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What you didn’t know about Japanese wine, one of the country’s best kept secrets

I spent last winter making sake at a fourteenth generation brewery near the Japan Sea, a job I started a few years ago as research for my book, Water, Wood, and Wild Things, and have continued as the town of Yamanaka Onsen becomes my home.

In spring, when the bubbling fermentation tanks had calmed and bottling was finished, my thoughts turned from sake to an even more ancient beverage: Japanese wine.

The story most often repeated — in Japan and beyond — is that Japanese winemaking started just 150 years ago with the introduction of European oenology. But I’d read in the kikizake-shi textbook (like a sommelier’s manual for sake) that people in Japan fermented grapes long before any encounter with the West.

The alcoholic drink people made from grapes in pre-modern Japan is usually called budoshu (grape alcohol) to distinguish it from wine, but I wanted to know: was there any meaningful difference? To find out, I headed inland to the heart of the modern wine industry in Yamanashi prefecture, southwest of Tokyo.

Japanese Wine
Image: Courtesy Dan Kitchens

To reach Yamanashi’s Kofu Basin, I drove eight hours — along winding mountain roads, through long tunnels and across deep ravines — arriving in a landscape more dry and open than the mossy densely forested Japan I know.  I parked among budding vineyards under a cloudless sky, and climbed a long staircase to Daizenji temple, where a thousand-year-old wooden bosatsu holds a bunch of grapes, signifying their medicinal value.

Today, Daizenji’s head monk and his daughter make palatable wine from Koshu  (an indigenous varietal) that wouldn’t disappoint if you ordered the house white at a restaurant. The head monk’s wife, acting as docent, told me that the famous travelling monk Gyoki founded the temple and taught viticulture to local people after an encounter with Yakushi Nyorai, a god of healing. (A similar story exists where I live, in Yamanaka Onsen, but it was by the hot spring that Gyoki met Yakushi Nyorai and founded a temple; I marvelled that this monk had travelled distances on foot that were exhausting for me by car.)

Japanese Wine
Image: Courtesy Dan Kitchens

Even if Gyoki’s tale is apocryphal, records show that by 1316 farmers were cultivating over fifty acres of grapes in the Kofu Basin, mostly for eating. The Koshu grape is related to stock brought along the silk road from the Caucasus (where present-day Georgia is located) that arrived here roughly 1300 years ago, crossbreeding with wild grapes along the journey. Koshu is classified as vitis vinifera, the species that encompasses the most popular wine grapes, and it’s rumoured that farmers fermented fruit that wasn’t good enough for the table. Seeds of wild grapes called yama-budo have been unearthed in lacquered clay vessels made by the hunter-gatherer Jomon people around 4800–3000 BCE, thousands of years before the Japanese adopted rice cultivation from China (around 1000 to 500 CE) and started making sake.

And yet, as I discovered when I left the temple and began visiting wineries, most Yamanshi winemakers associate their craft with Europe. But do Japan’s exciting contemporary wines have some connection to the ancient history of budoshu? Each winery I visited gave me a different answer, and their stories took me on a journey back through time.

98wines and the legacy of Japan’s modern winemaking

Kofu, Yamanashi’s capital, is a city of postmodern midrise boxes built after the sixteenth-century castle town was burnt to the ground by American bombs during WWII. But the hills above the city are green with vineyards and orchards, interspersed with fruit stands and tasting rooms that look like chateaux.

New leaves still sparkled on the mountainsides the day I visited 98wines. Veteran winemaker Yuki Hirayama bottled his first vintage there in 2018 after decades of working for well-respected Yamanashi vintners. His eclectic record collection is on display in a tasting room built like a kominka, or farmhouse, with wooden posts and beams and a tile roof. There’s an espresso machine for the weekends, when friends and customers linger, soaking up Hirayama’s worldly charm. He directed my attention to thick glass panels on the floor, revealing a pair of amphora, clay urns like the qvervi used to make the world’s first known wine, in Georgia around 6000 BCE.

