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Introduction

Japan – A country that manages to amaze the world with technological innovations like the Shinkansen trains, and picturesque landscapes of outstanding beauty. Let’s dig deeper here and look for the culinary delights.

On the beverage front, Japan is known for sake & tea and has a long history of fruit growing, yet what about Japanese wine? You may think its like Sumo ringer trying to run up Mt. Fiji, but let me assure you; it’s a much more graceful matter.

What is Japanese wine?

Japanese wine is subtle, delicate yet complex. It is a balancing act which is best enjoyed with the rich culinary offerings. Get your sushi and sashimi orders in, warm up your miso soups and start frying away in your tempura batter.

A few facts

  • Japan’s wine industry dates back to 1860 
  • The last 20 years marked a turning point as stricter laws and regulations were established; for example, only Japanese-grown grapes could be labelled as “Wine of Japan”
  • 36 of 47 prefectures produce wine and the appreciation of fruit growing is high
  • Portuguese were the first Europeans to bring wines & vines to Japan
  • Pink in appearance – Koshu is the most popular variety (mostly found in Yamanashi)
  • Dynamic orange wine scene. See wine Nr. 10 below
  • Vitis Vinifera is on the rise, yet still plenty of hybrids found
  • Varieties like Zweigelt (in Yamagata), Syrah (in Nagano) and Gewürztraminer are well worth seeking out
  • Yamanashi, Nagano, Hokkaido & Yamagata are the prefectures with the most plantings 

Tasting notes

Below you will find my personal tasting notes for 11 different Japanese wines including some food & fine pairing suggestions and glassware recommendations.

RP: Retail Price £ =<£15 / ££=£15-£30 / £££=>£30

Wine 1 – 2016 Koshu Sparkling Aruga Branca Brilhante

Highlights

  • Champagne method & delicate mousse
  • Yuzu & lychee
  • Great partner for food

Price: ££

Tasting note

Delicate bubbles, initially very lychee driven nose with a delicate mousse. Subtle power which carries a lovely citrusy almost yuzu like quality. Gives a lovely ginger-like white peachy character when combined with soy sauce. A very good sparkling wine. Authentic and pure. Outstanding with the salmon and tuna sashimi.

Glassware

No flutes please, it wouldn’t serve the delicate structure well and channel it even more. A classic white wine glass like the Zalto White Wine or Riedel Vinum Riesling would do great here.

Food & wine pairing

Delicious with the Tuna Sashimi served alongside the aged soy sauce. I had a 2-year-old Kamebishi soy sauce, which worked really well giving some saltiness but not being too powerful. Very versatile style; the sky is the limit.

Wine 2 – 2019 Koshu, Clareza, Argua Branco

Highlights

  • Citrusy & refreshing
  • Packed with umami – give it time
  • Completely different with food

Price: ££

Tasting note

Primary fruit aroma on the fresh citrusy side, with slight candied lemon peel and delicate pear aroma. Hint of lychee and underripe exotic fruits detectable. Crisp and light mineral feel to it. As the name suggests the Portuguese heritage and it certainly is comparable to a light and crisp styles of a Vinho Verde. Its true quality emerges with time where it takes on a more umami like taste.

Glassware

Your prefered white wine glass. Great for your Zalto White Wine or Riedel Vinum Riesling.

Food & wine pairing

Oysters would be fabulous with this. Just go for that little bit of chili dressing.

Wine 3 – 2019 Koshu ‘Kayagatake, Grace Winery

Highlights

  • Slight reductive touch at first
  • Good combo of being mineral & citrusy
  • Can easily stand up to big flavours

Price: ££

Tasting note

Certainly a bit of protective winemaking here (as little contact with O2 as possible). Nevertheless charming and inviting style with yellow apples and ripe Williams pear and a salty slight saline aroma to it. Densely structure and some lemon and grapefruit peel. Delicious with the salmon sashimi, and if you are into your pickled ginger it has no problem dealing with it too.

Glassware

Give this some room to breathe. Syrah/Shiraz Performance from Riedel or your Riedel Vinum Viognier

Food & wine pairing

Salmon sashimi and go for that soy sauce. 

Wine 4 – 2019 Koshu ‘Private Reserve‘, Grace Winery

Highlights

  • Floral scented
  • Citrusy & exotic flavours
  • Ageworthy

Price: ££

Tasting note

A floral lifted style with notes of acacia and honeysuckle. Shows a wonderful textural element and with a lovely refreshing mid-palate. Has a delicate exotic note of underripe mango and juicy honeydew melon. Performs so well with tuna sashimi and the 2-year-old Kamebishi soy sauce. Very good now but surely can take a few more years to fully reveal its potential and full flavour spectrum.

Glassware

Give this some room to breathe. Slightly bigger white wine glass like Zalto Universal or Nude Stem Zero ION Shield Aromatic White

Food & wine pairing

Tuna sashimi was delicious with it yet it was rather splendid with the seaweed salad too. 

Wine 5 – 2018 Sauvignon Blanc ‘Tazaki Vineyard’ Hokkaido Wine Company

Highlights

  • Undeniable Sauvignon Blanc
  • If you like Kiwi Sauvignon…this is for you!
  • Easy drinking style

Price: ££

Tasting note

Slightly artificial nose of Haribo or sweet-sour snacks. Big on the passionfruit front with a few grams of residual sugar varietal character = Yes. Fun wine…easy drinking.

Glassware

Classic white wine glass like Riedel Vinum Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. 

Food & wine pairing

On its own but good allrounder. Will do really well with your homemade seaweed salad. 

