My book about orange wine Amber Revolution was published in a Japanese language edition in March 2020 (It joins the existing Korean and Taiwan editions, Italian and Ukraine editions are forthcoming). The Japanese edition is the only one which adds new material that wasn’t in the original English language edition. For anyone curious about the exciting and fast-developing Japanese natural and orange wine scene, here’s an edited and slightly expanded version of the exclusive Japanese content in English.
Japanese wine has a much longer history than most would suspect, with the first commercial vintage produced in Yamanashi prefecture in 1874. A serious wine drinking culture developed more recently, and over the last 20 years, Japan has become a paradise for natural and orange wine drinkers, with extraordinary availability of European wines. Exposure to the classic skin-contact wines from Friuli, Slovenia or Georgia has inspired many local winemakers to put their own Japanese slant on the style.
Inspiration hasn’t only come from abroad. Major Yamanashi wineries such as Château Mercian and Lumiere approached skin fermentation of white grapes independently, as a technique to bring more texture and body to the lightweight, indigenous Koshu variety.
Château Mercian pioneered skin-fermented Koshu with their “Gris de gris” wine from 2002. Head winemaker Anzo Mitsuhiro recalls “It didn’t get a great customer reaction back then, because people thought [mistakenly] it was oxidised – but we decided since Koshu has pink skins, why not make a pink wine from it”.
Mitsuhiro and his team persevered, and “Gris de gris” is now a staple of their range. Currently it’s made with four weeks of skin contact – albeit strictly temperature controlled, and therefore not showing a strong skins character. Mitsuhiro’s wife Masako is coincidentally head winemaker at nearby Marufuji winery. Her experiments with skin-fermented Koshu have taken a more minimal-intervention direction, and her wild-fermented, unfiltered Rubaiyat Koshu Kamoshi (first vintage 2015) shows promise.
Lumiere has produced an ‘orange’ Koshu since 2013. It’s a slick and fairly commercial style but nonetheless successful.
The growth in natural, low-intervention winemaking and organic (or at least pesticide-free) viticulture in Japan owes a great deal to Bruce Gutlove and Noboru Kawada. Gutlove is a Californian UC Davis-trained winemaker, who came to Japan in 1989 to assist Kawada with his Cocoromi Gakuen social project in Tochigi prefecture.
Cocoromi had planted vineyards but lacked winemaking expertise. Gutlove was impressed at Kawada’s ethic to tend the vines without the use of any synthetic products. Coco farm and winery developed out of their collaboration, and has since made some of Japan’s most exciting wines.
Gutlove now runs his own winery/custom crush facility (10R) in Hokkaido, mainly focused on red varieties and thus out of scope here. Nonetheless, I have to mention his Pinot Noir and Zweigelt (made as a collaboration with Coco) – they are quite wonderful.
These are exciting times for Japanese wine. Hokkaido, in particular, has a compelling cool climate of the sort that has almost disappeared in Europe. This is a fast-expanding region that we’ll be hearing more from in the future. An ever-widening range of grape varieties are being planted.
Hybrids or American Vitis Labrusca cultivars should not be ignored, with Delaware especially capable of producing fine skin-fermented wines. The suitability of Petit Manseng to Japan’s wet, humid climate is a recent discovery. Woody Farm and Coco have both made great orange wines with this variety.
I’ve profiled six of my favourite artisanal wineries below. A further producer, Sato, is worth mentioning briefly here. Yoshiaki Sato lives and works in Central Otago, New Zealand, but also returns to Japan annually to make a few wines at his friend’s Fujimaru winery. His Delaware Pelliculaire (macerated for around a week) is a favourite of mine year in year out, showing incredible finesse and silky texture.
If I have any frustration with the developing Japanese natural wine scene, it is the almost complete lack of availability of the wines outside Japan – and sometimes even outside the region of production. Admittedly, the focus on local and domestic markets is certainly more sustainable than shipping wines around the globe. Yet many of these wines deserve a greater audience.
For those who might consider visiting Japan’s wine regions (or indeed Japan in general), be aware that the language barrier can be formidable, even in Tokyo. Don’t assume that anyone is going to have more than a very few words of English.
