Japan's Love for Purity and Natural Wines

7 March 2012
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


I was the guest speaker for two wine dinners in Tokyo during this past week and had the opportunity to speak to many serious Japanese wine enthusiasts. I asked half a dozen Japanese wine lovers what they thought about ‘natural wines’ and the replies were interesting. Half of them crocked their heads at a slight angle and answered, “I am not sure I know what ‘natural wine’ is, aren’t all wines natural?” The other half were divided with some saying they liked natural wines because of its purity and one replied, “I have tasted many natural wines which are good and some which are not so good.”


There are definitely mixed feelings even within the trade about ‘natural wines’ and part of the issue lies in the lack of a clear definition and understanding of ‘natural wines’. Recently in Decanter’s August 2011 issue, Isabelle Legeron MW wrote a wonderful piece about natural wines. She compared natural wines with organic and biodynamic wines and stated, “Natural wines…are far stricter about what is and isn’t permitted. They are all about low intervention in the cellar. There is, for example, no rectification of sugars or acidity, no addition of yeasts and no removal of excess dilution in a wet vintage. They are as nature intended: a frank representation of a piece of land in a particular year.”


While organic and biodynamic certification is concerned with farming and viticultural principles, the focus with natural wines extends into the cellar. With no additives and preservatives, wines with high pH levels or any residual sugar are susceptible to bacterial or yeast contamination. In addition, flavours can evolve quickly especially when wine needs to make the journey half way across the world to meet its final consumer. These are all reasons why many wine importers and writers are against natural wines.


Hayato Kojima, President of wine education company Wine and Newlife, adds, “Many Japanese wine lovers admire the trend toward ‘no additives’ and they prefer greater purity, in the same way that they prefer more freshness for raw fish in sashimi. However, they forget to look at the point of instability which may be caused by ‘no additives’.” Kojima is not a fan of ‘natural wines’ and feels that consumers may be more enamoured with the concept rather than the final quality of the wines.


However, in Japan, numerous importers have been very successful marketing a portfolio of natural wines. Racine and Kanaiya have been particularly successful in this niche market but many companies are adding to the competition including Cosmo Jun, Diony and Nomura Unison. According to Yuka Kudo, ex-sommelier who nows works for the Koshu of Japan, Natural wines are very popular in Japan. The consumers believe that such wine producers tackle environmental issues seriously, although many producers use the words ‘natural wine’ or ‘organic wine’ for promotional or commercial reasons. Kudo adds, “Many Japanese wine consumers misunderstand that natural or organic wines are more healthy.”


It makes sense to me that in a land where purity of flavours is so prized that the consumers have fallen in love with the concept of natural wines. I felt it first hand when I went to Honmura An, a soba noodle restaurant where the chewy noodles had such distinct, pure flavours of the buckwheat that was used that it didn’t need any other garnish. Just a quick dip in the soy sauce broth and the noodles express its subtle yet flavourful pure ingredients. The same was true when I visited one of my favourite sushi counters, Sukiyabashi Jiro. The rice was not overly seasoned and each grain was cooked perfectly to show off the room temperature (not cold) raw fish slices.


In Hong Kong and China, the understanding and demand for natural wines is fairly low despite a few retailers such as the organic food store ThreeSixty in Central making efforts to stock organic and biodynamic wines. Not much press coverage is devoted to natural wines and I can’t think of even one Hong Kong importer who claims to be a ‘natural wine’ specialist. So far, there seems to be very little demand and interest in this category of wines.


Will there ever be such a movement in Hong Kong and China given what is happening in Japan? Two wine importers suggest not. Jeremy Stockman, fine wine buyer of Watson’s Wine Cellar says, “I have not seen any demand or enquiry yet, but as discussion grows for all things environmental it may become an element. I think that if some wines appear on the market here with an explanation of why they are ‘natural’ it would fuel that enquiry.” Robert Shum, CEO of Aussino Wines in China says, “I think China is a brand market now. People pay more attention to brand than the nature of the wine. It may has a future in China but not in a short term, two to four years.”


In many regards, Japan has been at the forefront of wine trends and movements in Asia, being the most mature and experienced wine market. Consider the craze for wine mangas (comic books), which started in Japan and quickly spread throughout Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and parts of China. However in this case, it appears that ‘natural wines’ is not one that the Hong Kong and mainland China market will follow in the near future.


Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post