executive impact

Japanese becoming increasingly sophisticated wine consumers

By Julian Ryall for BCCJ ACUMEN

When Simon Berry first came to Japan to gauge the local demand for wine and spirits, the market was unquestionably dominated by the latter. Two decades later, things are very different.

“There were the first signs of interest in wine, but it was a relatively unsophisticated market”, the chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd told BCCJ ACUMEN. “But in the last 20 years, Japan has become one of the most sophisticated markets in the world”.

Japan’s consumption of Burgundy is testimony to this, he points out, with more of the varietal sold here than even Bordeaux wine.

“That is unique in the world”, he said. “People usually start with Bordeaux because it is simpler. But in Burgundy, they delight in making it complicated — and that goes down well in Japan. The more complicated it is, the more they like it here”.

Berry, who oversees the operations of the oldest wine and spirits merchant in Britain, was paying a regular visit to the firm’s outposts in Hong Kong and Tokyo, as well as its new office in Singapore.

“We’re doing well in Japan now, even though it’s a complicated market for us”, he said. “But, little by little, we’re understanding it better and we have a great 17-strong team here, so I’m very pleased with the way in which we are growing.

“There is still a long way to go in Japan, and even though we have been here for 20 years, you must remember that we’re working from a history that goes back more than 300 years”.

The wine merchant believes that the secret behind longevity is that they never stop changing.

The firm was initially in the tea and coffee importing business. These caffeinated beverages represented the luxury drinks of the day in 1700. Tea cost £10 for 454 grams — at a time when the average annual wage was £15.

It also helps that the firm, the fifth-oldest in Britain, has remained a family concern, which appeals to Japanese partners. This also means it can plan over the long term.

“That gives us a completely different perspective and fits neatly with the people who are making these wines and spirits”, he said.

That commitment to evolution is evident in a number of additions to the firm’s spirits lines, as well as an injection of new life into some classic older recipes.

The King’s Ginger liqueur, for example, was specifically formulated for King Edward VII in 1903, and for the following three decades it was only supplied to the British royal family.

For 70 years thereafter, it was largely to be found in the hip flasks of the aristocracy. The liqueur is now finding huge favor as a mixer in cocktails, and is particularly popular in the trendy bars of San Francisco as well as China.

Further, the chairman believes that a drink designed to keep the British winter at bay could very well find a solid following in Japan.

The Glenrothes Single Speyside Malt whisky was acquired in 2010 as part of the deal entailing the sale of the Cutty Sark brand, which Berry Bros & Rudd created in 1923, to The Edrington Group. Cutty Sark had grown into a huge name in the whisky world, he said, and the decision was made to focus on more specialist, niche brands.

One of the firm’s newest additions is the No. 3 London Dry Gin, which Berry said the firm decided to create as a backlash to “all these new gins that are fashionable, and have the flavor of roses but don’t have the real taste of gin at all”.

Another recent debutant is the vanilla-infused Pink Pigeon Mauritanian rum, which is quickly becoming a favorite of cocktail aficionados. A sister rum, the aged Penny Blue, has just been launched in the UK and will be available in Japan early next year.

Berry Bros & Rudd is always looking for new additions, with some Japanese wines recently catching Berry’s eye.

“I’ve tasted some very good white wines grown close to Hakone, in the foothills of Mt Fuji”, he said. “It’s quite right that Japan should be producing good wine when you consider that every single state in the U.S. is now producing wine.

“Advances in technology and a thirst for the product have driven the ability of people to create wine in some very unlikely places”, he said.

“And given the fact that there are so many micro-climates the length and breadth of Japan—from the almost Scottish climates of Hokkaido to semi-tropical Okinawa — there are plenty of places to grow.

“Look at Japanese cuisine”, he said. “This is a nation that loves experimenting and has a delicacy of taste, and there is no reason why, in say 40 years’ time, Japan should not be as well known as New Zealand for its wines”.

