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Massan and the Renaissance of Japanese Wine

When one thinks of Japan’s alcoholic beverages, sake, beer and whiskey come to mind. However, the tides have turned for the once ridiculed Japanese wines, with “koshu” wines attracting much interest abroad.

The same story can be seen for Japanese whisky. In November 2014, Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was named the world’s best whisky by the prestigious Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015, which gave the industry a huge boost both here in Japan and abroad.

Even before this, the NHK began airing “Massan,” the latest in a long line of sentimental television dramas that take place in Japan’s pre-World War II years of rapid industrialization. In 15-minute episodes that are shown in the morning and repeated at lunchtime, the drama shows Masaharu Kameyama (nicknamed Massan) and his struggles to produce Japan’s first whisky.

In recent times, increasing popularity of Japanese wines is shared domestically and internationally. In Japan, wine festivals, such as the “Yamanashi Nouveau Wine Festival” and “Wine and Gourmet” have been steadily gaining popularity over the past few years.

The popularity of the Yamanashi Nouveau fair, which started in 1987, has grown over the last few years. According to the Yamanashi Prefecture Winemakers Association, 5,300 people turned out for the 2011 edition of the one-day event in Tokyo, and in 2012, the organizers turned the festival into a two-day affair. On the first day alone, over 5,000 people had already entered the venue.

Ms. Rica Miura, a wine advisor with the Japan Sommelier Association, interviewed by the Japan Times, told them that she attributes the improvements to the fact that the new generation of winemakers has studied enology and viticulture abroad.

“The standards are changing,” she told the Japan Times. “In Nagano Prefecture, they’ve introduced an ‘AOC’ system (similar to the geographical designation system used in France), and many other prefectures are eager to learn.”

So far, 2015 has proved to be a successful year for Japanese wines, as international interest has become more apparent. According to their website, the Koshu of Japan organization was “founded to improve the quality of the distinctively Japanese Koshu grapes and wines and to increase the awareness of these wines on global markets.” The Koshu of Japan (KOJ) Annual Trade Tasting event took place in London in February, with many journalists, importers, and related companies present. In London alone, 30 restaurants and 21 retailers deal with Japanese wine (koshu wine in particular); interest is bound to increase with the amount of retailers/restaurants serving Japanese wine in such a cosmopolitan city. One can hope that this trend will grow in Italy and throughout the rest of the world as well.

We at the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Japan support Japanese companies looking to go abroad, and Italian companies interested in broadening their horizons in Japan. For wineries in particular, we believe Vinitaly 2016, the world’s largest and most prestigious wine trade fair, could be the “Massan” chance for Japanese wineries to get that extra boost. 



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