May 27, 2024

Best Japanese Wines: Sake and Plum Wine From Japan

Have you ever tried a Japanese wine?

You might say no, but you probably did/ Have you had Sake (日本酒) also known as Japanese rice wine?

How about Plum wine, Umeshu (梅酒)?

You might have heard of one or both, but did you know that Japan also boasts a wide range of grape wines of the white, rose, and red variety?

Wines from Japan have too long been hidden in the shadow of better known Japanese products such as sake and whiskey. 

Now Japanese wines are increasingly being appreciated for their quality and unique tastes.

Follow me to the vineyards of Yamanashi for the koshu (こうしゅう) grapes and the muscat bailey a grapes and the gently sloping hills of Hokkaido.

Enjoying Japan content? Also check out our posts on Japanese tiny houses design ideas and how to create a Japan themed kitchen design for Zen-like cooking.

Must try Japanese Wine

Must try Japanese Wine

Japanese Wine: A Taste of Tradition

When we talk about "wine" in Japan, it can mean a few different things, each with its own charm and character. Let's break it down:

  1. Sake (Rice Wine), is more like beer than wine because it's brewed using rice, water, yeast, and koji mold. Different regions in Japan have their own special rice varieties for making sake, like Yamadanishiki and Gohyakumangoku
  2. Umeshu (Plum Wine), a delightful, sweet drink made by soaking ume plums in alcohol and sugar. Even though we call it "plum wine," it's technically a liqueur because of how it's made
  3. Grape Wine, made from fermented grape juice. They might not have the long history that sake or umeshu do, but grape wines are becoming quite popular, especially in places like Yamanashi Prefecture

Japanese winemakers have spent centuries perfecting rice wine, plum wine, grape wine.  The precision that has gone into making wine is second to none. 

Best Japanese Wines: A long tradition of spirituality and pleasure

Best Japanese Wines: A long tradition of spirituality and pleasure

The Roots of Japanese Alcohol: Nihonshu (にほんしゅ)

Nihonshu (にほんしゅ), or as many outside Japan might call it, sake, is a cherished part of Japanese culture, often revered as the 'drink of the gods'. 

The origins of this iconic beverage trace back to the Yayoi period (やよいじだい) around 600 BC when wet rice cultivation, introduced by the Chinese, took root in Japan

This era marked the beginning of what would become a sophisticated brewing process that has evolved over millennia.

By the Nara period (ならじだい), nihonshu was a staple in religious ceremonies and royal festivities, indicating its significant role in society. 

As the centuries passed, particularly during the meiji period (めいじじだい), the government began to see the value in formalizing sake production to enhance quality and preserve the craft. This led to the establishment of standards that are still respected in modern breweries across Japan.

Today, the art of sake brewing varies from region to region and across wine producers, with some breweries dating back over a thousand years, still utilizing traditional methods alongside modern innovations to enhance flavors and techniques. 

These breweries cherish the Koshu (こしゅ) grape, a native species that has become synonymous with Japanese winemaking.

Sake’s deep history and the meticulous craft behind its production make it not just a beverage but a bridge to Japan’s past and a testament to its cultural resilience. 

Whether enjoyed in a serene traditional ceremony or as part of a lively meal, nihonshu continues to be a symbol of Japanese heritage and craftsmanship.

Japan’s continued presence in the global wine map with a repertoire of traditional and world stage quality of Japanese wine varieties is a boon both for Japanese people and the international wine fan. 

Best Japanese Wines: Nihonshu

Best Japanese Wines: Nihonshu

The Art of Wine Pairing

Savoring Sushi with Sake ( すし さけ)

Combining sushi and sake is still one of the most famous traditional Japanese cuisine-酒 pairings. 

But what if you were feeling a bit more adventurous and would like to explore wine options with your sushi?

The choice of wine should be compatible with the fineness of the fish or meat and should not overpower the dish: 

A crisp and a dry glass of white wine like Japanese koshu vitis vinifera complements sushi due to its mild flavored fish and rice. 

Its mild body will complements the fruity vividness of the fish, and its neutral aftertaste can blend with the rice’s vinegar taste. 