Online shop in Japan: www.bbr.co.jp

© Japan Today

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Japanese wine still in its infancy. Haven't evert asted anything good. and the buying of foereign winme is something that plays to Japanese snobbery, brand awareness, attention to detaikl and memory...

2 ( +8 / -6 )

THe main point of this article was not clearly enough stated:

YOU CAN NOW GET A GOOD TASTING BOTTLE OF WINE FOR 800- 1200 Y VERY EASILY. And good high grade stuff is also an affordable 2-3,000Y.

This is good news for all of us who like wine, though not news, as it has been reality for more than 5 years.

J-peeps definitely do have on average a well-developed palate as well as a greed for tasty things, which is what drives this. Not imho what AKBfan above says.

Personally I like Argen-Chile Wine and Italian wines best, forllowed by Aussie and Spanish wines. I have had lots of good French wine, but it just doesn't scream out to me "buy me again and again!" for whatever reason. Still you can find all country wines in jpn now easily and economically. J-wine however is generally too sweet or flat tasting for me. 40 years to be a fully developed craft here seems a little optimistic, but who knows...

9 ( +9 / -0 )

Not sure how he accounts for how they go nuts for Beaujolais here! Still many wine sections at stores here are dominated by French wines but it certainly has changed over the years. Agreed, there are some awesome wines available for around ¥900-1,400, mostly Australia, California, Chile, South Africa. If I splurge, I might spend ¥1,800. I`ve certainly had some expensive French wines for over ¥10,000+ that were remarkable for how completely unremarkable they were.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

AKBFan - take one guided tour through Yamanashi's wineries, and I guarantee you you'll find some excellent table wine. The problem with it is that it's not better than Californian of Chile Wine, at triple the price, sometimes...

Forget about vintage wines though... no such thing made here. For that you'll still have to go to Europe, sometimes to the most surprising of places (like Romania - for example)...

0 ( +3 / -3 )


yes, most 10,000 ish yen bottles I have had taste like a good 3.000 yen bottle, sometimes with a somewhat "deeper" taste, but nothing orgasmic. Maybe I just don't have a refined enough palate, but in general if you want a special wine for an occasion, there is no need to go higher than 3 or 5,000 yen.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This guy only wants your money and he doesn't care what he sells you.

“It’s quite right that Japan should be producing good wine when you consider that every single state in the U.S. is now producing wine."

This doesn't make any sense. The word "terroir" is a culmination of soil, sun, exposure, rain and temperature in a vineyard. What happens in the U.S. has no bearing on a vineyard in Yamanashi or Yamagata.

Notice he doesn't say the word "grapes". Just because they can grow snake berries and make wine in Idaho doesn't mean it's any good.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Keep that red wine well chilled, all ye connoisseurs..

2 ( +5 / -3 )

And when it comes to the Okinawan product, 'terroir' is more akin to 'terror, unless you have a terrible hankering for outrageously expensive pineapple wine.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I'm sorry, but I have to wonder about these marketing people. When touting his oh-so-traditional gin he went from:

...all these new gins that are fashionable, and have the flavor of roses but don't have the real taste of gin at all

To, in the very next sentence:

Another recent debutant is the vanilla-infused Pink Pigeon Mauritanian rum, which is quickly becoming a favorite of cocktail aficionados.

Wouldn't vanilla infusion totally obscure the "real taste" of rum? To paraphrase what he is saying: "It is unconscionably disgusting that another company should infuse their gin with a rose essence because it detracts from the spirit's true essence. But isn't the infusing of our own rum with essence of vanilla just the most wonderful thing?"

It is interesting that this gentleman is representing an article about the "increasing sophistication of wine consumers" then brings up the noted wine-producing regions of Scotland and the semi-tropics. At first I scoffed but a quick search led me to The Highland Wineries where is sold a variety of wines made respectively from cherries, elderflowers, ginger, plums, and honey. And we have the semi-tropical Okinawa example, supplied by Steve Fabricant, of pineapple wine.

