TEIJI TAKAHASHI, KIMIE HARADA, KAZUHIKO KOBAYASHI & HIROSHI SAITO
Wines of Japan. A Comprehensive Guide to the Wines and Wineries of Japan
Ikaros Publications, Tokyo, 2017
pp. 465 (bilingual edition)
$16.99 (Kindle edition)
Reviewed by Hal Hill
The authors of this engaging and informative bilingual volume open with the state- ment “[y]ou may think it unlikely that a quality wine can be produced in Japan. … You are however advised to update your world map of wine … Japan has a history of about … 150 years of making wine” (p. 5).
This observation sets the scene for a book which had its origins in a conference at the University of Tokyo in 2011, and is the first serious publication of its type in English. Historically Japan’s wine industry was very small. It dates from the start of the Meiji era in 1868, when the government first encouraged its production. But until recently wine was relatively unimportant in Japanese drinking and cuisine. In fact, wine was considered unsuitable for its cuisine. Moreover, the country’s soils are pre- dominantly volcanic ash. Rainfall is typically heavy during the flowering period, especially in June, while typhoons are common during the maturation month of September. In addition, summers are hot and humid, creating problems with fungal disease. As the authors put it, wine was considered a “classy” drink, reserved for special occasions. All this was based on the widespread view that the Asian monsoon region (not just Japan) would always produce its alcoholic drinks made from starches in rice and other grains.
Things began to slowly change in the 1960s. As Japan became rich and more global, and as international tourism expanded, there was a growing interest in wine. Several pioneering winemakers studied and lived abroad, principally in France and the United States, and they began to experiment with domestic produc- tion. These winemakers began to enter their wines in international shows, and in time received recognition for their efforts.
However, the authors emphasize that the industry is still, in some respects, in its infancy. It may not be widely understood that most wine “produced” in Japan is, in fact, made from imported grape juice or concentrate. These are the major bever- age companies, with factories in Japan’s main port cities. Only about 18–19% of the total is made from grapes grown in Japan. The country will probably always be a net wine importer. About 70% of wine consumed is imported. The country is not, and may never be, a significant wine exporter, and its wines are not commonly found abroad. In addition, Japanese wine consumption is relatively low compared to most high-income countries, just 3.3 litres per adult per year.
Nevertheless, the authors clearly demonstrate that things are on the move. Wine is becoming increasingly popular. In October 2015, the first official labeling regulations were introduced, requiring that only wine produced from locally grown grapes could be termed “Japan Wine.” A system of Geographical Indications (GIs) has been intro- duced, and is gradually spreading across the country. Wine imports were liberalized as far back as 1970, and the foreign competition is forcing the local industry to lift its quality. Accompanying these changes has been the growth of wine tourism and culinary innovation in the major wine areas, especially those renowned for their scenic beauty.
One of the most interesting features of the book is the survey of the major wine producing regions and winemakers, including interviews with the owners of more than 40 wineries. This constitutes six of the seven main chapters. The authors care- fully document the continuous experimentation with grape varieties, regions, sites, horticultural practices, and vinification technologies. Gradually some patterns are clearly emerging. The industry is expanding mainly in the east and north of the country, in the higher altitude regions of the main island of Honshu, and in the northern island of Hokkaido. A variety of European grape varieties that tolerate wet climates have been introduced, with mixed success. Merlot and chardonnay appear to have adapted better than most. But the major success story to date has been the white grape variety known as “koshu.” This is, in fact, an indigenous variety that has existed in Japan for centuries, mainly in the country’s major wine producing region, Yamanashi. This region, which produces about one-third of the country’s grapes, is located in a valley (and, hence, more protected from typhoons), with somewhat less rainfall. In 2013 Yamanashi was the first region to be officially recognized for its GI status. It is also quite close to Tokyo and the country’s famous Mt. Fuji, and, thus, has potential for growing wine tourism.
The industrial organization of the industry is segmented. It consists of five major firms, mainly using imported material and all with a history in the food and beverage industry, alongside about 280 smaller wineries. The latter typically use locally grown grapes, often from their own vineyard. In total, only about 10% of the grapes are grown by the wineries themselves, in part a legacy of earlier land regulations. Although Japanese winemakers have studied abroad, the foreign presence appears to be relatively small, as it is in the Japanese economy in general. There are no major foreign investors in the industry, while the practice of “flying winemakers,” so common in new world producers as a means of rapid technological learning and diffusion, is uncommon.
Appropriately, the authors’ pioneering work was recognized in September 2018 at a ceremony in Paris with an International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) award in the “wines and territories” category. The volume has paved the way for other researchers in this field. For example, there is passing reference to the high costs of production, but the economics of the industry is not examined in any detail. The very strong yen for much of the past three decades is presumably a factor in the high cost structure. It may also be the case that agricultural protection, especially for rice, has inflated land values and, hence, agricultural costs. The rela- tively closed Japanese labour market, in this case for example, for the wine harvest, could be another factor. One might therefore hypothesize that Japan will remain a relatively small but interesting niche producer, its wine of particular interest to a loyal domestic clientele and to a select international market with a particular interest in Japanese wine and culinary culture.
More generally, the authors point to the need for more accurate wine production, consumption, and trade statistics in Japan (and its neighbours, particularly China), a subject on which one of the authors has co-authored an important recent paper in this Journal (Anderson and Harada, 2018). One can only hope that this volume will stimulate more work in this field.
The background of the authors is eclectic: two of them are academics at Tokyo universities (one in finance, the other in agriculture and life sciences); one has a law doctorate and worked mainly for the Japanese government and the United Nations; and one has a graduate education in wine and direct commercial experi- ence. The president of the Japan Wine Association also provides a brief, interesting Afterword.
The book is beautifully illustrated and written in a lively and accessible style. For anybody interested in knowing more about wine in this, the world’s third largest economy, and understanding its recent evolution and adaptation in a country with a deep and ancient culture, this is the volume to read.
Australian National University