used fermentation for essential food preservation, and the presence of wild grape seeds found inside excavated Jōmon earthenware vessels is recognised by some as evidence of prehistoric winemaking. The generally accepted story originating from the premier winery region of Japan, Yamanashi Prefecture, tells that Gyōki (668 CE‒749 CE), a renowned priest of the Nara period (710 CE‒794 CE), cultivated the land in the eastern region of the Kōfu Basin for vineyards and taught the locals how to grow grapes for medicinal purposes. There is yet one more story that says Gyōki’s grapevines may have been rediscovered by Kageyu Amemiya during the Kamakura period (1185 CE‒1333 CE). It is said that Amemiya replanted the curious vine on his land and began to improve the grape variety now known as Kōshū.
We can be fairly certain that the Kōshū grape, the variety which bears the ancient name of Yamanashi Prefecture, travelled to the island archipelago via the Silk Road through China as analyses of DNA have revealed that the modern Kōshū grape is actually a hybrid of grapes found in the Caucuses region near the Caspian Sea and wild varieties found in China. It seems likely that grapes arrived in this island nation at about the same time Buddhism was introduced from the mainland in the sixth century CE as this time period marks the zenith of Chinese influence on Japan.
Regardless of the true story of how it all began, due to Japan’s geographic isolation, and its deliberate isolationist policy from 1603-1868, more than a millennium passed before the Japanese began to try their hands at modern winemaking. However, if a 300-strong band of samurai had not lost the battle of Kōshū-Katsunuma, a key battle of Japan’s Boshin Civil War of 1868-1869, Japan might have remained isolated far longer than it did. As fate would have it, an imperial force’s complete rout of the samurai meant it was only a matter of time before Japan would once again open to the world.
Less than a decade after the defeat of the samurai at the battle of Kōshū-Katsunuma (which incidentally was fought just a stone’s throw away from Daizen-ji Temple where Gyōki is alleged to have first planted his grapevines), two young men from Japan’s first private winery were dispatched from a country that had been closed to the world to study the art of winemaking in Troyes, the Champagne region of Northern France. On their return, they helped establish Japan’s first winery.
Exploring the Kōfu Basin
Fast forward some 140 years to the interior of an ultra-modern express train that left the futuristic cityscape of Tokyo just 90 minutes before. As you emerge from the last serpentine train tunnel, making your way into the eastern Kōfu Basin, you suddenly plunge into vast swathes of lush vineyards that seem to creep from the valley floor to the mountains overhead. On countless occasions, as I sat peering through my window onboard such a train, I felt a deep longing to explore the countless vineyards, and more than 80 local wineries, on foot. Anyone who loves to explore knows that walking is the best way to get an intimate knowledge of a place, so after years of longing, I made that daydream a reality and the following commentary on Japan’s premier winery region is the result.
Kōshū grapes grow in pinkish-grey clusters under pergola-style vineyards. The distinctive characteristics of Kōshū wines made with the Sur Lie (“on the lees”) production method are a pale straw colour and a soft, fruity and aromatic bouquet with overtones of citrus, white peach and honeysuckle. The taste is clean, delicate and fresh. One might be tempted to say that Kōshū wines are too delicate, but you cannot separate the wine from the local cuisine.
When it comes to food, Shintaro Furuya of Haramo Winery told me, the Japanese people value freshness above all else, and that is why they keep seasoning to a minimum in their cuisine.
“Freshness is the most prized ingredient in Japanese cuisine, so why would we make a wine that masks its subtle flavours?”
Another joy of exploring the region is the prevalence of local farmhouses of the Meiji period (1868-1912) – referred to as the “Kōshū-gable-type”. Many excellent examples of the Kōshū-gable-type house can still be seen throughout Katsunuma today. Most notably, Marufuji Winery, Haramo Winery, Kurambon Winery, and Katsunuma Jyozo Winery showcase their wines in some of the most lovingly maintained of these buildings.
Top wineries to visit
Marufuji Winery’s tasting room, with its rich wooden interior, exudes rustic charm. The winery, established in 1890, has converted its old stone and concrete fermentation tanks into a wine cellar holding more than 90,000 bottles.
The winery’s trademark is “Rubaiyat.” “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” is the title that Edward FitzGerald gave to his 1859 translation from Persian to English of a selection of quatrains, stanzas of four lines, attributed to Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), a Persian mathematician, astronomer and poet. By the 1880s, the book was extremely well known throughout the English-speaking world, to the extent that numerous “Omar Khayyam Clubs” were formed. In fact, a fabulous bejewelled edition of the Rubáiyát ended up aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic.
