After two months of restrictions banning alcohol at restaurants and bars in the Japanese capital, Tokyoites are relishing the return of wine at dinner — at least until 7 p.m. In the epicenter of Asia’s most mature wine market, the drink can be found all over the city, sipped by executives at restaurants with well-stocked cellars and guzzled by natural wine geeks in standing-room-only “boîtes,” or small restaurants, with no menus. But it’s almost always enjoyed with food: Places that call themselves wine bars often operate as full-service eateries, and even hybrid retail shops with tasting bars offer substantial snacks, like pâté de campagne.
Long a bastion of vintage reds, Tokyo’s wine scene has grown more diverse as drinkers have become more knowledgeable. According to the Japan Sommelier Association, there are 30,000 certified sommeliers in the country, 13,000 of whom are women. While there’s still plenty of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot on the market, recent trends reflect a thirst for discovery and a shift toward eco-conscious consumption. Sales of whites have topped reds for the first time in decades, and the preferred palate among younger imbibers is lighter, brighter, and quirkier than ever.
The evolution of natural
While Japan’s taste for natural wine goes back as far as the early ‘90s, the formerly niche market has evolved into a real contender, served everywhere from casual cafes to Michelin-starred restaurants, says Guillaume Dupérier, co-founder of natural wine bar Apero in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, as well as a new bottle shop of the same name in the Kyojima neighborhood.
Over the past five years, the movement has had a huge impact on drinking culture in Tokyo, where many consumers identify with the eco-friendly ethos and notions of purity associated with biodynamic and organic wines.
However, the previous image of low-intervention wines as intensely funky, bordering on flawed, has changed as the demand for subtler, fresher styles has increased.
“Winemakers have realized that consumers want wines that are complex but approachable from the nose to the finish,” Dupérier explains, noting that volatile aromas are no longer acceptable.
Interest in natural wine is not limited to boutique producers: “Commercial organic wines that are marketed as sustainable — for example, from Chile — are trending because of a combination of quality, traceability, and perceived health benefits,” says Carl Robinson of import company Jeroboam, which is launching Cellar Door wine bar and restaurant in July.
Kentaro Endo, who owns wine shop Kiara3525 in the hipster enclave of Koenji, has noticed an uptick in requests for orange wine, which first started appearing on menus at trendy restaurants last year.
“It may be the influence of social media, but even people who aren’t connoisseurs are asking for it now,” he says.
According to sommelier Yoshinobu Kimura of Sushi M, skin-contact wines that balance freshness with tannin offer “the typical flavor Japanese people are looking for” these days. Chemical analysis of Domaine Chaud Skin Dive, which Kimura often pairs with sushi, revealed that the wine contains succinic acid, which typically contributes a salty taste. From a chemistry perspective, he says, orange wine is a match for fish — a boon in a country where seafood is central to the cuisine.
When supermarket giant Aeon began importing Thomas Fogarty’s amphora-fermented Satsum to sell at Aeon Liquor specialty shops, the Santa Cruz winery had to purchase a new amphora to ramp up production, says importer Michael Khoo of Wine in Style, who helped broker the deal. Even Kakuyasu, Japan’s largest alcohol distributor specializing in value-priced spirits, has begun stocking a couple of varieties of orange wine at its ubiquitous retail stores.
Turning away from the Bordeaux and Burgundy that once dominated the market, Tokyoites are seeking out lesser-known regions. Kiara carries a small but strong selection from Greece, Georgia, Hungary, and Austria, while Dupérier says that he’s noticed enthusiasm for areas such as Jura and Languedoc-Roussillon in France, Oregon in the U.S., and Sicily and Puglia in Italy.
Sommelier Hironobu Hara, of two-Michelin-starred restaurant Florilège, sees considerable potential in unexplored regions such as China.
“It’s not merely about novelty; the level of Chinese producers like Grace Vineyard in Shanxi is gradually improving, along with value. If more products enter the market, it could start a new boom,” Hara says. “Consumers have become savvier, and they’re looking for delicious wines that offer great value.”
The growing segment of Japanese wines got an added boost during the pandemic.
“People realized the importance of domestic products and went back to local sourcing,” Dupérier explains. “At first, they tried Japanese wine out of curiosity but now there’s a real interest.”
Robinson notes that higher quality and wider availability, along with the appeal of local grape varieties, have contributed to the trend.
“It’s now possible to find 15 to 20 Japanese producers on retail shelves,” he says. “The Yamasachi hybrid is working well for organic wineries in Hokkaido, and grapes like Koshu are making a resurgence.”
Wines measuring 11.5% ABV or below are on the rise, as overall alcohol consumption declines among younger and health-conscious Japanese.
“Low-alcohol wines are often biodynamic or organic, which accounts for part of the popularity. They’re also light-tasting and easy to pair with Japanese food,” says Akihiko Nosaka, head sommelier at Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.
The lower-alcohol trend is driving demand for styles such as pétillant naturel: “Japanese people love sparkling wine, and in the high humidity of the summer, we want something very cold and fizzy that’s easy to drink and not too intense,” Nosaka says.
Sustainable packaging is also gaining ground among the newer generation of wine drinkers.
Michael Khoo points to the Japanese government’s passing of a law requiring a fee for single-use bags at shops last year as a sign of growing environmental awareness.
“People are starting to worry about the environmental impact of bottles,” he says.
Although the trend is still in the early stages, Khoo believes canned wines are poised to take off as consumers realize that high quality can come in a can.
“The craft beer movement drove this point home, and now most craft beer is sold in cans,” he says. “If it can happen for beer, why not wine?”
Indeed, in Tokyo’s evolving wine market, anything is possible.