Natural wines have existed since time immemorial. Since the first wine was made over eight thousand years ago through crushing grapes and natural fermentation, it has existed in wine culture. However, the natural wine movement is still a relatively new phenomenon on the wine market, starting with its early visionaries such as Austria’s Rudolph Steiner, Japan’s Masanobu Fukuoka and wine gurus like Burgundy’s Jules Chauvet. The 1970s and ‘80s saw producers support the momentum- Bordeaux’s Favard, Friuli’s Gravner, Loire’s Joly, Beaujolais’s Lapierre, Australia’s Laughton, Veneto’s Maule and Jura’s Overnoy to but name a few.
Kenichi Ohashi, leading Japanese wine and sake distributor, as well as certified Master of Sake (SSI) and Sake Expert Assessor (NRIB), is part of the movement- authoring the book “Vin Naturel” and the online wine columnist of Japan’s national newspaper “Yomiuri”. Asian Palate interviews him on his opinion of Japan’s attitude to natural wine, and which wines to drink- au naturel.
AP: Asian Palate KO: Kenichi Ohashi
AP: When did the first wave of natural wine movement in Japan begin? Is it still strong or getting weaker?
KO: I don’t remember the precise period, but absolutely after my book publishing. At the beginning of the 00’s in my warehouse, there was such a large stock of natural wines that could not be sold to my clients. It was at around 2005-2007 that the business exploded. Also, it isn’t getting weaker and weaker, because even now, the strongest brands in even our entry-level market is “organic wine” or “non-additive wine” like them. Or, in the mid-market range, a lot of Japanese sommeliers have dealt with natural wines partially, sometimes exclusively! Personally, I think that the current situation in Japan is just a flood of natural wine!
AP: What triggered this move towards natural wine?
KO: Through the great efforts made by Japanese natural wine importers, the sales of natural wines are increasing step by step, supported by the tendency that Japanese people tend to prefer healthier ingredients. A few importers have used the term “Natural Wine” over “organic wines” and “biodynamic wines” since ten years ago, but at that moment it was the popular minority. I decided to use the title “Vin Naturel” for my first book, which was strongly recommended by Mr.Thierry Puzelat, who has been one of the most influential Natural Wine producers close to Blois in the Loire Valley. I explained the mystery of these wines showing cloudiness, VA, brett, oxidative (frequently oxidised with orange hue), but not too intense an artificial varietal expression, smooth to drink and headache-free.
My book was here was well-sold at that time (2004 to 2005) as a wine treatise, and several natural wine producers asked me to translate theirs from their native languages, e.g. in Italian, French, and naturally English, but I declined because I was a local boy! Japan has become a top client of French natural wines around 2005, and so many producers came here to promote their own products. Nicolas (Joly) took a hundred producers as “Renaissance de Appellation” at that time, earlier than the other countries. On the other hand, the other groups came here to promote separately, e.g. Selosse, Leclapart, Puzelat, Chassorney, Pacalet, Roch, Clos Rougeard, Le Puy, Schueller etc.