Natural wine at home in Japan

Although Japan is one of the world’s most competitive markets, natural wine is finding open doors. Simon J. Woolf reports.

Photo by Sora Sagano on Unsplash
Photo by Sora Sagano on Unsplash

Every major city has them – those particular haunts where globe-trotting natural winemakers like to cluster after hours. The trail of rustic vignerons in Osaka leads not to a hip wine bar or a fancy mezzanine but to a deserted mall, where the shops are shuttered after the day’s trading. Three massive escalators must be scaled to reach Yoshio Nakagawa’s restaurant Pasania, in the Nakanoshima Dai building.

Pasania doesn’t do Michelin-starred filigree or sushi. Its raison d’etre is a typically Japanese elevation of the humble pancake, okonomiyaki, to a form of delicious high art. When Nakagawa isn’t working at the teppan grill, he pours glasses of his favourite natural wines for the customers. Radikon is a staple, but visitors might also enjoy cloudy pét-nats from Australia, unfiltered Gamay from Beaujolais or funky Pinot Noirs from Japan’s fast-developing domestic natural wine scene. 

Nakagawa is no lone maverick. Natural wine is big in Japan, and the country’s increasing thirst for small-production, low/no sulphur and minimal intervention seems unquenchable. 

Natural finds its natural home

The increasing interest in natural wine has been built on what was already Asia’s most mature wine market. As of 2017, Japan ranked sixth in the world’s top wine importing countries, only outperformed by the US, UK, Germany, China and Canada. Yet despite wine imports totalling only a quarter of those to the US by value ($1.6bn versus the United States’ $6.2bn), Japan is increasingly the premier market for natural wine. Kei Tashiro, a renowned young sommelier who grew up in the US before returning to his roots, agrees. “At present, I think that Japan can be said to be the top-level natural wine market in the world.”

As ever, natural wine’s slippery rules of engagement make it tricky to nail down the figures – yet anecdotal evidence points clearly to Japan’s dominance in the natural sphere. First is the number of minimal interventionists worldwide who export to Japan long before their wines are available anywhere else, and second is the percentage of these growers who have Japan as their major market.

Theo Coles makes a tiny boutique line of wines under the label The Hermit Ram from small parcels of vineyards in Canterbury, New Zealand. He started selling in Japan in 2013, just a year after the inauguration of his project, yet The Ram didn’t reach European customers until 2018. “They go mental for my Müller-Thurgau,” he notes enthusiastically.

Over in Slovenia’s Vipava valley, the Mlečnik family – famed in natural circles for their elegant skin-macerated Rebula and Ana Cuvée – have been working with their Japanese importer Vinaiota since 2004, yet only found UK distribution in 2016. About 30% of their 25,000 bottle annual production is now sold in Japan, alongside 30% sold domestically – leaving the rest of the world to fight over the remaining third. 

Radikon, a cult natural wine producer based in the Italian Collio, also counts Japan as its biggest single market: it currently soaks up 20% of the company’s production. “We could easily sell 50% of what we produce to Japan – actually we could probably sell it all,” Saša Radikon jokes. In an effort to ensure that he retains enough wine to serve other customers, he’s had to reduce the amount going to Japan from a 2016 high of 30%. Radikon has also taken the slightly controversial step of making a new premium release – the 2002 Ribolla Riserva – only available in the Land of the Rising Sun. “They’re our best customers,” he explains, “and we have so little of this wine that it makes no sense to try to divide it up.”

An even larger 50% of Alberto Anguissola’s 30,000 bottle production (bottled under the name Casè) heads straight to Japan. Based in Emilia-Romagna, Anguissola has been able to build his entire business around Asia. “Japanese customers trust in the wines,” he says. “They believe in small producers like us. In Italy, it’s completely different – we are still fighting to move away from the era of consultant oenologists who work for large chemical companies.” Anguissola speaks proudly of how his Japanese importer has grown with him. “When [some years ago] I increased my production from 3,000 bottles to 6,000 bottles a year, they increased along with me.”