Where to find the wines
If you want to try these wonderful bottles, your best bet is to head to one of these bottle shops in Tokyo:
Shubiduba wine shop/bar (very close to Tokyo’s old fish market)
Virtus Wine Shop (has almost all of my recommendations below in stock)
There are also a number of restaurants and wine bars where you can enjoy Japanese natural and orange wines. These include:
Note that you’ll need an adventurous spirit and the ability to communicate enthusiastically in sign-language in order to function at many of these venues (unless you speak Japanese). The exceptions are Shubiduba and Virtus, both of whose owners speak excellent English.
Tsuyoshi “Tsuyopom” Kobayashi is one of the most eclectic winemakers working in Yamanashi right now. He learnt his craft at Shionjozo winery but then split off to create his own project. His minimalist approach has resulted in stripped-down winemaking (“It’s actually the easiest way – and the real way!” he says) with wild yeasts and no added sulphites. The Koshu-based orange is a blend of different ferments and barrels, with considerable vintage variation but consistent depth and complexity. Just to keep you guessing, each year has a unique name and label! The latest is named K19FY-DD.
Address: C/O Sanyu winery (Custom crush facility)
Yamanashi & Tochigi prefectures
This now-seminal winery in Tochigi had humble beginnings but almost single-handedly kick-started the idea of natural wine production in Japan. Winemaker Toyoichiro Shibata is a big fan of Friuli’s orange wines, and this has so far inspired two of Coco’s own oranges: The savoury, herbal Koshu F.O.S. (‘Fermented on skins’) was first produced in 2004 (from Yamanashi-grown fruit), and a delightful Petit Manseng F.O.S. joined the line-up from 2016. The latter is produced from estate-grown grapes, nurtured by students and staff at Cokoromi Gakuen. Koshu spends a month on its skins, skin contact for the Petit Manseng is 10 days.
Address: 611 Tajima-cho, Ahshikaga-shi, Tochigi prefecture
Email: [email protected]
This micro-domain run by Hideo Kobayashi and his wife has adopted the French name “Chaud” as both a pun on their first syllable “Ko” and also to signify passion, as in “hot” in French. Kobayashi grew up in Dubai, and learnt his winemaking craft first in Australia and then at Cave D’occi. Inspired both by Coco farms, and Italian greats such as La Stoppa, Radikon & Gravner, Kobayashi chooses for incredibly long skin contact (200 – 400 days) to produce complex yet lively sulphur-free wines. Skin Dive, made from 100% Kerner, is a fascinating introduction to his style.
(No contact detaiils available)
Named after their “Al Fiore” Italian restaurant, this Kawasaki-based project seeks to shine the light on Miyagi as a beautiful agricultural region. Established in 2015, grape growing and winemaking follow highly ecological, hands-off ethics. Skin fermented Delaware (“Anco”) and a Spumante (a blend of amphora-fermented Neomuscat, Chardonnay and Delaware) both show this grower’s style: joyful, unencumbered and pure. The winery does not add sulphites – and judging by the stability and verve of the wines, they are not required.
Address: 9 Shiozawa, Hasekura, Kawasaki-machi Shibata-gun, Miyagi 989-1507
Tel: +81 224 87 6896
Email: [email protected]
This medium-sized winery has a decade’s experience of producing orange wines, and it shows in their delicious Dela Orange. With three weeks of skin contact, this unfiltered beauty has subtle Delaware aromatics and nuanced fruit. The winemaker since 2013 is Naoki Yamada. Hitomi’s previous winemaker Sumito Iwatani left to create Yellow Magic Winery (also based in Yamagata). An “orange” pet nat (ancestral-style sparkling wine) is also produced.
Address: 2083 Yamagami-cho, Higashi-omi-shi, Shiga prefecture
Tel: +81 120 80 4239
E-mail: [email protected]
A 2015 trip to Georgia gave Ryohei Miyamoto the inspiration to start making orange wines. The elegant Vignes Chantantes (a blend of Pinot Gris and Auxerrois with 10 days’ skin contact, first vintage 2015) shows more influence from his French winemaking internships than from qvevri wines though. Vineyards were planted in 2011, and as yet there is no winery (wines are made at the neighbouring Takizawa cellars). Miyamoto doesn’t filter or clarify his wines, and the only addition is a minute amount of sulphites.
(No website, at least I couldn’t find one!)