Defining Japan’s Wine Terroir (Wine Spectator)

The Japanese wine industry is maturing, gaining new recognition and increasing sales thanks to improving quality. That’s led the government to take the first steps toward a true appellation system, noting on labels where grapes were grown.

But that’s created a challenge for wineries, because most don’t own vineyards and many source fruit from multiple regions. And an aging population of farmers means that vineyard acreage is actually shrinking just as demand for local wines is growing.

New laws safeguard Japanese terroir

Wine is the only sector of Japan’s alcoholic beverage market that is growing annually by volume. In 2017, the government granted manufacturing licenses for fruit wine to 39 new entities, according to the National Tax Agency.

Before the new regulations, there were few rules for labeling wine in Japan. This meant consumers with little knowledge of domestic wine couldn’t easily distinguish between bottles. Wine made from imported grape juice concentrate was sold alongside domestic wine as “Japanese.”

Imported grapes could also be blended with domestic grapes, and the resulting wines sold without concern for place names. There were no official restrictions on naming regions on labels when mixing grapes from different locations, with the exception of wines sourced from the Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures. (Those regions have a longer winemaking history, and labeling laws were enacted more than a decade ago.)

The new regulations from the National Tax Agency, which went into effect at the end of October 2018, state that only wines made from 100 percent domestically grown grapes can be labeled as Japanese wine. The rules also create a new geographical indication system restricting the use of place names to wines using at least 85 percent fruit from that place. Also, more than 85 percent of a single grape variety must be used to put the grape name on the label.

With new rules, complications

While the new law will make it clear to consumers where their wine comes from, it’s also creating headaches for wineries. For a long time, wineries were not permitted to have vineyards. New rules passed in 2009 included measures to allow wineries to rent agricultural land, but it is still much cheaper for wineries to buy fruit than to cultivate vines.

While large companies are starting to plant their own vineyards and more established wineries have long-term relationships with farmers, smaller producers have to build partnerships and make spot buys, often from different areas each year. Under the new geographical indicator rules, wineries might need to redesign labels annually.

Hisayuki Kawabe, winemaker at Takahata Wine in Yamagata, said that many of Japan’s wineries name themselves after their town or local area, but don’t always source grapes from the same place. “Three quarters of our wine is made with local fruit,” said Kawabe, who spent 15 years making wine in California, “and I’m making the needed adjustments with careful consideration about how best to present new information on the labels.”

Takahata Wine also makes more than 50 private labels for hotels, resorts and other businesses around the country that want souvenirs to offer customers. All those clients will need to adjust their labels. Kawabe worries that up to half of the smaller businesses might simply stop their orders because the cost and time of consultation and redesign might be too much.

Grape shortages on the horizon

The changes come at a time when the number of farmers is declining. Over the past 10 years, Japanese vineyard land has decreased by 3,600 acres, a reduction of roughly 8 percent, according to government statistics. While there are more wineries, the number of growers is decreasing due to the aging population. There are also reports that some elderly farmers refuse to sell land held by their families for generations, despite not having successors.

Even Japan’s most popular grape is hard to find. Koshu is a white grape variety, slightly pink in color, and long-grown in Yamanashi. A hybrid of Vitis vinifera and Asian grapes, it is considered native to Japan. Roughly 10 years ago, many growers replanted their vineyards, switching from Koshu to table grape varieties that sold for higher prices. Then, Koshu wine started to gain popularity, pushed enthusiastically by Japan’s wine community as being uniquely Japanese.

“The amount of Koshu grapes being grown is far below what winemakers would like,” said Kunio Naito, managing director of Tokyo importer and retailer Cave de Relax.

Lessons from two historic regions

While the new laws will create growing pains, two historic wine regions that have had similar rules for more than 15 years show the long-term impact may be good for the wine industry. Yamanashi is Japan’s oldest and most famous wine region—the first record of wine produced there is from the 16th century, and some believe winemaking dates even farther back. It’s home to quality wineries like Château Mercian. It has the highest number of wineries and is home to the town of Koshu, which the grape was named for. Just across the border in Nagano is Shiojiri, another well-known wine area.

Toru Mochizuki, an advisor at the Yamanashi Wine Manufacturer’s Association, said most Yamanashi wineries use local grapes. Wineries there have been focusing on growing the region.

Neighboring Nagano has acted to encourage growth within its wine sector by designating four new wine areas, said Sasateru Maruyama, an official at the local spirits section of the Nagano prefectural government. “The Chikumagawa, Kikyogahara, Nihon Alps and Tenryugawa Wine Valleys promote wine production and tourism in the regions,” said Maruyama.

The region is also addressing the issues of dwindling farmland. “Despite the decrease in farmers here, the area of local cultivation is increasing as prefectural policies and training programs help wineries and younger growers take over farmland,” said Takaro Miyajima, from the government’s horticulture and livestock division. New vineyards are also being created with joint funding from the Japanese government.

While the new regulations will strengthen the position of Japan’s winemakers, the next step is ensuring vintners have enough grapes and educating consumers about regional wine. And it will be up to winemakers to make that push. “There are no penalties attached to the new regulations,” said Kawabe. “We don’t know if everyone is going to protect the new regulations or not.”

Stay on top of important wine stories with Wine Spectator’s free Breaking News Alerts.