By: Sharon Benton
There’s a wine bar in Tokyo that serves only Japanese wines. “Sake and plum wine?“ you might ask. The answer is no. Japan has a secret – it’s making wine from grapes, and had been for a over a century now. And it is surprisingly good.
The wine bar is called Jip. It’s located in Shinjuku, part of the giant Tokyo metropolis. We wandered the streets and alleys of Shinjuku trying to find this wine bar and the Shinjuku Pitt Inn – a famous jazz club. While the Pitt Inn remained elusive, we found our way to Jip and took a seat at the bar.
Since we were the only customers, Awoyama, our server at the bar, spent time chatting with us and educating us on Japanese wines.
We tasted four whites – a Chardonnay, a wine made from the Kerner grape (native to Germany), and two wines from the Koshu grape (a grape native to Japan – more about that later). The Chardonnay was nice – lighter and less oaky than a typical American Chardonnay.
The Kerner grape originates from Germany and is a cross between the Riesling and Trollinger grapes. The Izutsu Kerner was off-dry, but not all that interesting.
My favorite wines were from the Koshu grape, in particular the one from Grace Winery. Nice, dry, and crisp, similar to a Sauvignon Blanc. All the whites we tasted were on the light side, but that makes sense when you think about pairing with Japanese food like sushi or Udon noodles in a light broth. And as hot as it gets in Tokyo during the summer, a chilled glass of Koshu is a cool, refreshing treat!
Japan has been producing wine on a large scale since the late 1870s, though wine has been made throughout the country over the last 1,000 years when the first grapes arrived via the Silk Road.
After World War II, wine production really took off, although most wines were sweetened with honey or sugar, as the Japanese palate preferred a sweeter wine. The 70s and 80s saw much refinement in the industry and a trend toward European style wines.
Most grapes come from the Yamanashi Prefecture, about 75 miles southwest of Tokyo in the foothills of Mt Fuji. It is known as the fruit basket of Japan and in addition to grapes grown plums, peaches, and other fruits. The lush green valleys and mountainsides make for the ideal fruit growing climate, with long sunny summer days and cold winters. This region produces over 25% of all grapes in Japan.
While these wines may not compare in complexity to the wines of France, California, or the Pacific Northwest, Japanese wines were an unexpected pleasure.