Rose
Image: Courtesy Dan Kitchens

Hirayama uses Koshu grapes to make a delicate thirst-quenching white wine that pairs well with the bitter and umami flavours of many Japanese dishes. He also grows Muscat Bailey A, a Japanese cultivar bred from American and European grapes in the 1920s. Hirayama tells me he wants to make wine that reflects its origin, and only Koshu and Muscat Bailey A are truly suited to this climate, which is more humid and wet than most places in the world where wine grapes thrive.

A metal door with the patina of a Richard Serra sculpture leads to a climate-controlled cellar, where Hirayama’s business partner, Akiko Yoshidome, and a young man who is their only employee were sealing bottles of their third vintage with pink wax. They distribute to only eight wine shops in Japan, and they were expecting customers at the winery to pick up the new vintage the following day. Hirayama put me to work sticking on labels — blue and red line drawings by his friend Tarek Abbar from Spain — while he prepared lunch.

When the meal was ready, Hirayama called us up to the open-air tasting room and seated me facing a view of Mount Fuji. He served improvised tacos, small buckwheat crepes with avocado and braised lamb, and poured his effervescent white and rosé into short wine glasses. The rosé hinted at the wild strawberry jam and a faintly medicinal fragrance of yomogi, Japanese mugwort. The white had a gently herbaceous aroma that mingled with the smell of weeds and dirt carried on the breeze from the vineyards. It buzzed on my tongue like a kumquat.

Winemaker Yuki Hirayama
Image: Courtesy Hannah Kirshner

Hirayama studied lithography in France before returning to Japan and finding work in the office of Château Mercian, a winery that grew out of Daihatsu Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoshu, Japan’s first private commercial winery. Founded in 1877 during the country’s rapid modernisation under Western influence, Daihatsu Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoshu sent two young men, Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya, to France to learn winemaking. But their French-inspired wine didn’t immediately catch on (the popular Japanese wines of the early twentieth century were fortified with honey and medicinal herbs, and marketed as health tonics). The Chateâu Mercian brand was created later, in the post-war period, to make what they called “real wine,” which began to receive international praise in the 1960s.

Chateâu Mercian sent Hirayama to Burgundy for three years to study winemaking. He returned to make wine at Mercian for 25 years, travelling to wineries in New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. He then became head winemaker at another Yamanashi winery, Katsunuma Jyozo, for nine years, all the while dreaming of one day opening his own winery. He explained that the name 98wines refers to good but imperfect wines that are scored below 100 points in the competition. They can become a perfect 100 or even off the charts, he says, with communication and collaboration among people from all over the world.

Hirayama tells me those first young Japanese men sent to France were looking for technology — in sake making the skill of the brewer is at least as important as the quality of rice — but winemaking is really about growing grapes. Hirayama wants the grapes to speak for themselves. He claims to do nothing more than crush the bunches, and control the temperature while the juice ferments with wild yeast. But when I ask him if the wine he makes has any connection to the budoshu Jomon people might have made, he says no, that was saru-zake, monkey wine.

Katsunuma Jyozo and Portuguese Influence

The next morning I visited Katsunuma Jyozo, a third-generation winery run by the three Aruga brothers that’s large enough to export wine to Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia, France, Italy and the US. The oldest brother, Hirotaka, has an obsessive highly technical nature and took over as head winemaker after Hirayama departed to start 98wines. The youngest brother, Sho, loves nature and spending time outdoors, so he manages the vineyards. And the middle brother, Jun, is the outgoing one — with the polish of a young man who spent time in Tokyo — in charge of marketing. Eager to share the family story, Jun welcomed me to their tasting room in a 19th-century machiya, a nearly-black post-and beam two-story house where their ancestors cultivated silkworms before turning to winemaking. Their father wanted to tear down the old machiya and build something modern, but a Frenchman convinced him of the value in old buildings that convey a sense of heritage.

As he poured me glass after glass of Koshu wine to taste, Jun Aruga explained that the label — designed by a Japanese artist who lived for years in Portugal, is a dad joke. The family name, Aruga, sounds a little like the Portuguese word for wine cellar or winery, adega, so they call themselves Adega du’ Aruga, a play on words enhanced by the vintage Portuguese look of the hand-drawn lettering.

