Climate and viticulture

Japan's rainy climate and fertile soils have long been considered unsuitable for viticulture.

Generally, the annual rainfall suitable for viticulture is 500-900 mm, but in Japan, it is not unusual for the annual rainfall to exceed 1000 mm. Rainfall is particularly heavy from spring to autumn, the grape growing season. Heavy rainfall increases the humidity in the vineyard and increases the risk of fungal diseases and rot. fungal diseases affect not only the grapes, but also the leaves and stems, so it is a disease caused by high humidity that not only reduces grape quality but also leads to reduced production due to leaf drop and berry drop, resulting in reduced vine vigour, yield and quality.

Against this background, it is important to find the right harvest time in Japanese viticulture. If it rains when the grapes are ripening, it is necessary to harvest earlier. An earlier harvest means that the grapes have to be harvested before they are fully ripe. For this reason, unique innovations have been developed in Japan.

“Rain-shelter cultivation” roofing over the entire canopy using plastic sheeting.

“Grape Guard”, which covers only the fruit zone with a plastic sheet.

Some winegrowers have umbrellas made of plastic over each bunch.

In Japan, a low-density pergola trellising system is relatively common, rather than the high-density vertical shoot position often used in viticulture overseas. Low-density planting allows for better ventilation and more sunlight per vine, which helps moisture to escape and prevents fungal diseases. It also increases the area occupied by each vine and allows the branches to use more energy, so that by the time the berries are ready to ripen, the nutrients are ready to be used there.

Nevertheless, some varieties and regions are doing well with vertical shoot position, and wineries and grape growers are continuing to experiment with different methods of viticulture in Japan.

In fact, originally Japanese wine was made in a natural way. It has a history of grape growers putting their surplus grapes into jars in the corner of their fields and enjoying the naturally fermented wine. This moved to mass production during World War II and turned into industrial wine.

In the 1990s, many young people travelled to Europe to train in winemaking and importing. They were impressed by the low additive wines they drank in Europe and brought them back to Japan, which was the start of a resurgence of natural wine in Japan. It was also around this time that natural winemakers were invited from abroad and their knowledge and experience were infused into Japanese winemakers. It was just at this time that wine distribution began to be carried out by refrigerated transport. Thanks to the power of distribution, it became possible to enjoy natural foreign wines that could cross the equator. In the late 1980s, growing awareness of the problem of pesticide residues and the development of pesticide-free cultivation techniques also contributed to this trend.

Then, around 2000, some veteran winemakers with a penchant for natural wines secretly started making the wines they really wanted to drink, while still making industrial wines. There were many failures in the beginning. However, the Japanese are good at precision and meticulousness. They quickly succeeded in combining delicate viticulture methods to produce natural wines with no unwanted touches. Some of these wines, as 'nigori wine' (orange wine) and slightly fizzy wine (petillant), made their way onto the Japanese wine market around 2010.

Japan's humid climate is characterised by juicy grapes. Breaking away from the past, when the aim was to produce wines with a rich flavour like those from overseas, Japanese natural wines are now made with this freshness in mind. This is a return to light wines that match Japanese food, i.e. naturalness that matches Japan's Dashi and Umami culture. The Wine that is gentle and non-resistant, and does not cause bad intoxication. The Wine that does not interfere with gentle Japanese food. This is the main characteristic of Japanese natural wine.

After all, the only drawback may be that Japan's high temperatures and humidity make it difficult to continue completely organic cultivation. Even without pesticides, protecting the grapes with huge amounts of vinyl is environmentally destructive. In this context, organic vineyards are probably where the number of vineyards is increasing rapidly. If, in addition to organic viticulture, reduced pesticide cultivation (la lutte raisonnée) is included in the Japanese natural winemaking industry, it is expected to greatly expand the range of Japanese natural wines, which are recognised for both viticulture and winemaking.

Today, wineries producing natural wines, or winemakers who aspire to do so, are spreading across the country. In the past, the main producers were in Hokkaido, Yamanashi and Nagano, but recently, more and more people are taking up the challenge, even in regions where rain and natural disasters are common and winegrowing is said to be difficult, as they regard the climate and soil as the terroir of each region. In the future, more and more diversity will emerge in Japanese natural wines, and fine wines that are recognised around the world will appear.

Next: History of Japanese Wine