Arts & Leisure

Text and photos by Brian M. Afuang
Visual Editor

Kampai: The Japanese make wine

Posted on November 24, 2016

THE IDEA of Japan having a wine-producing region is a lot like that of Patek Philippe pieces that run on quartz movements. Or of a blonde member of Mensa. The thing exists; only not many people know about it. That this place sits a mere couple of hours by bus from downtown Tokyo only makes its existence all the more surprising.

CHATEAU MERCIAN’s grounds and part of vineyard in the distance. Squint.
Southwest of the Japanese capital, in Yamanashi Prefecture, are several quaint towns and cities that nurture their own vineyards and wineries. Kai, Koshu, Fuefuki, Fujikawaguchiko, Hokuto, and Yamanashi’s capital city of Kofu are considered to largely comprise the country’s wine-making region, some of which have engaged in viniculture since the 1800s just as Japan opened itself up to foreigners.

The fertile land of the region -- a basin bounded by mountains, including no less than Mount Fuji on the southern side -- and a mostly temperate climate year round are conducive to producing grapes (as well as other fruits, like peaches and plums) that are suitable for both table pickings and turning into proper wine. And though Yamanashi gets abundant rainfall, apparently the pockets where the vineyards lie are drenched less than the rest of the surrounding areas. Best for growing wine grapes, then.

The Katsunuma area in Koshu is one such place. Proof of this is that on the recent Friday when we went there, Tokyo’s sunny mood of the previous day had turned all gloomy, the skies gray and incessant at dumping rain. More than an hour out of the city and still it was cold and wet. But a few minutes before reaching our wine-tour destination -- Chateau Mercian -- the clouds parted and the rains eased, then stopped just as views of burgundy-colored vineyards unfolded.

Chateau Mercian is both vineyard and winery. It is perched on a corner of hilly Katsunuma. On its grounds lie several structures that include storage for wines, as well as an old winery that has been converted into a museum within which the brand’s roots, dating back to 1877, are chronicled through displays of antique wine-making contraptions, sundry memorabilia, and numerous huge casks housed in cavernous rooms.

Fronting the museum is a trellised courtyard roofed by grapevines. There, views of Chateau Mercian’s and neighboring vineyards (organized wine tours across these are offered by tourist services) are set against the mountain ranges and the town’s houses, in literally the backyards of which grapes are grown.

On the other side of the courtyard, opposite the museum, is a modern, boxy building. Inside it is the store for the chateau’s harvest and a restaurant offering a tasting menu and food that pairs with it. The selection of food is limited; rather, it’s the variety of reds and whites that is highlighted.

Which is a statement. Because while Japan’s other libations like sake (obviously), beer, and whisky -- Yamazaki’s single malt has been named the world’s best by connoisseurs this year and last, beating the Scots at their game -- its homegrown wine is just starting to draw attention. And to that; kampai.