It is quite recent that Japan has started winemaking on a commercial stage. Although the practice of growing grapes had been prevalent in Japan since 700 AD, there are no indications of commercial wine production until after 1850. Just as in Japanese cuisines, Japanese wines, as we know them today, are marked for their diversity and unique taste.

Japanese Wine Industry Before 1870

Viticulture in Japan dates back to 718 AD. The first consumption of wine recorded in Japanese history was in the 16th century. At this time, Jesuit Missionaries from Portugal came to Japan. The leader of the mission, presented European wines as gifts to woo the goodwill of the feudal lords who ruled the Japanese residents of Kyūshū at that time.

The missionaries were accepted into the Japanese community. As the missionaries used wine in their meetings, Japanese indigenes gradually acquired a taste for imported wines made from grapes. The Japanese coined the term “chintashu,” which was used to refer to the Portuguese red wine that was becoming quite popular during that period.

Japanese Wine Industry During The 19th Century

In the wake of the growing fondness for wines made from grapes, Japanese businessmen made initial attempts to establish domestic wine production centers in some strategic places in Japan. Katsunuma, Yamanashi was a choice site for a wine Prefecture since the natives had the longest history of growing grapes in Japan. Prefectures were also sited in Hokkaido, the Southern island of Kyushu, and some other strategic places.

Japanese wine painting
The origins of Japanese wine can often be traced back to rice wine, a hugely popular drink with a rich historic culture, often shown in Japanese art.

In 1877, after the establishment of many wine prefectures in Japan, two Japanese, Masanari Takano, and Ryuken Tsuchiya were sent to France to learn winemaking techniques.

Growing imported European grape varieties became necessary to ensure the successful implementation of production techniques already acquired from Western culture. Japanese grape farmers began massive importation of European grape varieties as the demand for it grew in Japan. However, the outbreak of Phylloxera from the imported varieties resulted in a major setback for the Japanese wine industry as grape farmers lost most of their grapes to the outbreak.

In addition to the origins in rice wine, Japanese plum wine also begun to gain prominence in Japan’s culture. Although wildly different to rice wine, plum wine grew to establish a foothold in traditional Japanese viniculture and is still served in many Japanese restaurants today.

Japanese Wine Industry In The 20th Century

The Phylloxera outbroke of the 19th century rendered most of the prefectures dormant. However, some small scale winemakers were persistent enough to keep the system from total death. After World War II, the wine industry in Japan began to grow tremendously.

Over the course of the 20th century, the demand for wine at both local and international levels had a significant impact on the Japanese wine industry. The rise in demand for domestic Japanese wine in 1922 was attributed to wine advertisement innovations pioneered by Shinjiro Torii. He founded the Suntory beverages empire and launched Red Sun Port Wine. Between 1970 and 1980, there was also an increase in demand for both domestic and imported wines in Japan.

Wines Of Japanese Origin

Quite some wines that have gained international recognition can be traced to their Japanese origins. These include Awamori, Shochu, Sake, Umeshu, and a host of others.

Major Players In The Japanese Wine Industry

Japanese wine country
Of all of the wine producing countries, Japan must be amongst the most beautiful. Although not fitting the stereotype of rolling fields and valleys full of vines, it is beautiful in it’s own right.

The Ministry of Finance in Japan has the exclusive right to grant a license to winemakers. Although Japan has about 230 wineries, the top three in terms of market share are MERCIAN, SUNTORY, and SAPPORO.

Small and medium-scale wineries are also a force to reckon within Japan. This is because quite some award-winning wines are products of these relatively smaller wineries. It is interesting to know that these small wineries are usually a family-run business. The owners are majorly people who have acquired winemaking skills abroad and are willing to build a business out of it.

Prospects For Japanese Wine Industry In The 21st Century

According to statistics, global demand for wines has decreased. Many other European countries have shown a sharp decline in the quantity of wine export. The demand for Japanese wine has also dropped, but the percentage drop is about 60% of the drops suffered by countries like Argentina and Portugal.

It is believed that once the tax on wines is removed as proposed in the TPP Trade Agreement, the Japanese wine industry will use the opportunity to boost wine production.