Japanese Wine
Image: Courtesy of Katsunuma Jyozo

The nod to Portugal has historical relevance. Japan’s first contact with European wine was likely through Portuguese missionaries, in the sixteenth century when Jesuits brought wine to Kyushu, in southern Japan. Imported wine became popular among some elites. At least one was inspired to make his own: from 1627 to 1632 the head of the Kokura domain in Northern Kyushu, Tadatoshi Hosokawa, ordered the production of budoshu from wild grapes and black soybeans. But around that time the missionaries were exiled for meddling with politics, and Christianity was banned for more than two centuries while Japan remained sealed off to most foreign trade. If Japanese winemaking continued, it was kept secret to avoid dangerous associations with Christianity.

That changed after 1853, when US Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his fleet of black ships forced Japan into trade and diplomatic relationships with the West. By the 20th century, European grapes were all the rage. The Aruga brothers’ grandfather opened Katsunuma Jyozo in 1937 to make European wine. But in recent years the brothers have shifted the focus to Japanese grapes and terroir. They tore out the Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc their father favoured and replanted the vineyards with Koshu and Muscat Bailey A.

As I tasted distinct expressions of Katsunuma Jyozo’s Koshu from different parts of Yamanashi, vinified in various styles, Jun Aruga told me that their scale of production (the winery occupies an old Asahi warehouse) allows for experimentation. Most Koshu wine is served young and fresh, but Katsunuma Jyozo has been ageing their wine since the nineties. Their ten-year-old Aruga Branca Pipa reminded me of a dry Riesling and tasted like delicate dashi; Aruga said it pairs well with bittersweet river fish like iwana. A light barrel-aged red made from Muscat Bailey A had the wild berry brightness of a Pinot Noir, with subtle earthiness and floral notes of black tea; it’s a good match with tuna belly and wasabi, Aruga told me.

In a small vineyard near the tasting room, Aruga showed me a few remaining rows of Cabernet, grown on vertical trellises like the ones in France. When weeds grow tall around the vines, he explained, they trap moisture that makes the fruit prone to disease, so growing Cabernet this way in Japan necessitates using herbicide. Crouching to pick the vertically-trellised grapes in the brutal late-summer sun is terribly strenuous.

Next, he showed me Koshu grown in the Japanese style on trellises that form a high roof of grapevines (like European pergola trellising), so you can stand in their shade and reach up to pick them. This way the vines are well ventilated, like traditional Japanese houses, which are built to breathe in Japan’s damp climate. We sat among wildflowers in the sweet-smelling grass beneath Koshu vines grown without commercial chemicals, a stark contrast to the bare dirt in neighbouring vineyards, like most of the farms they contract with. The Arugas are working to demonstrate that herbicides actually create unnecessary work and expense.

Aruga took me to lunch at the family restaurant, Kaze (meaning wind), built like the arcade of a Romanesque cathedral, with high vaulted ceilings and arched windows. After the carpaccio and sparkling wine were cleared, cooks dressed in white wearing tall toques sliced steak tableside, serving it with freshly grated wasabi. While I sipped another glass of vintage Koshu that paired marvellously with the meat, I asked Aruga if he could tell me the difference between budoshu and wine. He explained that he thought it had to do with export rules or taxation in the early twentieth century. The standard sake bottle size is different than a standard Japanese wine bottle, and because Yamanashi Koshu grapes have relatively low sugar, they are often fortified to raise the alcohol content of the finished product — so by calling it budoshu, Japanese vintners didn’t have to meet the international regulations for wine.

I asked Aruga if he knew anything about budoshu made by grape farmers before Yamanashi’s wine industry was formalised. He didn’t, but he knew just the guy to answer my question.