Enjoy any wine with your meal, but if you like red wine choose a light-red wine to avoid overpowering tannins clashing with your fish.

A special master chef's recommendation is to pair a glass of chilled Pinot Noir wine grapes with a plate of sashimi, for example Horse Mackerel SASHIMI (あじのさしみ).

To choose the proper wine for your sushi, it can make a different level of plates to enhance the flavor the feeling of taste in your mouth.

Kaiseki  (かいせき) and Koshu: A Match Made in Heaven

Kaiseki (かいせき) is the Japanese equivalent of gourmet dining and signifies the peak of the Japanese cuisine: a traditional Japanese cuisine in small courses, offering a combination of highest grade ingredients, refined taste, rounded texture, and stunning presentation of a carefully selected and arranged variety of dishes..

 What makes this great dish even better is to enjoy the meal with a glass of fine wines of Japan, and if you want to take it to the next level, Koshu does not disappoint.

 Perfectly balanced by its gentle smooth acidity  and hiding a subtle fruitiness that does not overpower the food. 

 Koshu is a good wine for this type of food, as it amplifies the kaiseki’s complex taste perfectly for a harmonious Japanese palate.

Best Japanese Wines: Best food and wine pairings

Best Japanese Wines: Best food and wine pairings

Exploring Regional Varieties

The Delicate Flavors of Yamanashi

Yamanashi (やまなし) is a prefecture close to Mt. Fuji, and one of the major production areas of Japanese wine.

Yamanashi has the right unique climate conditions, rich volcanic soils as well as soil structure which facilitates the growth of shrubs that will produce a lots of aromatic complexity:

To the colorful background of Yamanashi’s winemaking, the wines produced there reflect the mastery of both old and new school enology. 

In particular, the Château Mercian Yamanashi Vineyard produces wines that are a true reflection of the region’s characteristics. 

Their Koshu Gris de Gris is a wine with the apple and white flower undertones that embody the Yamanashi wines’ finesse of acidity and multi-layered aroma. 

Domaine Takahiko, another pride of Yamanashi, is famous for its Shiraz blend, which is made from cabernet sauvignon with the Koshu grape, indigenous to Japan. 

This combination gives a wine that is fruity with a hint of pear and a slight hint of passionfruit which is a true reflection of the creativity of Yamanashi in wine making. 

Yamanashi’s wine shops and tasting rooms, including Suntory Tomi no Oka, allow visitors to take a tour of the winery and taste various products ranging from sparkling natural wines to the rather unique high-altitude orange wines. 

These experiences do not only introduce the visitors to the volcanic ash soils and the climatic factors that characterize the region but also the historical and cultural evolution of winemaking in the region from the 8th century silk road to the present day. 

Every bottle of wine produced in Yamanashi has a story of careful nurturing, tradition and modernity, and an open invitation to wine enthusiasts across the world to taste a piece of Japan’s wine history.

Hokkaido's Hidden Gems

Go further into the northern island of Hokkaido (ほっかいどう) and one can find wines that are said to be great but not that popular. 

Unlike other Japanese wine producing regions, this area creates conditions that are conducive to growing varietals such as the Kerner, which has a delicate aroma and the robust Pinot Noir.

For instance, the wines produced in the Hokkaido region known for the high tone of acidity and the density of their flavors are due to the amount of light the vine receives in summer. These wines are characterized by a high level of liveliness, which is why they are best paired with seafood.

While Japanese wines are aspiring to be in the world map, the wines from Hokkaido are a pleasant discovery, thus making them an essential part of any wine lover’s list. 

Some of the famous wines are the Tokachi Wine which is characterized by dryness and sourness and the Furano Wine that is characterized by its high acidity and sharpness.

Learn more about Hokkaido's different wines at Wines of Hokkaido.

Best Japanese Wines: Japan also offers great red wines

Best Japanese Wines: Japan also offers great red wines

Japanese Wine in Global Markets

Rising Popularity Abroad

Japanese wines have been in the market for quite some time but have not been very popular until recently. This new found interest is due to a new found appreciation for Japan’s attention to detail in their products and their history. These wines have grown in quality and therefore contain new tastes and narratives that appeal to wine lovers from across the world who want to expand their horizons. Today wine fairs and competitions are platforms on which Japanese winemakers present their prize-winning products; it is even more valuable since such wines are not commonly available for purchase in foreign countries. The global wine fraternity is gradually opening up to such unique wines, thus heralding a new era of appreciation of Japan’s rich wine-making tradition.

