10 interesting facts about Japanese wine

May 13th, 2016

10 interesting facts about Japanese wine

By Joseph Temple

With Tokyo being home to an unprecedented 226 Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s safe to say that Japan is, as wine writer Karen MacNeil states, “one of the most gastronomically sophisticated countries in the world.” Whether it’s a traditional kaiseki meal or European inspired dishes, the Japanese have without question turned their country into a culinary mecca. And when it comes to wine, the Land of the Rising Sun continues to be Asia’s most important market for exporters.

Helping to spark this interest was Shinya Tasaki who, in 1995, became the first Japanese winner of the Sommelier World Championship.  Since then, a plethora of wine schools combined with a taste for the finer things in life has caused wine consumption to more than double from 1990 to 2012. But in addition to importing Bordeaux and Burgundy, domestic labels represented nearly a third of all Japanese wine sales in 2010.

Given the volcanoes, monsoons and its high population density, it’s amazing that Japan even has a domestic wine industry beyond rice-based saké. Experiencing intense humidity during the summer months along with torrential downpours and Siberian winds, the 6,852 islands of this archipelago nation make it one of the least hospitable places in the world for practicing viticulture. Despite this, local vintners have continued to defy the odds, carving out a niche market for oenophiles. So have a look below at ten quick facts that will get you up to speed on this proud nation’s wine heritage.

Japan's first wines
1. It is believed that Jesuit missionaries from Portugal gave Japan its first wines in the 16th century as gifts to the feudal lords of Kyushu.


Meiji Restoration and Japanese wine
2. Japan’s modern wine industry began in the 1860s during the Meiji Restoration where the country opened itself up to western influences.


Grapes used in Japanese vineyards
3. The first plantings in the late 19th century were mostly Vitis labrusca varieties brought over from the United States that included Delaware and Niagara grapes.

How many acres are dedicated to vineyards in Japan
By Sophie Jacquin (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

4. Today, Japan ranks 47th in the world for vineyard land with approximately 45,000 acres of vines.


humidity Japan vineyard wine
5. Humid weather makes it very difficult to grow vinifera grapes in Japan.

Koshu wine Japan
By genta_hgr (Grape) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

6. However, one of Japan’s most successful varieties is koshu, a humidity tolerant Vitis vinifera white grape with a pinkish hue.

Japanese wine grapes
By jetalone [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

7. Another popular grape is “Muscat Bailey A” – a red wine hybrid created by Zenbai Kawakami by combining Bailey and Muscat Hamburg grapes together.


Winemaking in Japan
8. Most vines in Japan are planted on the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido.

Japanese vineyards

9. Small and independent growers own most of Japans’ vineyards with the average vineyard size being less than 1.2 acres.

Japanese wine growing techniques
By Aw1805 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

10. To achieve maximum sun exposure, vintners will use various techniques like planting their vines on steep mountain terraces or constructing trellises to keep the grapes as high as 10 feet.


Bunting, Chris. Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2014.
Brostrom, Geralyn G. & Brostrom, Jack. The Business of Wine: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008.
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. New York: Workman Publishing, 2015.
Robinson, Jancis. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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May 13th, 2016

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