In the last ten years, Japanese wine has improved significantly in quality and offers a greater selection in terms of price and variety. Instead of, “Maybe I’ll give Japanese wine a try for a change,” you can now say, “Tonight we’re having Hamburg steak, so let’s go with a Nagano Merlot” or “The Kellner will go with this Chinese cabbage and pork nabe,” and color your daily meal solely with Japanese wine.
Selection has spread most notably for wine in the 1,000-yen range, and I have many to recommend. There are also excellent wines in the 2,000- and 3,000-yen range, and some in this price range have competed against foreign wines of the same grape variety in international wine competitions and won medals.
When you drink Japanese wine, take your time tasting it and imagine the land the grape was grown on and the people who made it. In each wine you will feel the characteristics of this land and the passion of the winemakers.
1,000 yen range of Japanese wines
Wine made of Japanese Koshu grapes is delicate, and used to have a poor reputation for lacking character and having a thin flavor, but it has recently transformed itself into a wine with sufficient taste for casual drinking, perfect for daily meals. My choice bottle here is the Clareza from Katsunuma Winery. Its mellow, dry flavor with hints of citrus, white peach and pear elevates the dashi tastes of Japanese food and enhances the meal. You can expect similar experiences from the Rubaiyat from Marufuji Winery, Haramo Wine, and Koshu Sur Lie of Soryu Wine. For those seeking a Koshu with richer flavor, I recommend barrel-aged Koshu wines from Katsunuma Winery and Suntory’s Tomi no Oka Winery.
Kellner is a grape variety hybridized in Germany, yet it favors the Hokkaido climate and produces wine with lychee and apricot aromas and a pleasantly crisp acidity. Among them, Hokkaido Wine’s Hokkaido Kellner offers a pleasantly pure fruit taste that goes well with yosenabe and other nabe styles, and even with spicy food, and performs extraordinarily well for its price. Be sure not to miss this one. I equally recommend the Kellner from Sapporo Wine.
The Kamiwada Pinot Blanc from Takahata Wine of Yamagata Prefecture is an exceptional wine with refreshing flavors of green apple and kabosu (Japanese citrus lemon), and offers a mineral flavor and pure acidity. It is served in Japanese restaurants and in French bistros. The Zao Star White (Dry) from Takeda Winery, also in Yamagata, has the fresh aroma of Delaware grapes and offers dryness and refreshing fruitiness for continued enjoyment.
Many wines made of Muscat Bailey A grapes, which are used most widely in production among all red wine varieties in Japan, are simple, yet the one that gives them a stylish and light finish and garners high acclaim from wine lovers is the Chanter Y-A Muscat Bailey A Plus from Diamond Winery. It goes well chilled with yakitori and yakiniku. Mercian’s Chateau Mercian Ensemble Aiakane is well balanced with a good level of spiciness within its red fruit flavor, and suits a wide range of food, from saba no misoni (mackerel simmered in miso) to steak. You will be able to see the true talents of Mercian, which has led Japan’s wine production for so long.
Merlot is a Bordeaux grape that has had a great deal of success in Japan, and while Izutsu Wine excels in rich Merlots, its NAC Merlot made without barrels offers straight-out fruitiness and herb flavors, and is a great buy for the money.
2,000 yen range of Japanese wines
In the 2,000-yen range, I start with Chardonnay. For those looking for elegance, try Grace Winery’s Serena Estate (grown in its own vineyards). Made in a relatively cool climate at the foot of Mount Kayagatake, it offers the sophisticated taste of vibrant citrus flavors. If you seek a richer taste, go for the Tsuno Chardonnay Estate, which has a tropical flavor, produced under the sun of southern Miyazaki.
We can now find satisfying sparkling wines made with Koshu and Chardonnay grapes. My recommendation is the Petillant from Lumiere. This is a semi-sparkling wine that contains sediment, which gives the wine greater flavor and a slight astringency, and offers a satisfying experience. This wine is coming popular and its producers have increased production each year since its release in 2007. Mercian’s Katsunuma no Awa and Takahata Wine’s Sparkling Chardonnay are also worth a try.
If you are going with a red, try the Rubaiyat Rouge Barrel-stored, made at the prestigious Marufuji Winery in Katsunuma. At this price, you get the chance to enjoy the aged and complex flavors reflecting maturity, and you will be able to see why wine lovers speak highly of this winery. In a different vein, a wine I recommend that has fresh fruit flavors and sufficient astringency and that I suggest you try with unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) and sukiyaki is Coco Farm & Winery’s Kaze no Rouge. Its base is Hokkaido-grown Zweigeltrebe grapes, a variety not commonly known, but it offers an excellent balance of light acidity and astringency, is not too heavy and in my opinion should be more frequently seen on Japanese dinner tables. I also recommend Hokkaido Wine’s Zweigeltrebe.
3,000 yen range of Japanese wines
Translated from “Gensen! Nonde mitai Nihon wain (Preme selection! Japanese wines you should try),” Shukan Ekonomisto, November 22, 2011, pp. 88-89. (Courtesy of Mainichi Shimbunsha)