Natural wine – a natural fit in Tokyo


This is the slightly extended version of an article I wrote for the Japan Times and can be viewed online here

The natural wine movement is spreading like a virus in Tokyo and my immunity is becoming susceptible. Everywhere I look neighbourhood wine bars are popping up, small bistros boasting all natural wine lists unavoidable. So why does natural wine have such an organic fit in Japan?

Japanese consumers were actually very early adopters of natural wine and developed a taste for it in the early 1990’s before it was even a thing in France. It was purported that at its peak in 2000, Japanese consumption of French natural wine was around 75 percent of the total volume produced. If it wasn’t for the Japanese demand a lot of the small French wineries wouldn’t have survived the early days of natural wine production. The strong penchant for French wine continues today with three quarters of all imported natural wine into Japan being from France.

Wine is considered “natural” when it is produced with minimal intervention — nothing added, nothing removed. No chemicals or artificial fertilizers are used on the vines nor is there any manipulation of flavor or additives used in the winemaking process. Natural wine growers even go beyond the stipulations needed to be labelled “organic,” which say that no chemicals can be used to grow the grapes, but chemical and technological manipulations are allowed during the winemaking process.

My experience of natural wine is usually anywhere between an overwhelming encounter with a glass of a cloudy, orange fizz that reeks of a baby’s diaper, to a funky glass of juice overripe with acidity and volatility. Is this minimal interference approach from grape to bottle celebrating the faults in wine making? Or perhaps my palate already has too many points of reference.

Where the natural wine movement in Japan is making waves is with the new generation of drinkers who have little to no wine experience. They don’t possess a taste reference acquired from a wine education or shaped by the familiar products of their region. They have no preference over origin or variety. Their palates are not trained nor minds aware of the traditional aroma and taste descriptors. They are drinking wine because they like it. They like the easiness of natural wine, the light mouthfeel it has and describe it simply as ‘drinkable’.

“There is no fuss and no knowledge needed. It’s a non-threatening way to enjoy wine and it’s nice to drink,” says Yasuhiro Tsubota, a sommelier at Le Cabaret a neighborhood bistro in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. There is certainly no fuss about the wine here, not even a wine list. You are asked what you would like to drink and the answer can be as simple as white or red. The wine is poured and the bottle left on the table. None of this opening the bottle in front of the customer and pouring a taste for your approval.

Tsubota has been on the scene since the early 2000’s and did a six year stint at Shonzui, Tokyo’s first natural wine bar in Roppongi, before returning to La Cabaret. He has witnessed the growing interest in natural wine from the consumer side but also commented that many of his friends have opened their own small bars in the last five years. And it’s not because they are jumping on the natural wine bandwagon, these bars don’t even promote that they serve natural wine. These wines speak to their palate and philosophy, by drawing from elements of the traditional Japanese diet, which respects nature and uses ingredients with little intervention, resulting in delicate and simple flavors.
The emphasis on purity, simplicity and a connection to nature in traditional Japanese culture are reflected in natural wine. This is revealed through each wine’s pronounced terroir — flavor imparted by the natural environment in which it is produced, including soil, climate and topography. The purity of the grape is preserved.

One Tokyo-based importer of French wine, Francois Dumas, believes the success of natural wine in Japan is due to the openness of local drinkers and their eagerness to learn. Dumas was one of the first local importers of French natural wine, he established Vin Bio, a wine-importing company, in the late ’90s at a time when enthusiasts were scarce. “The Japanese consumer has no prejudice, especially the younger generation. The age of the Bordeaux drinking wine snob is dead.”

There are now over 30 importers of natural wine into Japan and this number is growing as the heavyweight conventional importers are branching out with sister companies purely focussing on natural wine. Demand is outstripping supply, “all my bottles have been sold before they are even unpacked in Tokyo. We are seeing wine here that you won’t even see in France” states Dumas.

In cities where natural wine consumption is rapidly growing — such as London and New York — importers, chefs and sommeliers are looking to Tokyo as model for the industry. There are more than five natural wine stores in Tokyo and you can even see natural wine on the shelves of select department stores. And despite Japan’s unfavorable climatic conditions, domestic winemakers have become passionate about realizing the potential of natural wine: at least five vineyards are producing Japan’s first entries into the market, which are being received enthusiastically.

As one of the global early adopters of natural wine, perhaps Tokyo is on to a good thing. “There is no hangover with natural wine and the quality of the drunken state is much higher,” Dumas proclaims.

We can all drink to that.