Regular wine making began in Japan with the adoption of Western culture during the Meiji restoration in the second half of the 19th century.
The main region for winemaking in Japan is in Yamanashi Prefecture which accounts for 40% of domestic production, although grapes are cultivated and wine is also produced in more limited quantities by vintners from Hokkaido in the North to Miyazaki Prefecture on the Southern island of Kyushu.
Legend has it that grape-growing in Japan began in 718 AD, in Katsunuma, Yamanashi Prefecture. The first regularly documented wine consumption in Japan was however in the 16th century, with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries from Portugal. Saint Francis Xavier brought wines as gifts for the feudal lords of Kyūshū, and other missionaries continued the practice, resulting in locals acquiring taste for wine and importing it regularly. They called the Portuguese wine chintashu (珍陀酒?), combining the Portuguese word tinto (chinta in Japanese) meaning red and shu (酒?) meaning liquor. However, the enthusiastic adoption of Western culture during the Meiji restoration in the late 1860s had to take place before regular production of local wine started.1 The first attempt to produce wine locally was undertaken in Yamanashi, in 1875. During the first period, cultivation of American grape varieties formed the core of Japanese wine grapes, however they experienced a setback with a Phylloxera epidemic. Afterwards the demand for domestic Japanese wine decreased, but in every region a few viniculturists remained. It was not until after World War II that the scale of winemaking began to grow. However, in comparison to imported juices and bulk wine, domestic Japanese wine is still developing.
In terms of Japanese tastes, the astringency and acidity were not accepted at the beginning.2 For a long time sugars such as honey were added to moderate the flavor and "sweet" (甘口 amakuchi?) wine was the mainstay. To consumers of the time wine was recognized only by types like Kotobukiya's (Suntory) Red Sun Port Wine (赤玉ポートワイン Akadama Pōto Wain?). This trend continued until the 1970s when wine was still fundamentally known as grape liquor (葡萄酒 budōshu?), and a small minority imported European wine.3
During the 1970s and 80s the skill level of wine making increased and the intake of wine grapes spread. This was due to the hard work of specialists, and came with the beginning of calling their holdings "wineries", and the emulation of Western hedging styles and development of specially cultivated insect resistant grape varieties from European strains. Numerous wineries produced superior wines using only pure domestic cultivation, and began to receive good reviews internationally. Also, in response to the specific tastes of Japanese consumers, the production of organic wines also grew.
After this, moderation of taxes on imported wines, a diversification of Japanese food culture, and growing awareness of the beneficial effects of polyphenol (tannins), an understanding of real wine in recent years has come about, also a groundwork has been laid out by the promotion of high quality domestically produced wines. From 2002 onward, leading with Yamanashi Prefecture, a competition focused on "Japanese wine using only 100% Japanese grapes" began. It is open to anyone from individual makers (vigneron), to large producers competing with only the best quality domestic wines.
To accommodate the differing climate in Japan varying hedging techniques are used. In areas of high humidity during the summer, such as Yamagata, an elevated hedging technique is used to keep the fruit about 2–3 meters above the ground to allow ventilation. In areas higher in the mountains, such as Tochigi, where good sunlight is at odds with the jagged terrain, winemakers have planted their hedges on steep hillsides both to receive a maximum of sunlight, as well as protect the vines against damage from heavy snowfall.
There are relatively few independent wine producers in Japan, the industry being dominated by large beverage conglomerates such as Suntory, Snaraku, Manns Wine and Sapporo trading under brands such as Chateau Lion, Delica, and Mercian.
Smaller, family or city owned wineries of note gaining a reputation for producing wines of consistently better quality include Marufuji, Kizan, Katsunuma Jozo, Grace (all in Yamanashi Prefecture) Takeda (Yamagata Prefecture) and Tsuno (Miyazaki Prefecture).
Major wine producing regions of Japan
In Japan the main regions for wine production are Hokkaidō and Yamanashi Prefecture. In Hokkaidō, the town of Ikeda recovered economically from a state of bankruptcy with regional planning toward grape growing and wine production and within 20 years following 1960 was able to make it successful. Thereafter, every region began to foster production, the main cause of which was the influence of the nationwide "One Village, One Speciality Movement" (一村一品運動 Isson Ippin Undō?). In Yamagata during World War II wine was produced in large amounts for the military to provide the dietary supplement cream of tartar, and because the soil in Yamagata is suitable for fruit cultivation, today it is one region that is home to numerous well known producers. In the recent past Aichi Prefecture was also a large producer of wine.
- Hokkaidō: Tokachi Wine (十勝ワイン?), Ikeda. Furano Wine (ふらのワイン?), Furano.
