Much like slicing poisonous fugu fish to make sushi, the knife-edge climate conditions in Japan create a tension in the red wines from Japan that thrill. Of course, the wines won’t kill you the way a misjudged slice of fugu can; but, for Japanese grapes, the climate can be life and death – it’s certainly not easy to ripen on an archipelago afflicted by monsoons and typhoons. When the grapes do ripen, the best Japanese wines show a unique freshness, delicacy and intensity.
If Japanese wine is exported – and it is an if as most Japanese wine is consumed domestically – then it most likely be a light white wine from the grape called Koshu. Fine and soft in texture, most Koshu are very pale, almost akin to water, in appearance. Similarly, the red wines are also light in style, but are developing more fruit ripeness due to better site selection and more European varieties planted. How do the vines fare in Japan under these knife-edge conditions?
3 Red Japanese Wines
Here are three red Japanese wines that are all from the same vintage but from three very different regions: Hokkaido, Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures.
Tsurunuma Zweigelt 2015, Hokkaido Wine Company, Hokkaido Prefecture Japan
The island sitting apart from the rest of Japan, Hokkaido is not only cooler, but it is also cool – a lot of younger winemakers are attracted to the area for it’s relative affordability and lack of typhoon season.
Established in 1974, the Hokkaido winery first had German winemaking influence in its initial stages. The soft juicy Austrian red grape variety (a cross between St Laurent and Blaufrankisch) is well suited to the wetter weather in Japan with it’s late bud break and early ripening. The wine shows fresh and delicate plums and red cherries with a clean, spicy finish.
Merlot ‘Cuvée Masako’ 2015, Kusunoki Winery, Nagano Prefecture Japan
In 2002, the Nagano Appellation Control (NAC) was founded. In 2004, the Japanese government relaxed laws to make it easier for boutique wineries to set up. One of the outcomes was a 5 hectare estate set up by Shigeyuki Kusunoki in 2004.
Nagano is the largest producer of Merlot in Japan, although this is closer to Pinot Noir in style than the Merlot talked about in the Sideways film. A fragile pale ruby colour with good intensity on the palate – this is low sulfur, minimal intervention from this small vineyard.
Cabernet Franc 2015, Grace Wine, Yamanashi Prefecture Japan
Grace Wine is one of the most successfully exported Japanese wineries from Yamanashi, the largest wine region in Japan. Although I had tasted their Koshu a few times in the past, I was excited to taste their red wine to see if it matched the quality I knew from the Koshu. Koshu has been grown in Yamanashi for thousands of years, while the Cabernet Franc is a more recent blow in from Europe.
More Saumur in structure than Bordeaux, although even more delicate, the Grace Wine Cabernet Franc has a good intensity of fruit ripeness with soft tannins from the delicate extraction in the winery. The delicate touches of oak – spice, tobacco, vanillin characters – with no sign of unripe green character combined with the delicate berry fruit.
This post was made possible thanks to Wines of Japan UK and a masterclass with Sarah Abbott MW at 67 Pall Mall, London on Tuesday 23rd October 2018
Image: Blue Bird and Wild Grape Vine, Rakusan Tsuchiya