Although grapes existed in Japan for at least 1,300 years (imported from China via the Silk Road), it was only during the Meiji Era that the government started encouraging local farmers in Yamanashi Prefecture to branch into wine-making. With its mild weather and fertile soil, Yamanashi — located about two hours from Tokyo — is now the most popular and biggest wine producer in Japan.
Over 80 wineries are dotted across the prefecture, making Yamanashi responsible for about 40 per cent of Japan's wine production, and is especially known for its native grape variety — koshu. This particular grape variety is characterised by its subtle, delicate flavour, which produces wines with soft, clean and fruity bouquets.
However, for oenophiles with a nose for adventure, it’s well worth checking out the burgeoning winemaking scenes in these other prefectures. Keep reading to learn about other wine regions in Japan that wine enthusiasts should add to their itineraries.
While it's perhaps better known for the onsen-loving primates in Jigokudani Monkey Park, one should not overlook that Nagano is also Japan's second-highest wine-producing prefecture. They are also the country’s biggest producer of Merlot and Chardonnay wines; although the region has now expanded its offerings to include other Western varieties such as Niagara and Concord.
There are four main wine-producing regions in Nagano and together, they are known as the "Shinshu Wine Valley". Here, they are blessed with low rainfall, plenty of sun and good-quality soil. One of the most popular wineries in Nagano Prefecture is Suntory Shiojiri, which works with local growers to produce grape varieties ranging from Chardonnay to Merlot. The wines here are typically light and herbaceous — accessible even for those new to wine appreciation.
Because of its low humidity and extreme temperature differences — both of which are ideal for wine cultivation — the northernmost prefecture is starting to make a name for itself as a wine-producing region. The number of wineries in Hokkaido has been steadily increasing, and there are now over 20 wineries centred in the grape-growing areas of Shiribeshi and Sorachi. Wines produced within these two regions have their own distinctive taste. Wines from Sorachi have an earthy flavour with a hard, crisp finish while wines from Shiribeshi are known to be softer, with a more fruity aroma.
If you'd like to enjoy a gourmet meal complete with wine pairings, Yoichi Winery and OcciGabi (can be reached via a short drive from JR Yoichi station) offer sumptuous meals at their on-site restaurants. While in Yoichi, don’t miss out on the Domaine Takahiko winery, which is famous for their characterful Pinot Noir, made with grapes specially sourced from local small-batch producers.
For those who prefer a more in-depth introduction to local wines, the Hokkaido Wine Centre, located on the first floor of the Otaru Canal Terminal, offers an informative wine tasting session.