Japanese Wine
Image: Courtesy Hannah Kirshner

Budou-Batake and Farmers’ Budoshu

We pulled up to a little shop called Budou-batake, which simply means “grape field,” and Jun Aruga introduced me to a farmer in mud-stained jeans and a ballcap, Hitoshi Mitsumori. Mitsumori led us to a shed downhill from his vineyards, where white goats grazed below the vines, and explained how he makes budoshu with a collective of farmers, the way it was done before industrialisation and modern tax laws formalised Yamanashi’s wine industry. He showed us the hand-cranked centuries-old soybean mill they used to crush grapes in the past, and beside it the slightly-updated motorised one they use now. The crushed grapes fall through a chute into the shed, where the farmers transfer them by the bucketful to a press. The pressed juice is then fermented in an old enamelled sake tank (the same kind we use at the brewery in Yamanaka). If the weather is too cool for wild yeast to multiply, Mitsumori adds commercial yeast to prevent spoilage, otherwise, he lets wild yeast do its work.

Mitsumori enthusiastically answered my questions and poured us glasses of rosé while we sat on broken school chairs in the winemaking shed. I eagerly took notes as he expounded on the history of farmer-made budoshu. Made from a mix of table grapes, the budoshu we sipped was sweet in a way that made it taste round and easy to drink— like chilled umeshu (plum cordial). It wasn’t cloying like the sugary souvenir wine Yamanashi used to be known for. He had a dry rosé and white too, which he said he made by mistake when he forgot to stop the fermentation.

Farmers growing grapes to sell as fruit used to work too hard to drink much, Mitsumori told me, but they made their own budoshu to share at weddings and funerals. They would ferment unsellable grapes with any other excess or damaged fruit they had on hand before it spoiled. When tax regulations made homebrewing illegal in the early twentieth century, farmers began burying fermenting crocks in their fields or hiding them in bamboo groves. The problem, says Mitsumori, was that if you made a really good batch you’d want to share it, but then word would get around and inevitably someone would rat you out.

These days, the farmers make their budoshu collectively under a special license, held by the Mitsumori household and passed down through generations. They bring their best grapes to show off: if they don’t the other farmers will get mad about mixing them with their own harvest. More than half this budoshi is bottled in isshobin, 1.8–litre sake bottles, for the farmers. The rest is sealed in unlabeled 750mL wine bottles and sold in the Budou-batake shop (I took several home).

So what’s the difference between budoshu and Japanese wine, I asked Mitsumori? Nothing, he said, laughing. Except that budoshu can be made from large thin-skinned table grapes — or whatever is on hand — while wine should be made from small thick-skinned wine grapes. But I can think of at least a few wines made from table grape varieties of vitus labrusca, like Concord and Niagara on the East Coast of the US, so it seems to be a distinction without a difference.

Osamu Ishihara
Image: Courtesy Dan Kitchens

Wild Grapes for the Road

I was done with my reporting on wine, but before I left Yamanashi I visited a couple of acquaintances, Yuuki and Paul. Just as I was about to go home, they offered to show me their vegetable plot. They casually pointed out some yama-budo, wild grapes, that Yuuki’s father, Osamu Ishihara, was using to make wine, and my eyes lit up.

Ishihara, who practices natural farming, told me he’s only made wine a few times. A friend of his used to bring him homemade yama-budoshu every year, and he knows a woman in her nineties who’s been making her own wine forever with some of the grapes she grows commercially. It’s hard to know how many people make country wine for personal consumption — it’s not something they brag about. I asked Ishihara, don’t you think since Japan has wild grapes, people have probably been fermenting them all through history? Of course, he said, and then offered me my own yama-budo to plant at home.

With my yama-budo vine in the passenger seat, I drove away from the budding vineyards of Yamanashi, back towards flooded rice fields reflecting the sky as farmers pushed seedlings into the soft mud. The complete history of budoshu may be buried in the memory of people long gone, but by repeating the story that winemaking in Japan began in the nineteenth century, surely we are missing something important.

I thought about a red wine I had picked up from a rest stop in Nagano made of yama-budo by Goichi Wines; its cinnamon fragrance mellowed into mountain dirt and stewed berries, with a gently tannic finish. I wondered if it tasted anything like what Jomon people made — intentionally or not — in their lacquered clay pots. I headed home feeling certain Japan’s relationship with grapes has deep roots, and excited about the winemakers propelling it into the future.

This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com.

(Hero and feature image credit: Katsunuma Jyozo)

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