Tokyo day trip: Surprisingly good wine excursion

Tokyo day trip: Surprisingly good wine excursion

Yamanashi Prefecture vintners aim to be the talk of the international wine scene. They just might stand a chance
Japanese wine
On the slopes of Mount Fuji: Visitors to Katsunuma stop to survey the vines.

It’s a beautiful, warm Sunday in autumn, the kind of weather Tokyo residents long for after the city’s sweltering summer. The kind of day that lures people outdoors.

Not me, it seems. I’m standing inside a cave that’s damp, cool and crowded. Thankfully, I’m with a few friends. Even better, there’s plenty of wine to go around.

I’m in the tasting room of the Budo no Oka Center (Grape Hill Center) in Katsunuma, trying to get better acquainted with a Japanese industry I’ll admit I know little about -- winemaking. I had no idea I’d even be here 24 hours ago. Then I got a text message.

“We’re going to wine country tomorrow,” wrote my friend Catherine. “You should come.”

After a flurry of texts, a couple of calls and a six-hour sleep, I find myself on the platform at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station at 8 a.m. with a group of friends. We crowd onto a train and settle in for the 90-minute ride to Yamanashi Prefecture, sometimes referred to as Japan’s Napa Valley.

Rolling into Katsunuma-budokyo Station, we get off the train and take it all in: clear blue skies, fresh air and green hills and valleys.

We stroll along the roads that wind through the vineyards. Bunches of plump grapes hang temptingly within arm’s reach. Our thirst builds.

Nectar of Nippon

Japanese wineGrapes hang heavy on the vines, ready to become some pretty fine Japanese wine.

Farmers have been growing grapes in Yamanashi Prefecture for more than 1,000 years, but winemaking only began in earnest in the latter half of the 19th century. These days, about 200 wineries around Japan are mashing up and fermenting 100 percent domestically grown grapes, selling a range of bottles that appeal to a variety of tastes and budgets.

“The Japan wine industry has already been established and the knowledge of wines of trade people in Japan is very high,” says Toshie Nakashima, a spokesperson for the Japan Wine Challenge, the largest competition of its kind in Asia.

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Japanese wines are also building a reputation in other parts of the world. Suntory International Wine won the gold medal at the Challenge International du Vin in France for its Taru Hakkou Koushu 2008. Winemaker Mercian took home 14 awards at international wine competitions this year.

“Japanese wines have gained some recognition in Europe,” says Nakashima. “Now Selfridges and some top restaurants in London list them.”

Some smaller vintners are busy focusing on perfecting the production of the native koshu grape, a hybrid of vitis vinifera, which is the species responsible for the world’s most popular wines. They’re hoping to show Japan isn’t just capable of producing wine, but fine wine.

Taste testing

Japanese wineVisitors enjoy the all-you-can-drink deal inside the Budo no Oka cave in Katsunuma. Just try to remember the way out when you visit.

Given my knowledge, or lack thereof, of Japanese wine, my palette is ready for anything once I get inside the Budo no Oka Center, a place where local vintners offer their wares for sampling or sale.

I pay ¥1,100 for a small, metal tasting cup and head underground. The cave is filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands of bottles: Chateau Honjyo 2008, Chateau Mercian 2010, Grace Koshu Barrel, Ikeda Winery Grand Cuvée 2010. Where to start?

“I’m not drinking anything under ¥2,000 a bottle,” declares one of my friends.

We then spend the next hour alongside people of all stripes -- some in Hugo Boss and Polo, others wearing Harley-Davidson hats and leather vests -- working our way from dry to sweet white wine, dry to sweet red wine. Experts we’re not, but we definitely win points for enthusiasm.

“It tastes smoky,” says Catherine, of one variety. “You know, like when you taste smoked chips?”

“Smoky good, right?” someone asks absently.

Suffice it to say, the train trip back to Tokyo is a little hazy.

Uncorking recognition

Japanese winePrice check in aisle one. A fan checks out a bottle of red wine inside the Budo no Oka cave.

A few weeks later, I decide to go shopping for Japanese wine in my neighborhood. One store doesn’t stock any domestic varieties. Another has three lonely bottles surrounded by hundreds of reds and whites from Italy, France, Chile and New Zealand.

Still, despite appearances, sales of Japanese wine are on the rise. They jumped more than 20 percent in the first six months of this year at the Tokyu Department Store in Tokyo's Shibuya district.

Wine specialty shop, Cave de Re-Lax, reported a 9 percent increase in domestic wine sales during the same period.

Vintners in this country are hoping their time has come, that Japan will be the next New Zealand of the wine world. It's possible.

There are some solid varieties on the domestic market. But for a country better known for sake and whiskey, building an international winemaking profile remains a major challenge.

Case in point, the Skype call I received as I type away on this piece.

“What are you doing?” asks my friend Dennis in Montreal.

“Writing a story on Japanese wine,” I say.

“You mean Japanese wine actually made from grapes,” he exclaims, bursting out laughing.

They may be winning awards, but Japanese vintners still need a breakthrough before they will be the toast of wine lovers at home and abroad.

More on CNNGO: Japan's sake makers unite for Tohoku

Getting there: The JR Chuo Line Limited express Azusa or Kaiji trains leave from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station for Katsunuma-budokyo Station in Yamanashi Prefecture. The trip takes about 90 minutes and costs ¥6,600 return (express, reserved seat).

Check out the Yamanashi Nouveau festival on November 19 and 20 in Yamanashi. Three dozen wineries are participating with 60 kinds of new Yamanashi wines.

C. James Dale is a Canadian journalist based in Tokyo.

Read more about C. James Dale
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