Because Mr. Simon Berry is an obviously wealthy and successful man I see now that I must completely revise my previous concepts as to what truly constitutes sophisticated wine consumption.

As for spirits I now won't stand for anything less than a bottle of Pink Pigeon Mauritanium rum that has the carcass of a real pink pigeon being pickled within it. Yes, I think I am getting the hang of this sophistication business.

Kidding aside, 17 years ago, while touring wineries in Yamanashi Prefecture I splurged on a bottle of Chateau Mercian. It was a Cabernet Sauvignon. By splurged I mean it cost ten-thousand yen. I can say that, yes, Japan can produce an excellent wine on par with good Bordeaux. Of course an equal or better Bordeaux can be found for half or less the cost. But by the same token one could find much worse quality, let alone worse value for money in a classed growth of a less-than-stellar vintage. At the time I don't think value for money was the point of the Mercian effort. It was the quality, which was undeniably there.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Visited kofu Yamanashi last year , lucky to be invited to try wines at a local Winnery, was pleasantly surprised, imported some to australia to accompany Japanese food .. Unfortunately it wasn't exciting enough . Kochu is subtle and delicate and goes really well with seafoods But , a good Hunter valley verdello Was more exciting to the palate for customers even tho, I strongly reccomend you try the Koshu it's interesting as is the history of the grape in japan... There seems too much wine dumped into japan , for less than than ¥600 you can buy terrific Spanish , Chilean French even Aussie wine . No wonder there are so many drunks ....cheers. Hic

0 ( +0 / -0 )

“But in the last 20 years, Japan has become one of the most sophisticated markets in the world”.

Well he's not about to call his client base a bunch of rubes, is he?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Brings back memories, mostly of Akadama Port that came in a 2 L jug.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

ShiroKuma: I LOVE the Snake Berry remark, Hilarious

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@ ed o jidai. Well said !!!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japanese wine growers already have enough technical knowledge to produce outstanding wine, alas with the exception of Hokkaido (as far as I remember) the vines have to be strung overhead to let the grapes ripen below the leafs for the sun is too strong. This makes harvesting a tedious job, which is the biggest reason you won't find cheap Japanese wine.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

While I sure can find great cheap wine here in japan in the recent years..the problem is still that most japanese have NO idea how to drink it, with what to drink it etc etc.. Not seldom have I been to above average restaurants with nice wines on the menu and when I order a bottle it is cold if not ice cold (red).. Even if they already opened it I will send it back and refuse to pay for it..that is ridiculous. Until restaurants here properly serve wine at the right temperatures, learn about matching and so forth most japanese will remain ignorant.. When I see people drinking fine bordoux, cab sev etc which is served at fridge,cooler temp..part of me dies inside, poor wine *(

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This article is hardly about wine--but an unsubtle plug for his spirits.

I agree with most of the comments, esp. the observation that French wines are overrated and overpriced. And I would add S.Africa as a great source of wine. Interesting comment about Romanian wine - a friend living there swears by it - but I've never seen any in stores, here or elsewhere. Intrigued.

Japanese wine quality is slooowly climbing, but should be faster. The wineries spent too much time trying to satisfy the (previously) unsophisticate J-palates, and now is trying to catch up - still a long way to go. The whites are closer than the reds.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I think with Japanese palates now experiencing quality wines from other parts of the world (e.g., USA, Australia, Portugal, Spain and Italy especially in recent years), there are renewed efforts to improve the quality of Japanese-grown grapes for wines. Maybe by 2020, we could see really high-quality wines from Yamanashi Prefecture, the major wine-producing region of Japan.

I wonder, though, if the climate of Japan could conspire against growing quality wine grapes. When you have very hot and humid summers and cold winters with the threat of snowfall, I think that could make it a tad difficult to grow certain grape varieties. The state of California in the USA and the countries of Portugal and Spain proved to be excellent regions for growing wine grapes because the low humidity summers allowed many wine grape varieties to flourish.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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