- Yamagata Prefecture: Tendō Wine (天童ワイン?), Tendō.
- Niigata Prefecture: Iwanohara Wine (岩の原ワイン?), Jōetsu.
- Yamanashi Prefecture: Katsunuma Wine (勝沼ワイン?), Kōshū. "Rubaiyat", Kōshū. 100% Domestically grown grapes.
- Nagano Prefecture: Shinshū Wine (信州ワイン?), Shiojiri.
- Shiga Prefecture: Hitomi Wine (ヒトミワイン?), Higashiōmi.
- Tochigi Prefecture：Nasu Wine (那須ワイン?), Nasushiobara.
- Kyoto Prefecture: Tanba Wine (丹波ワイン?), Kyōtanba.
- Osaka Prefecture: Kawachi Wine (河内ワイン?), Kashiwara and Habikino.
- Hyōgo Prefecture: Kobe Wine (神戸ワイン?), Kobe
- In Hyogo Prefecture, Kobe City took the initiative to by developing regional agriculture and tourism with independent wineries as well has launching city-brand products.
- Miyazaki Prefecture: Aya Wine (綾ワイン?), Aya. Tsuno Wine (都農ワイン?), Tsuno.
Japanese grape varieties
Japan supports a wide range of grape varieties, mainly imported from North America, although strictly speaking there are no vines native to Japan.  Introduced vines, most notably the Koshu grape have however evolved locally over many centuries and is therefore considered a local varietal.
Koshu is a white wine grape variety grown primarily in Yamanashi Prefecture. The grape varietal developed from vines likely imported from the Caucasus through the Silk Road, at a period estimated to be around a thousand years ago. The grape belongs to the same Vitis vinifera family as European grapes. The name “Koshu” is a former name for Yamanashi.
Characteristics of wines made from the Koshu grape are typically a pale, straw colour and a soft, fruity bouquet with overtones of citrus and peach. The taste is often described as clean, delicate and fresh, considered a good match for Japanese cuisine.
Muscat Bailey A
"Muscat Bailey-A" (マスカットべリーA?) is a red wine grape hybrid developed by Zenbei Kawakami (川上善兵衛 Kawakami Zenbei?) (1868–1944) at the Iwanohara Winery (岩の原わいん?) in Niigata Prefecture. Kawakami's goal was to develop a grape for wine adapted to Japan's climate. He did this by mixing the "Bailey" (ベーリー?) type grape with "Muscat Hamburg" type grape to give birth to a red wine grape that is widely used in Japan. Also developed by Kawakami was the variety known as "Black Queen" (ブラッククイーン?). The characteristics of Muscat Bailey-A are a very grape juice-like flavor and it is most widely used in sweet amakuchi wines. However in recent years, drier varieties and barrel aged varieties have also been developed. Muscat Bailey-A has been blended with western grapes creating a very full bodied, Bordeaux style flavour. In addition, different blending has led to smoother Bourgogne/Burgundy varieties.
Designation of Origin
"Mark of Origin" (原産地表示 Gensanchi Hyōji?) is a system of legal designation for wine produced in Japan, much like France's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) laws and the United States' American Viticultural Area (AVA) designations.
In Japan there is no nationwide organization of legal designation, regardless of domain of origin or types of grape, anything that is fermented domestically can be labeled as "Japanese wine". Because of this, there are some products labeled as Japanese that are produced using imported grape juice.4
However, independent self-governing municipal bodies have begun systems of regional appellation. For example, Nagano Prefecture's "Appellation Control System" (長野県原産地呼称管理制度 Nagano-ken Gensan-chi Koshō Kanri Seido?), and Kōshū's "Wine Domain of Origin Certification Regulation" (ワイン原産地認証条例 Wain Gensan-chi Ninshō Jōrei?).
- Robinson, Jancis (1999). The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford University Press. pp. 377–380. ISBN 0-19-866236-X.
- Robinson, Oxford Companion to Wine, p.380
- Robinson, Jancis (1999). The Oxford Companion to Wine (Second ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 378. ISBN 0-19-866236-X.
- Koshu of Japan website, page of “About Koshu”.
- “KOSHU wine gets uncorked abroad”. Felicity Hughes, The Japan Times, Jun 10, 2011
- Koshu of Japan website, page of “Taste”
- Japanese wine (Japanese)
- "The Light and Dark of Imported Wine Demand" newspaper article (Japanese)
- History of Japanese Wine from the National Winery Assoc. Website (Japanese)
- The Japanese Wineries Association (Japanese)
- The Japanese Wine Industry (English)