Toriumi Minako Introduces Japanese Wine Pioneers in New Book on the Country’s Wineries

Books Food and Drink

The last decade has seen the number of wineries in Japan double to around 400. Toriumi Minako visited a dozen to explore everything from the growers to the soil, the grape varieties to the cultivation methods, and even the vintners’ background for a complete picture of Japanese wine today and a look into its future.

The Terroir of Japanese Wine

In her new book, Nihon wainarī no shin’en (Going Deep into Japan’s Wineries), the nonfiction writer Toriumi Minako notes:

The world of wine is one of almost endless depth and charm. In this book I present 12 stories about people whose whole lives have become tangled up with the drink.

What is Japanese wine, actually? The National Tax Agency defines it as wine fermented in Japan using only grapes harvested in the country. Now, Japanese wine is in the middle of a boom of sorts. The November 20, 2022, issue of the bulletin of the Japan Sommelier Association, headed by Japan’s foremost sommelier, Tasaki Shin’ya, is a special issue titled “Now is the time to talk about Japanese wine.”

And when one talks about wine, the big keyword seems to be “terroir.” This is a profound idea that is open to many interpretations, but for this book, Toriumi defines it as:

A word derived from the French terre, meaning soil. It encompasses the soil, sunlight, temperature, rainfall, drainage, air movement, and elevation of the grape fields, and even the thoughts and philosophies of the vintners who must address this environment in their work.

Even when made using the same variety of grape, the terroir of the land—which could mean the climate of a whole growing region in general or of a specific plot on a farm—can create differences in the resulting wine’s flavor.

France and other European wine-making countries, commonly called the Old World of wine, generally have less precipitation and more hours of sunlight. They also tend to have large daily temperature variances. In the past, Japan was believed to be unsuitable for growing wine grape varieties due to the high precipitation and relatively small temperature variance in most of the country.

However, grapes are now grown across wide swaths of Japan—even pinot noir, a type native to France’s Bourgogne region held to be exceptionally hard to grow properly. Japanese wines have a unique delicacy, savory umami, and elegance that successfully express the climate of their growing regions, from the cold northern climate of Hokkaidō to the warm Seto Inland Sea climate of Okayama.

“The Father of Japanese Wine” and “the Great Revivor”

The book has 12 chapters with a single winery featured in each, and introduces 16 different vintners, including four couples. Right now, most of the active vintners range in age from their forties to sixties. Many are highly educated and scientific, with experience studying in France, the United States, or Australia. They all come across as well-read, intelligent, and charming people.

A Wine Tourism Yamanashi tasting on November 17, 2018, in Yamanashi Prefecture. (© Izumi Mari)
A Wine Tourism Yamanashi tasting on November 17, 2018, in Yamanashi Prefecture. (© Izumi Mari)

Two men in particular are largely responsible for this current boom in Japanese wine, and Toriumi describes how the wine makers introduced here are connected to them.

One is Asai Shōgo, a leading fermentation expert commonly called “the father of modern Japanese wine.” He is the author of books like Wain-zukuri no shisō (The Philosophy of Making Wine) under the pen-name Asai Usuke. His career included serving as the director for Mercian wines and plant manager for the Katsunuma Winery before his passing in 2002 at the age of 71. The 2022 film Shigunachā: Nihon o sekai no meijōchi ni (Signature: Making Japan a Global Wine Region) from director Kakizaki Yūji was based on his life.

One example of Asai’s influence on these vintners is that of Kishidaira Noriko, the fifth-generation head of 1920-founded Takeda Winery, in Yamagata Prefecture. Kishidaira is a pioneering woman in the winemaking business who also studied in France for four years. Her father met Asai before he passed, and she herself was strongly guided by his work. Oyamada Kōki of Domaine Oyamada in Yamanashi Prefecture also says he took sommelier school classes from Asai while at university.

The other influential figure is American vintner Bruce Gutlove. With his wife Ryōko, he runs the custom crush facility 10R in Hokkaidō, which appears in chapter three of the book. The author describes him as Japanese wine’s “great revivor.”

Gutlove was born in 1961 in New York state. He studied at University of California, Davis—the most prestigious oenology graduate program in the country—then came to Japan in 1989, where he spent years as a technical consultant instructing students from all over Japan at Coco Farm & Winery in Tochigi Prefecture, which employs people with mental disabilities. Coco’s sparkling wine was the toast drink at the 2000 G8 summit in Okinawa. In 2009, Gutlove moved to Hokkaidō while still employed by Coco.

In the intervening years, Gutlove has been a teacher for many of the Hokkaidō based producers featured, like Soga Takahiko of Domaine Takahiko, Sasaki Ken and Kazuko of Norakura, Kondō Ryōsuke of Kondō Vineyards, and Nakazawa Kazuyuki and Yukiko of Nakazawa Vineyard.

Natural Wine and the Problem of Sulfites

A major global trend in wine right now is so-called “natural wine,” or vin nature. The vintners in this book are, naturally, proponents of the movement, but the ne plus ultra seems to be Ōoka Hirotake of La Grande Colline Japon in Okayama Prefecture. He spent 20 years in France, where he established is own winery in the southern Rhône region before returning to Japan in 2016. After coming back to Japan, he introduced the use of Shōkōshi, a new varietal bred from Japan’s native wild grapes.

In his 2021 book, Ōoka Hirotake no wain-zukuri (The Winemaking of Ōoka Hirotake), he defines the term natural wine as “Basically, a generic term for wine made from grapes grown through organic or other comparatively natural farming methods and fermented without any additives like sugar, acid, yeast, sulfites, and so forth.”

Sulfites are antioxidants that are, in fact, added to most wines, and the debate over their use is an old one. Ōoka himself argues that their use harshens wine’s flavor. Toriumi, though, opines that “fermentation itself creates some amount of sulfites in wine, so there is no such thing as a ‘sulfite-free’ wine.” She goes on to say, “wine is too complex to reduce it to a conversation about sulfites.”

Japanese Wine Aiming for New Heights

South American wine superpower Argentina just won the World Cup in Qatar. The team’s superstar Lionel Messi also happens to work with a winery in his homeland to produce a special wine. Many of the world’s wine centers are also powerful on the soccer field.

France, the World Cup runner-up, is the undisputed wine king. Both Germany and Spain, which Japan upset in the first round, are among the world’s top 10 wine producers. Japan did not reach its goal of reaching the top eight in the World Cup, a which would have been a new height for the team, only making it to the round of 16.

Japan’s history with making wine is short, going back only some 140 years. Japan is around twenty-fifth in the world’s wine-production rankings, which is not so far from its twentieth place in the FIFA world soccer ranking (as of December 22, 2022). Although Japanese wine is starting to attract attention from the rest of the world, it is still clearly a newcomer in the industry, with no claim to the thousands of years of wine culture that European nations enjoy. However, the 12 wineries and 16 makers featured in this book are the faces of a new era for Japanese wine. As Toriumi says, “They are truly pioneers pushing Japan to new heights as an emerging wine region in the far east of the world.”

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The cover of Nihon wainarī no shin’en: Shusshoku wain no tsukurite-tachi. Courtesy of Sakurasha.) 

Nihon wainarī no shin’en: Shusshoku wain no tsukurite-tachi (Going Deep into Japan’s Wineries: A Look at Outstanding Japanese Vintners)

By Toriumi Minako
Published by Sakurasha in November 2022
ISBN: 978-4-86581-366-1

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