Wine 6 – 2019 Gewürztraminer ‘Tsurunuma’, Hokkaido Wine Company

Highlights

  • Aromatic style but not overdone!
  • Exotic fruit driven style
  • Very good balance

Price: ££

Tasting note

Aromatic style with a very good balance and a classic floral nose of roses and geranium. Good and not an overbearing intensity with alcohol being totally in check here (12.5%). Exotic fruits like pineapple and guava with hints of banana and kiwi. Lovely lingering finish with good textural element. Well done!

Glassware

Classic white wine glass like Riedel Vinum Riesling or Nude ION Shield Aromatic White

Food & wine pairing

Pair with your tapioca pudding or vanilla panna cotta.

Wine 7 – 2019 Riesling-Shinano ‘Karakuchi’ Solaris, Manns Wines

Highlights

  • A Riesling x Chardonnay cross
  • Multi-layered & inviting
  • Great Allrounder

Price: ££

Tasting note

Very nicely perfumed style which instantly reminds me of some Pfalz or Rheinhessen Rieslings. White peach with some apricot character and a hint of delicate sweetness but more a fruit-sweetness. Truly surprising and a well-made example. Shows initially the Riesling varietal character we know yet a sense of place. The acidity seems to be the good backbone, yet I would suggest of not keeping it too long. Drink in 1-3 years to showcase its pretty primary fruit character/aroma. Excellent allrounder.

Food & wine pairing

Pair with what you love eating. Can easily deal with hot-spicy dishes or your plate of sushi. Just don’t go too hard on that wasabi.

Wine 8 – 2018 Chardonnay ‘Tarujikomi‘ Solaris Shinano, Manns Wines

Highlights

  • Great texture and delicate exotic fruits
  • Soft & round yet not heavy
  • Nose and palate couldn’t be more different

Price: ££

Tasting note

Initially a bit shy on the aroma side of things, yet delicate yellow apples with notes of almonds and hint of vanilla are revealing itself. The surprise lies in the great texture and the weight. Not heavy in any sense but clearly making its presence known on your mid palate. On the palate with much more exotic fruits emerging full of mango, and tinned pineapple. Well made and a wine of 2 phases.

Glassware

Large, wide and open ideally bowl shaped glass. Try Riedel Veritas Oaked Chardonnay, Nude Stem Zero Ion Shield Rich White.

Food & wine pairing

Will do wonders with your seafood. Try grilled crab aka yaki-gani in Japan. With a bit of lemon or sudachi (sour japanese citrus fruit).

Wine 9 – 2018 Chardonnay ‘Rivalis’, Hokushin Left Bank, Chateau Mercian

Highlights

  • Very skilful crafted Chardonnay
  • Great balance and oak-integration
  • Age-worthy yet very approachable now

Price: £££

Tasting note

A reductive style of Chardonnay crafted on a very high level. It’s intriguing, inviting and very well made. No component is overbearing or sticking out. A combo of exotic and ripe orchid fruits like quince – all wrapped around a citrusy layer of freshness. I would struggle to call this in a blind tasting a Japanese Chardonnay 🙂 Well worth a try.

Glassware

A large ideally bowl shaped glass which is wide and open. Try Riedel Veritas Oaked Chardonnay, Nude Stem Zero Ion Shield Rich White.

Food & wine pairing

Regardless if it is vegetables or seafood tempura dishes, this will be a match made in heaven.

Wine 10 – 2019 Orange ‘Prestige’, Chateau Lumiere

Highlights

  • Top-end ‘orange’ wine
  • Great balance and packed with umami
  • Pleases orange newbies and veterans alike

Price: ££

Tasting note

A powerful and expressive nose (unlike the others), this is really jumping out the glass. Instantly some spicy notes with nutmeg and some ginger, candied orange peel and some salted caramel notes. Opens up in the glass so nicely that the initially slightly tart finish becomes smoother with every sip. Delicate tea-like tannin with oolong notes (milk oolong) and some bergamot aromas. Not only great for beginners but the orange wine enthusiasts.

Glassware

Larger white wine glass or smaller red wine glass. I settled with a Riedel Syrah Performance. Give it surface to breath and time to open in the glass.

Food & wine pairing

Try your favourite version of miso soups and see the magic work. 

Wine 11 – Syrah ‘Mariko’, Chateau Mercian

Highlights

  • Cool climate style of Syrah
  • Full of black grounded pepper

Price: ££

Tasting note

Cool climate style; very peppery with plenty of baking spice character and a slight artificial note with some leathery undertones. Charred meat flavours. The palate is balanced with plenty of dark fruits of blackberries and plums. Intriguing and certainly a personal preference if you like it or not.

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Glassware

Medium sized red wine glass. I like it out of the Riedel Syrah Performance or try the Nude Stem Zero ION Shield Powerful Red.

Food & wine pairing

Get your yakitori grills fired up. Would love to see this with some smoked pork chop…

Conclusion

Tasting 11 Japanese wines was a truly eye-opening experience as the quality clearly shines through in each and every one of them. I would highly recommend enjoying them together with some authentic Japanese food. Once you have them with food, they all start to shine and show a normally hidden side of aromas and flavours. Comparing them with other wines doesn’t do them justice as they are authentic Japanese. A sumo ringer may struggle to sprint up the mountain but on the way down he may just be as fast as you – it is just a matter of perspective who is more graceful.

Japanese wines comes at a certain price point and you most likely will struggle to find something under £20. The reasons are rather simple. The high cost for the labour and simply the land itself. Shipping cost and local taxes will further drive the price up, yet its truly worth seeking out.

Arigatō…till next time!

P.S.: Last but not least; all of this would have been not possible without the help of Sarah Abbott MW and Madeleine Waters. Many thanks to this power couple.

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