The Quest for Quality Recognition

Japanese wine is gradually establishing its niche on the international market, and this is due to the focus on the production of high-quality wines. The industry is not only growing in terms of the number of people who consume wines but also in terms of raising the awareness of these people of the processes that go into the production of their wines. Practising sustainable viticulture and selecting grape varieties that grow well in their environment, Japanese wine makers are now churning out some of the finest wines that are gradually finding their way onto the world’s most elite restaurant wine lists. Leading wine professionals and critics are beginning to notice this new complexity in these wines, which marks a long and arduous process of making and a love for the art that is shared by wine lovers all over the world. This is a conscious and well-publicized process, making each vintage a statement of Japan’s capability in producing wine.

Best Japanese Wines: Taste different Japanese wines

Best Japanese Wines: Taste different Japanese wines

Explore Japanese Wines

There is potential for the future of Japanese wine because producers continue to improve and concentrate on Koshu, an indigenous grape as well as other more conventional internationals. 

The trend of wine production is rapidly growing in Japan’s most productive wine regions particularly in Nagano and Niigata where wine makers provide vineyard tours, wine tasting and even a train from Tokyo. 

Thus, if you are going to visit Japan, do not miss the chance to try the very charming wine productions and the versatility and the complex aroma of the wines which are rather unique for the Japanese wine-making. 

 The wines described in this article are just a drop in the ocean of what is available in Japan. 

 Tourists who want to go for a vineyard tour and wine tasting in this island country should visit the tourism offices and organize for the visit to the local wine producers to taste those rare wines; those interested in grape picking, well Japanese wine has improved a lot.

Wine Accessories: Beyond the Bottle

Elevating your home with Japanese wine is a masterpiece if it is served with a set of sophisticated accessories. 

Imagine how each glass can be made even more appealing with the Japanese craftsmanship theme – stunning decanters, wine bottle rests, and glasses with the right shape. 

These creations, made by hand and in the traditional manner, are not only useful for containing wine, but they are the reflection of Japan and each glass is a history of the country’s heritage and modernity. 

Moreover, including such items as a modern Japanese corkscrew is not only useful but also eye-pleasing and will guarantee that not only the wine is drunk but also with pleasure. 

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Such accessories complement the process of consuming wine, turning it into the celebration of the Japanese spirit and workmanship, making each opened bottle a representation of the Japanese wabi-sabi.

Best Japanese Wines: Beauty goes beyond the bottle with Japanese wines

Best Japanese Wines: Beauty goes beyond the bottle with Japanese wines

Select the Perfect Bottle

Selecting a bottle of Japanese wine is a pleasant way to make a memory, every sip is a taste of Japan

Whether the wine is being consumed for celebration or simply on one's own, certain aspects should be considered:

For a lighter meal, a clean Koshu white may help to balance the fat, while for red wine lovers, a rich red from Yamanashi or Hokkaido will be a treat. 

Browsing in Japan? It is not a rarity to come across labels in Japanese and seeking for assistance can be helpful. 

Tasting sessions could just be the start of your new favorite way to spend your holiday in Japan. 

In the end, the bottle you choose is not only wine; it is a memory, and the result of the craftsmanship of Japanese wine.

Enjoy Japanese Wine Today

When we pop open a Japanese wine, we discover that each of them is not only a drink, but also a part of the history of wine production in Japan. F

rom the Koshu Valley with its warm climate where the grapes are grown to the new world wine producers in Hokkaido, wines from Japan are a treat to the taste buds. 

Thus, the journey of the professional wine taster or a simple wine lover to Japanese wine remains an unending discovery. 

So pour yourself a glass of Japanese wine, compare the nuances, and let Japan’s wines take you on a tasting tour. 

じゃあね、Yama

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Read more about Yama

Originally from Tokyo, I am a world-traveling Japanese adventurer who loves connecting with people.

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