Good customers

Trust and stability is a theme mentioned by many winemakers in relation to Japan. “The big difference is the trust,” Saša Radikon agrees. “You can trust Japanese people – when they say they’ll do something, they do it.” He’s hinting at another factor, often lamented behind closed doors – the shockingly widespread practice of Italian restaurants not paying their bills. Unsurprisingly, Radikon has little sympathy for those Italian establishments that now complain they can’t get an allocation of his wines.
To any wine-curious visitor in Japan, the sheer range of natural wines on offer is extraordinary, and perhaps without equal anywhere else in the world. Obscure producers from South Africa to Georgia to the Loire are all present in the market. Fashionable restaurants in Tokyo often have natural wine lists with more range than those in London or New York. Ăn Đi, a much-hyped Vietnamese fusion restaurant run by famed sommelier Motohiro Okoshi, is a good example. The natural wine fanatic’s wine list is a treasure trove listing hundreds of small production gems from around the world. At the other end of the scale, Libertin is a cozy French-style bistro with almost entirely sans soufre offerings from all corners of France. 

Importer Hisato Ota (founder of Vinaiota) notes that Tokyo has more than 200,000 restaurants, including 4,000 wine-friendly Italian eateries. Increasingly, customers in the world’s most populous city are going natural. Ota adds that the trend goes beyond the major cities, citing the example of Hitujiya, a rural restaurant in Yamagata prefecture that breeds sheep (whose internal organs feature on the menu) and offers accompanying natural wines by the glass and bottle.

Flavours that work

How did Japan get to this point? It’s tempting to imagine a sudden explosion of interest, but this isn’t the case. Japan’s taste for natural wines goes back decades. If anything, the Japanese market developed earlier than those in New York or London. Exhibit number one: Kenichi Ohashi MW’s book 自然派ワイン (Vin Naturel), published in 2004 – a decade before the first English language equivalent written by Isabelle Legeron MW.

Hisato Ota discovered natural wines in 1999, inspired by visits to Angiolino Maule and Giampiero Bea in Northern Italy. His impressive list now includes wines from Radikon, Frank Cornelissen, Vodopivec and Mlečnik. In the early years he admits to having sat on a great deal of unsold stock; however, many of his wines are now massively oversubscribed. “After 15 years, Radikon now sells out as soon it arrives,” he says.

Ota speculates on many reasons why Japanese customers have taken so enthusiastically to the different flavour profiles and styles of natural wine. “We didn’t have the tradition of wine in our history,” he says, “so many of us think that we don’t know anything about it. But that means we are also without preconception or prejudice.” He goes further, adding that a nation where two different religions (Buddhism and Shinto) live peacefully side by side is clearly open-minded at its core, suggesting that the Shinto concept “there are many gods in nature” chimes sympathetically with natural wine’s ethics.

Saša Radikon notes a marked upturn in Japanese sales in the years following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Japanese consumers wanted to connect more deeply with environmental issues, to feel more in contact with rural ethics and ways of life. Souheil El Khoury, founder of Tokyo-based wine import business Vins d’Olive, riffs on the same topic: “With industrialisation and urbanisation in Japan, there’s been a real sense of degradation of the countryside – and the idea of the village. People say that natural wine brings you back to the roots. It has a sense of the environment in it.”

There’s also the well-worn epithet that natural wines match perfectly with the umami flavours commonly found in Japanese cuisine. No-one disputes this, even if it might be a happy coincidence rather than the main driver. That said, anyone who accepts Nakagawa’s recommendation of a glass of Radikon’s Ribolla Gialla to go with his okonomiyaki will be impressed by the resulting umami-heaven. 

With an increasingly wine-educated population and ever lower taxes on wine (since February 2019, wine imports from the EU have been free of fixed duties), the potential for further growth in Japan is significant. It may merely be at the beginning of its vin naturel love affair.

Simon Woolf

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