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Friday 12 February 2016

Japan: a most surprising destination for wine lovers

Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to spend two weeks exploring Japan with Tobu Top Tours; visiting everywhere from remote rural regions to the massive and impressive city of Osaka. 

The ostensible purpose of the trip was to demonstrate how much more of Japan has been opened up to tourism by the new Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train, which rockets from Tokyo to Kanazawa, make accessible increased areas of previously undiscovered regional Japan – primarily Fukui, Ishikawa and Toyama. 

The itinerary included several fascinating artisan sake distilleries as well as two wine producers. 

Yes, wine. Not only are Japanese supermarkets full of imported wines, but there is also a fast-growing domestic wine industry. 

Chateau Mercian, outside Nagano, is probably the highest-profile producer, along with Grace Winery. 

While some winemakers use traditional wine grapes, including chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, others concentrate on koshu, a white wine grape that is rain resistant, and the hybrid grape Muscat Bailey A. High humidity and rain during the flowering season are hurdles for many local producers.

Grapes are cultivated and wines made in several regions; we visited the new Osagida winery at Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture, run by the Chichibu Farmers group, where there are two hectares of vines and other grapes are sourced from growers. 

This small but impressive facility offers vineyard and winery tours and free tastings, and visitors can enjoy a traditional lunch next door at the Kamanoue Farm Village. I enjoyed the 2014 Muscat Bailey A Cuvée Kamanoue, which was reminiscent of Beaujolais in style.

Less rustic is the Cave d'Occi winery and restaurant, a full-scale tourism operation that is part of the Niigata Wine Coast region, which includes five wine producers and is on the hillside overlooking the Japan Sea. Winery and vineyard tours are offered here, there are three restaurants and cafés, including an up-market French eatery, and there is even vineyard accommodation.  

There are seven hectares of vines, dating back to 1992, most of them French in origin, ranging from chardonnay and riesling to cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese. The other regional wineries; Fermier, Domaine Chaud, Cantinio Zia Setto and Le Cinq are all close by. 

And for Australians looking to export; Japanese wine drinkers are increasingly open to trying new styles and countries as the country’s wine market ‘comes of age’, according to a recent report from Rabobank. 

That was certainly borne out by my visit to Boo Foo Woo, a very funky wine bar in ShinOsaka specialising in "natural" wines and where names on the list included the likes of Mount Mary, La Violetta, Ochota Barrels and other Australian boutique stars imported by Carl Robinson, Ned Goodwin and the team at Wine Diamonds in Tokyo. 

In supermarkets, the wine ranges are more mainstream, but offer a good global spread. 

Japan is a fascinating country with an intriguing wine future - and I also predict that any wine lovers visiting will develop a love affair with sake. I bought several bottles back with me. 

# The writer was a guest of Tobu Top Tours on a trip to promote the new Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train route from Tokyo to Kanazawa, which opens up new areas of 
regional Japan to overseas visitors.

Qantas flies twice daily to Tokyo via Sydney (Sydney-Haneda) or Brisbane (Brisbane-Narita). The Brisbane-Narita flights are operated by the refurbished A330 aircraft, with lie-flat seats in Business, brand new economy seats and new in-flight entertainment. The Sydney-Haneda flights are operated by a B747, which features the refurbished A380 interior. 

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