The Grape Escape

The Grape Escape

Travelling south in Japan at this time of year is like travelling back through time. This morning we made our way down from Matsumoto, to cross into Yamanashi prefecture and land in Kofu. The trees are still green, some of the rice hasn’t been harvested and it’s a good deal warmer than it had been in Nagano the previous night. We lost at least a month.
Yamanashi, it turns out, has a particularly unusual climate, perhaps little surprise when we found out that 78% of this prefecture is made up of mountainous terrain. The combination of the winds, the disproportionately high amount of sunshine and fertile soil make it an ideal place for growing crops. Specifically, for growing grapes. And, well, you know what that means, right?

Yamanashi has had wine longer than virtually any other part of the country. They take it pretty seriously round these parts and have enough space and suitable weather to be able to grow several varities of grape. As though to underline the point, our first stop was to visit Hayakawaen, a mini-vineyard that grows seven types of grape, most of which are for eating, rather than wine-making (our favourite was probably the odd-shaped lady-finger). The speciality, though, is the Koshu, Japan’s indigenous fruit, and one of the favourites for wine-making.

The practise has been going in Japan for an estimated 130 years, but it took a while to really approach an industrial scale. Naturally, the Second World War played its part in the stunted growth, as did the wild popularity of beer, sake and whisky. And if it was status wine-drinkers were after, they’d have paid over the odds for imported bottles from France, Italy and South America.

In other words, there are plenty of excuses as to why Japan doesn’t produce more wine. But of the places that do, Yamanashi is the biggest, with over 90 wineries spread around the prefecture. We learned this as we strolled through the obscenely picturesque Shosenkyo gorge, and into a wine shop.
The little place let us try a few different options, all of which were blends. Katy lucked out by getting a sweet white number that we both guessed would make a pretty excellent dessert wine.
Their other highlight was an extremely concentrated, non-alcoholic grape juice that was loaded with tannins. That, of course, means it’s very good for your health, but unless it gave me the ability to read minds, I doubt I’d be willing to hand over ¥3100 (US$40) for the privilege of drinking it. I consoled myself with a grape ice cream for a tenth of the price (and doubtless less than one percent of the health benefits).
Our last stop was at an actual winery, Mount Wine (or Mont Vin, on some of their fancier branding), a small scale operation on the outskirts of Kofu. Like many of its prefectural rivals, it too specialised in Koshu wine which, truth be told, neither Katy or I much cared for.

Nonetheless, there was something heart-warming about seeing the president of the company still mucking-in and helping prune away bad grapes. Just as it was good to hear the chief producer, Yoshihiko Iinuma, talk enthusiastically about his trade after 26 years in the job. These people are professional and passionate; Iinuma made pilgrimages to Napa Valley to learn his trade, and sincerely wants Japanese wine, made with indigenous Japanese grapes to get the recognition he feels it deserves.

When we finally got into our hotel, we opened a little gift bag from the local tourist board and found a dainty inden-ya card-holder, and next to that, a small bottle of Yamanashi white wine – hooray!
We eyed it up greedily, but then, disaster! We checked the draws just in case, but we knew: these business hotel rooms don’t come with a corkscrew.





ワイン造りの歴史は130年程になるのだが、それが産業として確立されるまでには長い道のりがあり、第二次世界大戦後、ビール、日本酒、そしてウイスキーが主流になる中、その発展は更に遅れていった。また味よりも“スタイル”としてワインを飲む人は、多少高いお金を払ってもフランス、イタリア、そして南米からの輸入品を好む傾向があり、その事もワイン産業の発展の足かせになった。 それらはそっくりそのまま、なぜ日本でワイン産業が目覚ましく発展しないのかと言う事にもつながる。だがそれでも山梨は日本最大のワイン産出県であり、県内には90を超えるワイナリーがある。このことは絵のように美しい昇仙峡を散策し、一軒のワインショップで学んだのだ。そこではいくつかの違う種類を試させてもらい、デザートワインによさそうなものがケイティのお気に入りだった。