Japan's delight in high-end Burgundy, prestige cuvées and grower Champagnes, natural wines and, more recently, home-grown wines is evidence of a country defining its own wine culture*.
The avenue to Tokyo’s Meiji shrine is lined with 60 Burgundian oak barrels, stacked opposite a similar number of sake casks. Since the shrine was built to commemorate Emperor Meiji, who ruled Japan from 1867 to 1912, and sake plays a key role in Japan’s Shinto ceremonies, one might conclude that wine also has a prominent position.
In the late 19th century, Japan modernised, and an interest in wine ensued. Today, wine is not a part of daily life for most people, but there is a significant wine culture that spans formal dining to casual drinking.
Burgundy that has captured the imagination of connoisseurs
France is central to Japanese wine culture. French cuisine, long seen as the pinnacle of western fine dining, has helped to cement the reputation of French wines. Upmarket grocer Meidi-Ya promoted Château Lafite Rothschild back in 1908, for example. Christie’s conducted wine auctions in Tokyo in the 1990s – beneficiaries of the bubble economy were buyers of collectable Bordeaux.
However, it is Burgundy that has captured the imagination of connoisseurs. Japan was relatively early to appreciate the Côte d'Or; department store Takashimaya has imported Domaine Leroy since 1972. The barrels at Meiji shrine, installed in 2006, are testament to Burgundy’s prestige. The Japanese have traditionally favoured grand cru and premier cru over village wines.
Sparkling wine is another favorite
For the past decade, Champagne has ridden a wave in Japan, which ranks only behind the UK and US in exports for volume and value. Sommelier Makoto Abe reports that Dom Pérignon, Krug, Cristal and Belle Epoque lead the pack of prestige brands. In the clubs of Ginza, settai (business entertainment) drives consumption. Meanwhile, private clients seek out grower Champagnes. Higher demand for Champagne has led to price rises and created a market opening for Cava, Franciacorta and other traditional-method, sparkling wines.
Japan was also early to champion natural and low-intervention wines.
In 1993, the late Shinsaku Katsuyama opened Shonzui, a Tokyo restaurant specialising in natural wines. Kenichi Ohashi MW published his book Vin Naturel in 2004. A new generation of consumers took to the category, and natural wines are no longer confined to specialist venues.
Author: David BECK