Connoisseurs stop sniffing at Japanese wine

The reputation of Japan's wines is not up there with those of France and Italy, Australia or California, Italy or Chile. But a new wave of wines made from 100 percent domestically raised grapes is causing raised eyebrows among people who know their chablis from their cabernet sauvignon.

Shomei Yokouchi, the governor of Japan's prime wine growing region, took part in a promotional event in London in January in which he extolled the virtues of Yamanashi Prefecture's wine labels.

Accompanied by representatives of wineries in the region, he introduced 15 Koshu white wines, made from the local Koshubudo grape, at a reception at the Japanese embassy.

Served with traditional Japanese cuisine, including sushi, Governor Yokouchi described the combination of the two as a "special chemistry" - and vowed to take Yamanashi's wine message to more potential overseas markets in the future.

"The image of Japanese wine has not been high up until now and we have to admit that the taste was not as good as other nations' wines, but that has improved dramatically," Kiyoshi Yokoyama, general manager of the corporate communications department of Mercian Corp., told Relaxnews.

"At Mercian, we have been studying for a long time to get the techniques right and to get the smell and taste just right," he said. "But it is also about good vineyard management and a good fermentation process."

That attention to detail has resulted in the company - which can trace its roots back to 1877 as Japan's first wine company - winning a series of awards for its labels. The Chateau Mercian Kosh Japan Sur Lie, for example, starts at a modest €12, while a 1998 Merlot Kikyogahara Signature Shinshu can go for €85 a bottle.

Similar Koshu wines are being grown by Millesimes, which is earning a strong reputation for its Shizen selection, and the Cuvee Magrez-Aruga Koshi Isehara, from Yamanashi Prefecture's Katsunuma Jozo winery.

And it is on the Koshu grape that the industry is pinning its hopes for more recognition.

An indigenous variety that travelled to Japan via central Asia and China more than a millennium ago, experts discovered in 2004 that it is 90 percent vitis vinifera, part of the same genus that first produced sauvignon blanc in Europe.

Japan's 200 wineries set about making the most of this windfall and are now exporting limited amounts to the United States and Europe. Even drinkers in France- - arguably the toughest market in the world to crack for interloping wines - have snapped up close to 6,000 bottles since early 2008.

Described as the ideal companion for the more subtle tones and flavors of sushi and other seafood that feature in Japanese cuisine, the dry whites are getting good reviews.

"We are still focusing most of our efforts on the Japanese market, but we intend to continue building our reputation, gradually make our wines available through high-end restaurants and hotels and we hope to continue winning awards and medals," said Yokoyama. "In that way, we hope that wine lovers will come to know about our wines."

JR

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