History of Japanese Wine Production
Although grapes themselves were introduced into Japan around 1,000 years ago, it was only after Japan again opened its doors to the world following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 that formal winemaking began.
Inspired by Europe, the new Meiji government was keen to promote industry. In the grape-producing areas of Yamanashi attention fell on wine-making. The first wineries were set up in the early 1870's but wine-making know-how was limited. This changed in August 1877 with the establishment of Dainippon Yamanashi Budoshu in Shimoiwasaki, Katsunuma, which promptly dispatched two young men, Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya, to France to study winemaking. They were taken under the wing of a winemaker in Troyes, Champagne. After just over a year they returned to Japan to impart their knowledge and test out their newfound skills.
But translating studies in European winemaking to Japanese soils proved a challenge. Initial attempts to grow European grape varieties for red wine failed and they turned to American grape varieties which suited the land but were not typical wine grapes. When it came to white wine they used Koshu grapes, but again the grape variety and the growing climate were far removed from those of Europe. Technical difficulties, compounded by differences in the local palate, led to a reliance on chapitalisation to make overly sweet table wines akin to alcoholic grape juice. Just as sake was made by rice farmers, so wine was made by grape farmers: in many cases, table grapes left over from the harvest would be collected and made into wine by cooperatives.
Nevertheless, domestic wine production continued in full force throughout the 20th century, the largest winemakers boasting elegant properties for entertaining visiting dignitaries, and offices in Tokyo for distribution. Wine was supplied to the Imperial Household, sent to soldiers in wartime and fed the wine boom of the 1980's Bubble Period.
The late 1980’s, however, saw the start of a revolution in Japanese winemaking. Spurred by success with the Sur Lie (“on the lees”) production technique, a new generation of winemakers set out to prove that Koshu had the potential to be a sophisticated dry white wine. In the early 21st Century, further experimentation was bolstered by collaboration with overseas winemakers including the late Denis Dubourdieu, a highly respected professor at the University of Bordeaux.
By 2010, Koshu wine had caught the attention of heavyweights of the wine world Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson and can now be found in the first class cabins of Japanese airlines JAL and ANA, at Nobu restaurants and in Selfridges in London.