TOPFood & Drink5 Foreign Wine Connoisseurs Share Their Favorite Japanese Wines

5 Foreign Wine Connoisseurs Share Their Favorite Japanese Wines

Wine importers and top-class sommeliers give their verdicts on Japanese wine

By Sleiman Azizi

Look for a drink in Japan and the country’s famous rice alcohols, sake and shochu, naturally percolate to the surface. Japanese beers draw a loyal following while the country’s whiskey is now a legitimate international star. Curiously though, Japanese wine, with a viticulture as long and as deep as many other New World cultivators, goes largely unnoticed.

So, while it’s one thing to hear Japan’s connoisseurs raise a toast to their vino, it’s another thing to hear the thoughts of non-Japanese wine experts. Here then, are some roundtable recommendations from expatriates who are in the wine business and also call Japan home.

Japanese wines
Frederic Cayuela

1. Frédéric Cayuela, Wine Educator

With his never-ending resume — Academie du Vin wine educator, Roussillon Wines Embassy director and European Grenache Japan representative, to name just a few — popular freelance Tokyo Wine Events instructor Frédéric Cayuela is clearly a man in motion. The Tokyo-based Frenchman’s work on Vin Japonais, a Japanese wine documentary scheduled to be released in May 2022, will reveal not only a commanding respect for the relationship between the land and the wine produced, but also between the wine and the food it’s paired with.

“Japanese wines are an excellent new alternative to the most sophisticated Japanese gastronomy,” says Cayuela. “Try a beautiful Muscat Bailey A from Marufuji Winery in Yamanashi with some unagi eel. You’ll soon understand my position.”

Mick Nippard

2. Mick Nippard, Wine Importer

Straight-shooting Australian Mick Nippard comes complete with an action star sense of passion for quality handcrafted wines. Size seems to matter to Mick, who gives a thumbs up to smaller boutique wineries. Holed up in Sapporo where he says life is just better, his business, AWines, has been importing wines from Australia, New Zealand and America for well over a decade.

Well aware of the viticultural challenges facing Hokkaido — an ever-changing growing season and variable sunlight hours — Mick still has no hesitation in giving the nod to the region’s Japanese wines. “It’s a labor of love here but there’s been a definite change from quantity to quality,” he says. “Takizawa, for example, is doing some pretty cool wines, especially its Pinot Noir.”

David Ellis

3. David Ellis, Winery Tourism

After an extended overseas hiatus, Canadian David Ellis returned to Japan in 2015, making Yamanashi his home. This gleeful professional was surprised to find just how delicate and delightful the prefecture’s wines were. “Most of the wines here are made to accompany Japanese cuisine,” he says. “If you’re having spaghetti Bolognese, you’re not going to pair it with Japanese wine. But sashimi or yakitori, they’re great.”

His tourism business, Close to Mount Fuji, features winery tours where he clearly takes a profound pleasure in showcasing the region’s boutique vineyards. “They’re a joy to discover,” opines Ellis. “Whether it’s the Marufuji or Haramo wineries, you won’t be in familiar territory when you try a Koshu or a Muscat Bailey A wine, but isn’t that what makes life interesting?”

Japanese wine
Wayne Shennen

4. Wayne Shennen, Top Sommelier

A short walk from Ochanomizu Station lies Wayne Shennen’s Rangitoto Tokyo New Zealand Wine and Craft Sake Bar. It’s the go-to spot for Kiwi cuisine in Tokyo. Wayne is one of his country’s top sommeliers, a finalist in the New Zealand Sommelier of the Year competition and a die-hard Aotearoa wine enthusiast. He draws a parallel between New Zealand and Japan.

“Like New Zealand, it’s a good sign when hands-on producers in Japan experiment with what best suits their locations,” says Shennen. “Hokkaido is on its way. Especially its Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay.” It’s not all about Hokkaido, though. Shennen added that he was also partial to Grace Wine, a drink he believes is “setting a benchmark for quality in Yamanashi.”

Japanese Wines
Andrew Heffernan

5. Andrew Heffernan, Wine Importer

New World wine specialist, Andrew Heffernan, arrived here from Australia in 2008. He now operates Colonial Trade Co., a Tokyo-based wine import, wholesale and retail company, accumulating rich experience in the wine business. With the view that wine should reflect its vineyard, Heffernan stands firmly on the side of local quality.

A regular presence at the annual Okayama Wine Festival, his enjoyment of the umami-rich flavors of that prefecture’s Domaine Tetta winery avoids the tropes of Old World mimicry. It also ties in quite nicely with what Heffernan feels is one of Japan’s exciting areas of growth. “The natural wine movement is especially strong in Japan,” he says. “Château Mercian is certainly a pioneer, but I must give a shout out to Grape Republic as well.”