Japanese Wine Joins the Mile High Club

Japan Airlines has added 4 wines to its in-air beverage service for first and executive class passengers. The surprise is that they are 4 Japanese wines.

Not only are the wines themselves new, this is the first time JAL has offered Japanese wines of any kind – in this case, a Japanese Merlot and 3 whites.

The Merlot is a Solaris Shinshu Komoro 2003 and is made by Manns Wine, a major Japanese wine-maker which grows Merlot grapes using special techniques to suit Japanese conditions.

The Merlot comes from the Osato district of Komoro City on the Chikuma River in eastern Nagano Prefecture.

Only the highest quality grapes from the vineyard, amounting to a third of the average yield, are used in the vintage. The vineyard is covered for protection from the elements.

The 3 whites are made from the Koshu grape variety at Katsunuma Winery in Katsunuma (www.katsunuma-winery.com). They are Aruga Branca Clareza 2005, Aruga Branca Issehara 2006 and Aruga Branca Pipa 2003.

The Koshu grape, most likely a vinifera table grape, has been grown in and around the town of Katsunuma, about 60 miles west of Tokyo, for at least 1200 years, but has only been used to make wine for the past century.

The original species of Koshu grapes were brought from Caucasus. They passed through Silk Road and got across to Japan by Buddhist monks who cultivated it for its medicinal properties.

According to legend, in 718 a Buddhist monk named “Gyoki” saw a vision of Yakushi Buddha (the medical Buddha) who was holding a bunch of grapes. So the monk established Daizenji temple and began to cultivate the grapes for purposes of medication.

Katsunuma was a postal town along the road with grape arbours and tea rooms selling grapes lining the route. It became known as “the Village of the Grape” and developed into the centre of viniculture in Japan.

The Katsu numa Winery, run by the Aruga family was established in 1937 and they have been cultivating grapes and making wines for three generations there.

The grapes are cultivated by the traditional Japanese viniculture method called Tanashiki saibai (trellis-type cultivation).

www.decanter.com has reported that Bernard Magrez is to begin a joint venture with Katsunuma Winery. Magrez owns 35 wine properties around the world, and makes wine with actor Gerard Depardieu.

The wines that Magrez and Aruga are making will be sold outside of Japan, starting in the US and eventually in E urope. The wine, as yet unnamed, will be distributed through Magrez’s own commercial network.

The Katsunama Winery is one of the few Japanese wineries to use grapes grown in its own vineyards to make its wines – and one of the few that grows grapes specifically for wine, rather than using unwanted table grapes.

Grape growing conditions are harsh in Japan – freezing winters, typhoons, monsoons and salt winds contrast starkly with Mediterranean climates of the same latitude.

The 1970s saw far-reaching developments: first was the introduction of French and German grapes and foreign (mainly French  and Australian) wine expertise.

Japanese wine makers have learned their lessons well from the French and the concept of terroir is reflected in The Katsunama Winery’s philosophy:

“While respecting the many local wine makers of the world, we pursue the maximization of the wine making potential of the Japanese natural climate, and we are striving to produce our locally fermented Katsunuma wine which is made within the local climate and culture, and which cannot be made anywhere else.”

Another Bordeaux winemaker and white wine consultant Denis Dubourdieu of Barsac’s Chateau Doisy-Daene is also involved in a winemaking project in Japan.

Indeed the Koshu Wine Project (www.koshu.org) advertises its wine KOSHU Cuvée Denis Dubourdieu as a flagship of the grape. This dry white claims to be the first Japanese wine available on the international market.

Images Courtesy of www.yotophoto.com and www.flickr.com

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