In 1877, Japan’s first wine company Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoshu Gaishasent sent two employees to France. They returned home, and large-scale wine production using local Koshu grapes began. Chateau Mercian is now winning international awards and global plaudits.
Grape-growing in Japan began in the Yamanashi Prefecture in 718 AD. Portuguese Jesuit priests boosted “chintashu” (red liquor) consumption in the sixteen century. In 1907, the founder of Suntory beverages Shinjito Torii launched Akadama Red Sun Port Wine, a grape liquor (“budoshu”).
Now, Yamanashi is a major wine-making area. Currently, US distributor, “The Mutual Trading Co.” carries four brands – Chateau Mercian, Katsunuma Winery (1937), Kurambon (1913), and Kisvin( 2013), all from the Yamanashi Prefecture, which from 2002 has focused on Japanese wine using 100% Japanese grapes, Nagano and Hokkaido are the other wine regions. Yakahiko Nuzawa of the Kurambon winery makes “Sol Lucet Koshu” with its prominent Kahozu and Yuzu citrus notes.
The Koshu Valley of Yamanashi is home to over sixty wineries. Premium table consumption grapes such as Kyoho and Pione, a hybrid cultivar of Kyoho and Cannon Hall Muscat, command significant price premiums for producers.
The white grape Koshu probably came from the Caucasus via The Silk Road. “Koshu” is a former name for Yamanashi. Its wines are straw-colored with a fruity bouquet. Yamanashi has 95% of the Koshu plantings in Japan.
“Muscat Bailey-A” is a red wine grape hybrid developed in the Niigata Prefecture. Merlot cultivation began in the Seventies and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Eighties.
With Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux acting as a consultant, the quality of iconic single-vineyard wines like “Kikyogahara,” “Jyonohira,” and “Mariko” improved dramatically in leaps and bounds. The University of Bordeaux also advised the Chateau Mercian producing “Koshu Kiiroka 2004”, a new category of aromatic Koshu wine. Mercian now has three wineries, producing top quality wines, including the Château Mercian Kikyogahara Merlot Signature range, Kikyogahara Merlot, and Kikyogahara Merlot Rosé.
The Jyonohira vineyard in Katsunuma was the first to produce Japan’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon. “Omnis” is a Latin word meaning “all,” representing the coming together of Bordeaux-style red varieties from the Mariko vineyard and the full expression of “terroir.”
In the Nagano Prefecture, on the banks of the Chikuma, “Rivalis” is produced. Iwade Koshu Kiiroka Cuvée Ueno has aromas of Japanese citrus such as kabosu and sudachi. Kiiroka is where the distinctive citrus aroma in Koshu wine was discovered.
Chateau Mercian Merlot comes from the Mariko Vineyard in Ueda City, Nagano Prefecture. Nagano is the most famous region for Chardonnay. Riesling is harvested from vineyards on the hillside of Omori in Yokote City, in the Akita Prefecture. Riesling has been cultivated there since 1982.
Many wines are inspired by traditional Japanese colors such as Aiakane (indigo madder), Moegi (yellow-green), and Momoiro (peach). Château Mercian Momoiro is a blend of Muscat Bailey A and Merlot. Muscat Bailey A was born by cross-breeding in 1927.
Wine is increasingly becoming part of the “washoku” food culture. “If you’re eating Japanese food, then you should be drinking Japanese wine,” says Yuji Aruga, president of Katsunuma Jyozo Winery, a family-owned winery in Yamanashi. His winery dates to 1937. and aims to showcase the best of koshu wine. Lumiere (1885) is probably the oldest family-owned winery in Yamanashi.
If you are trying Japanese wine, and you really should, don’t forget “Umeshu.” This is a delicious plum liqueur. “Takahashi Umepone” is made with plum and dekopan – sweet Japanese Sumo mandarin.