Sake and beer are the traditional adult beverages of Japan. Just like here in the States, the quality level can very widely.
The lower grade of sake is called “futsuu,” which is what you’ll be served at a yakitori restaurant unless you call out the better grade, known as “tokutei” (or “special”).
Likewise, there are various levels of beer available to the hundreds of thousands of businessmen who frequent big-city watering holes while waiting for the crowds on commuter trains to thin out after work. Sapporo, Suntory, Kirin and Asahi are the major brands, and all offer a range of styles and quality levels.
In recent years, sake and beer have been joined by Japanese wine on a growing number of bar and restaurant beverage lists. Most are made with the native Koshu grape, which stands up to the rainy and humid climate thanks to its thick skin.
As Bloomberg revealed in this story, the most important wine estate in Japan is Katsunuma Jyozo Winery, located about 70 miles west of Tokyo’s central district.
What Katsunuma Jyozo is doing with the Koshu variety reminds me of what one winery just north of Santa Rosa, Calif., was doing with the Symphony variety during the 1990s.
Symphony, a cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris that was developed by Dr. Harold Olmo at the University of California at Davis in 1948, could be (and was) made into a variety of different styles by this particular estate.
Likewise, Katsunuma Jyozo Winery is making Koshu in sparkling, dry and semi-sweet styles. There’s even a barrel-fermented version for those who like their wines to be round and rich.
The wines have been introduced to the French marketplace with great success, and I suspect we’ll be heating more about them next year when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympic Games.
It’s interesting to note that Japan’s big beer companies are hedging their bets, in a manner of speaking, by owning their own wineries. And while a vast majority of Japanese wines today are white, inroads are being made with red varieties.
The next time you visit your favorite Japanese restaurant, take the owner or manager aside and ask them if they’ve considered adding Japanese wines to their menu. That could go a long way in expanding our drinking options when we go out for sushi, yakitori or other culinary delights from the Land of the Rising Sun.