Sitting at about the same latitude as the south of Spain and California’s Monterey peninsula, drier than much of the rest of the country, with rich volcanic soil and a Pacific breezes, it makes sense that Yamanashi became the birthplace of the Japanese viniculture. Following in the footsteps of the Great Japan Yamanashi Wine Company that set up shop in the foothills of Fuji in the 1800s, there are now a number of vineyards operating in the prefecture. Instead of waiting for the latest batch of Yamanashi Nouveau to show up in your local off-sale, why not head up to the vineyard yourself? Here are five of the best spots to hit on a tour of Japan’s wine country.
When it comes to what’s going in the bottles, Katsunuma Winery is a cut above the rest, but the winery itself is also stunning. Set on a plateau below the Chichibu range, the winery is a taste of Bordeaux on the outskirts of Tokyo. Tours of the operation can be booked (for a premium, the owner of the vineyard himself will take you around, if he’s available), or simply take part in a tasting or enjoy a bottle in the fine French restaurant on the grounds. Time your visit for the end of the season but before it’s time to pick, when the vines are full of perfect dusky pearls but the hectic harvest time rush has not yet begun. Pick up a bottle to take home, of course. You could do worse than to grab a bottle of the Champagne-style Koshu Aruga Branca Brilhante. These wines are difficult to find outside of Japan, and some of the bottles on offer at the vineyard would be rare even in nearby Tokyo.
A friendly operation in the highlands south of Yamanashi-shi Station, L’Orient opened in 1938 and since then has turned out bottles of the two most common local grapes: the aromatic and crisp Koshu, a hybrid of a European wine grape and a domestic species, and Muscat Bailey A, another hybrid, created specifically for Japan’s climate; also available from the winery is a very credible brandy, and juices from grapes grown in the vineyard. The winery does not feature a restaurant, but the grounds are open and tastings are available. This is what the Japanese wine country is all about.
The Mars Winery throws every aspect of the winemaking process open to the public. Depending on the time of year, you will be able to see grapes being picked, crushed and processed, but the underground cellar, distillery and bottling line are always open, as is the tasting room. The winery turns out balanced, drinkable wines from the major local varieties, but saves the best vintages for exclusive lines that give more rarefied wineries a run for their money. Stop by for a sip, enjoy the industrial spectacle of a big winery, and learn about the particularly interesting history of the Mars brand.
Kurambon Winery is an unassuming spot with plenty of small town hospitality and a history stretching back over a century. Kurambon is located in Iwai area in Katsunuma-town and is along a quiet street between the National highway 20 and the Old Koshu road. The main room of the winery is housed in a 130-year old building that was once used to make silk. And tastings (a charge for tastings, here—a good sign, though, that they’re not pawning off lesser wines on you) are conducted in quarters that suggest feudal Japan more than Burgundy. The winery bottles Muscat Bailey A and Koshu wines, but also Petit Verdot, Viognier and blends, and this is one of the few spots in the prefecture to get high quality organic and biodynamic wines.
The Sadoya Winery occupies kitschy Italianate quarters and hosts tours and tastings for the masses that come out to Yamanashi’s wine country. Despite the shiny new buildings, the winery has a history stretching back to 1909 and the half-hour tour of the grounds focuses on the impressive heritage and old school viniculture. Sadoya bottles Cabernet Sauvignon and Koshu and sells bottles ranging from affordable to pricier vintages in their shop.