200 estates, 30,000 hectares of vines, 100 million litres of wine produced each year... Over the last fifty years or so, Japan has carved out a place for itself among the world’s new wine-growing nations.
Growing vines, however, is nothing new in Japan. Introduced in the 8th century by Buddhist monks, vines were long reserved for producing table grapes. The first plants used to make wine were imported by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century, but their future was short-lived. In the 17th century, introduction of an isolationist policy deprived the elite of a drink they were beginning to enjoy. It was not until the Meiji reign in 1868 that some European wines returned to Japanese tables, encouraging the production of the first Japanese wines.
Mixed with water, sugar and spirits, these sweet wines were considered to be a poor man’s drink and they struggled to secure a place for themselves in the sun. It was only at the end of the 1960s that Japanese wine found favour in the eyes of the population. With its additives finally removed, it surfed on a fascination of the Land of the Rising Sun for French lifestyle and successfully carved out a place for itself.
Driven by this new momentum, wineries burgeoned across the country. Over a few years, the Yamanashi region had established itself as the capital of Japanese wine. Vineyards even sprang up on the Hokkaido peninsula, in the north of the country, and on the slopes of Mount Fuji. They are planted to local varieties such as koshu, white kai and black kai, but also international varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet-Sauvignon. Three quarters of the wines produced in Japan are however made from grapes grown in South America or Central Europe, imported in bulk to be fermented in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Japanese whisky, combining tradition and modernity
Introduced into Japan at the beginning of the Meiji era, whisky became popular much quicker than wine. The first distilleries appeared in 1918. Their production techniques, mixing Scottish traditions and Japanese innovations, produce spirits that enjoy world-wide acclaim and can even compete with the finest Scotch whiskies. This is not surprising when you think that the major Japanese producers have bought themselves estates in northern Scotland, using their European whiskies to produce blends.
By Alexandra Reveillon