How Hokkaido Became the Heart of Wine-Making in Japan
Hokkaido wine's popularity is growing around the world; Hokkaido might be famous for snow, but it's also home to many of the best wineries in Japan!
Japan has been growing grapes for more than 1,000 years, possibly starting back in the 8th century, but fermenting those grapes into wine is a newer phenomenon. In the 16th century, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries started bringing their own wine to the feudal lords of Kyushu down south, and up north in Fukushima, the daimyo Gamo Ujisato is said to be the first to drink red wine in Japan around the same time. Finally, when a wave of Western culture rushed into Japan during the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century, wineries began to open in Japan, and local winemaking began to take root―though not yet so firmly in Hokkaido.
At first, Yamanashi Prefecture was the center of Japanese winemaking. Japan's first attempted winery opened there in 1875, growing imported European grape rootstock and dispatching employees to France to learn techniques. After pests all but destroyed the local vineyards a decade later, however, Japanese wine was limited to a few small winemakers for the next few decades. The new wave of Western influence that came after World War II is what finally pushed the local industry to expand, with winemakers finding their place not only in Yamanashi, but also in regions like Nagano, Miyazaki, Kyoto, and of course Hokkaido.
Hokkaido now grows about a third of the grapes in Japan by weight, and over the past 60 years, winemaking in Hokkaido has grown to encompass 26 different wineries in the region. Hokkaido's cold and snowy climate meant that the first vineyards mostly grew particularly cold-hardy grape hybrids, including the Crimson Glory, to help the vines make it through the winter. But for better or for worse, climate change has warmed the region in the intervening decades, and nowadays varieties of Vitis vinifera (the common grape vine) are also cultivated in Hokkaido, a process that started mostly with German varieties, and eventually branched out to French grapes too. Now, people compare the climate around many of Hokkaido's vineyards to some of Europe's most famous winemaking regions, like Alsace and Champagne.
The beginning of the 21st century was an important time for Japanese wine, as the Japan Wine Challenge grew to prominence internationally, and brought many Japanese wineries into the public eye along with it. Young producers began to aim for international recognition, paying increased attention to the quality of the wine so that the different varieties could compete on the international stage. With Hokkaido's climate increasingly coming close to the ideal for a number of wines, attention began to shift north, and Hokkaido took its place as a major player in the Japanese wine industry.
Hokkaido's wineries now run the gamut, from small-scale enterprises that grew out of a passionate enthusiast's garage, to the current biggest producer of Japanese wine in the country―"Hokkaido Wine"―to mid-size wineries like Niki Hills Winery, which comes complete with "farm stay" accommodation facilities for visiting guests, and is sometimes compared to the chic winetasting facilities one might find in California's Sonoma County.
For travelers, Hokkaido's wineries are now a great place to enjoy Japan's natural scenery, and sample some excellent wines while there. The Niki Hills Winery vineyards, for example, are spread over 10 hectares (about 1,076,000 ft²) of gently sloping hills, and visitors can spend the day walking between the vines or strolling through the gardens and in the nearby forest, before retiring for a wine tasting or an upscale meal.
Of course, Niki Hills Winery and others also give visitors a chance to dive deeper into the world of Japanese wine. The wineries offer opportunities for visitors to tour the facilities and see the tanks of fermenting wine, or to participate in educational workshops that focus on everything from sommelier knowledge to hands-on grape harvesting. With the right timing, visitors might even get to try a new vintage before its official debut on the market. From gorgeous natural vistas to unique experiences made for wine lovers, Hokkaido's wineries are a yet-untapped vacation option for most international travelers.
- If you're interested in visiting a Hokkaido winery yourself, read more about the Niki Hills farm stay experience (and read about the winery's contributions to the community, as well)! For more info and updates from Japan, check Japankuru for new articles, and don't forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!