Art thou a weary, friend, in all thy bones?
Drink wine, red wine, and so forget thy groans;
Wine is unlawful, sayst thou? then say I–
Who loves not wine had best, I think, eat stones.
If you look closely at the walls of the cellar, you will see tartaric acid crystals which are romantically referred to as “wine diamonds.” It seems fitting that although the bejewelled edition of the Rubáiyát rests at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, diamonds have been hidden in wine since time immemorial.
- Rubaiyat Kôshu Sur Lie: Fermented in glass-lined tanks and aged on the lees for 7 months, this dry white wine has a charming aroma of citrus, a crisp clean taste, and a faint sweetness of dried fruits.
- Rubaiyat Muscat Bailey A Barrel Select: This medium-body red wine is made from a Japanese hybrid grape. It is fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged in French and American oak barrels for 13 months. The wine has an aroma of candied red berries, and caramel, along with fruit flavours.
Lumière winery, founded in 1885, is the oldest family-owned winery in Japan and has been operating continuously for over 130 years. Its ishigura (granite wine tanks) date back to 1901 and its wine cellar dates back to 1902. Members of the public can participate in Lumière’s annual stone-tank winemaking event held in mid- September. The event begins with a traditional Shinto blessing, of course.
Make sure to walk around the winery to view the many traditional Kōshū-gable-type homes and pergola-style (trellised) vineyards. Due to the relatively high amount of rainfall in summer, which can potentially cause rot, pergola-style vineyards account for 95% of the vineyards in the eastern Kōfu Basin.
- Lumière Koshu Hikari: This white wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks, and aged for 6 months on the lees. It is a dry wine with a fruity citrus aroma and mineral notes.
- Prestige Class Orangé: This white wine employs the Carbonic Maceration Method of fermenting the juice of the grapes with their skins for 2 weeks, and ageing in oak barrels. It has a deep orange colour and the flavours of apricot, banana and ripe melon with a textured complex palate and finish.
Katsunuma Jyozo Winery
The walk from Lumière Winery to Katsunuma Jyozo Winery is truly spectacular. Scan the sea of trellised vineyards for glimpses of traditional architecture and locals tending to their vines. As this winery’s tasting room is next to the road, don’t forget to check the custom-made manhole covers depicting clusters of grapes forged in iron.
Katsunuma Jyozo Winery’s tasting room is housed in a 140-year-old Japanese merchant’s house from the Meiji period (1868-1912). Enjoy the old-world charm of its Kura (traditional storage house) with its barrel display and its collection of Riedel wine glasses and decanters. Better yet, relax on the winery’s terrace where you will be serenaded by a stream that flows before a scene of vineyards and innumerable rolling mountains in the distance.
- Aruga Branca Issehara: This single-vineyard dry white wine from Issehara is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. In addition to having a gorgeous bouquet of peaches and lime, it has a distinct floral aroma. This wine has an elegant impression giving rise to its unique personality.
- Aruga Branca Pipa: This dry white wine is fermented in French oak barrels for 6 months, and then aged in the bottle for 2 years. The wine has a soft lemon and floral scent with rich oak barrel aroma. It has balanced acidity and a smooth finish.
As you walk along the narrow vineyard roads towards MGVs Winery, you will likely meet the local farmers who seem to genuinely welcome the presence of tourists. The first thing they want to know is where you are from, then they want to tell you about their vineyards and maybe which wineries use their grapes. These chance meetings are at the heart of sustainable tourism, so despite the daunting language barrier, just jump right in.
When you arrive at MGVs Winery, you will be welcomed into a chic tasting room with massive windows which look onto the daily operations of the winery. Opened in 2017, it is the creation of a semiconductor manufacturer who has deep roots in local viticulture. When competition from cheaper semiconductor producers became too fierce, the president of the company turned to his family’s traditional vocation, viticulture. Unlike his forefathers, he wasn’t happy to just grow grapes. Thus, MGVs Winery was born.
- K537 Koshu N.V. GI Yamanashi: this 100% Koshu sparkling wine, first fermented as a still wine in stainless steel tanks, undergoes its secondary fermentation using the Charmat process. Koshu-specific aroma and taste, along with smooth bubbles, make for a harmonious finish.
- B521 Muscat Bailey A GI Yamanashi: this rosé wine, finished using the saignée method, has a brilliant pink radiance, an exquisite sweet scent of strawberries, and light acidity. It has a pleasant light flavour and a clean dry finish.
InsideJapan Tours offers a guided walking tour of these family-run wineries in the Yamanashi region, where you can learn more about the history of Japanese winemaking, and sample the good stuff in their tasting rooms.