Japanese Sake & Wine: A Journey into an Obsession with Perfection
It’s no secret that the Japanese enjoy the more refine things in life, a near obsession no better demonstrate than in their mastery of ‘sake’ and the emerging excellence of their wines – and enjoying both is one of the most enjoyable experiences awaiting you once here. On this page you will find the following information:
Production of ‘sake’ stretches back as far as two thousand years in Japan and over many centuries, it’s production has become an artform while its consumption pervades Japanese culture from the family dinner table, to official state functions and religious ceremonies. An estimated 1500 breweries are spread across the country, allowing you to enjoy excellent sake in all regions and all times of year. Often brewed to pair with local cuisine and as you travel across Japan, food and sake go hand-in-hand.
Wine has a shorter history and plays a significantly smaller cultural role however you may be surprised to learn that its production dates back as far as the 8th century. Since that time, the formerly niche industry has seen several booms in popularity and is experiencing yet another, as multiple Japanese wineries have won prestigious international awards. The overall industry does not yet have the pedigree of major wine producing countries in the Old and New Worlds but given the Japanese obsession with refinement and perfection, and given the recent international recognition of several local wines, expect the wine industry to follow a similar path to that set Japanese beer and whiskey that now rank among the best in the world.
Based in Nagano, we are the region’s No.1 tour and charter operator and a registered travel agent. We are proud to call Nagano our home for many reasons, but not least that it ranks among Japan’s largest and best sake and wine producers. We operate all year round and offer tours, transport, accommodation and more including visits to the finest local sake breweries, wineries and restaurants. We hope that we can entice you to visit.
JAPAN SAKE GUIDE: REGIONS & ESSENTIAL INFO
Most-commonly referred to ‘nihonshu’ in Japan, ‘sake’ is the country’s most refined and culturally-important alcoholic beverage. Its history stretches back thousands of years and its consumption pervades the Japanese culture at all levels – from the family dinner table to functions of state and religious ceremonies. Our ‘Japan Sake Guide: Regions & Essential Info’ page introduces you to the indulgent world of sake staring with the brewing process, terminology, our recommended regions in Central Japan and important FAQs including the important question of just how strong is it and how do I choose a good one?
JAPAN WINE GUIDE: REGIONS & ESSENTIAL INFO
Japanese does not yet share the international renown that its sake enjoy however things are changing. You might be surprised to learn that production of wine in Japan dates back as far at the 8th century and larger scale production was established in the late-19th century. Concentrated in for main regions – Yamanashi, Nagano, Yamagata and Hokkaido – Japan is producing increasingly good and award-winning wines including unique local varieties. Our ‘Japan Wine Guide: Regions & Essential Info’ page introduces the local wine industry, profiles the varieties you’ll discover here, the regions where you’ll find them and was important FAQs including just how good is it?
NAGANO: JAPAN’S SAKE & WINE HOTSPOT
Readily accessible from Tokyo and beyond using the Hokuriku Shinkansen line, Nagano lies at the heart of Central Japan – a region that spoils visitors for choice when it comes to enjoying some of the country’s best sake, wine and cuisine. In June 2021, Nagano was awarded ‘Geographical Indication’ or ‘GI’ designation on both its sake and wine, just the third prefecture – along with the more established wine producing regions of Yamanashi and Yamagata – to have GI awarded to both products. This designation reflects Nagano’s long history as one of the Japan’s top sake producers – indeed the prefecture boasts the second largest number of sake breweries of any region in the country – and every-growing reputation for excellent wine. Designation of GI to Nagano’s sake and wine attests to the quality and reputation of both products.
Why is Nagano’s sake and wine so good?
Nagano is Japan’s fourth largest prefecture and has one of the lowest population densities of any region in the country. Completely landlocked, Nagano and the wider region of Central Japan boast most of Japan’s tallest mountains. The higher elevation of Nagano – which ascends to over 3000 metres at multiple points – blesses the prefecture with a pleasant alpine climate ideal of sake and wine production while the open expanses of the region allowing plenty of room to grow the rice and vineyards necessary for produce some of Japan’s best sake and wine.
Nagano is subject to a long, cold winter with many areas receive a huge amount of snow. This is ideal for sake production, which requires a lot of clean water and high-quality rice – both which are abundant in Nagano thanks to the snow-melt that feeds the region’s water catchments and fertile fields. Nagano’s cold winter climate is also ideal for brewing sake, the fermentation process for which is most easily controlled in a cold climate. The long, cold winter placed greater importance on fermentation than in warmer regions of Japan, as the people of Nagano relied upon it to secure their food supply for the winter months in which time fields were snow-bound and unproductive. As such, to this day Nagano is Japan’s largest producer of ‘miso’ (fermented soybean paste) and second largest producer of sake with around 74 breweries – a testament to the importance, heritage and pedigree of this industries to local identity.
While winter’s a long and cold, summers are hot but relatively temperate compared to coastal and more southernly regions of Japan. Nagano’s alpine topography including many tall mountains that shield it from warmer weather coming-in from the Pacific Ocean, spare it from the worst of the heat and humidity experienced in Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka and in doing so, avail ideal weather conditions for wine production. Nagano also experiences lower rainfall and a drier summer climate than many regions of Japan, allowing wineries to keep their vineyards in better-health and disease-free. The region has a long history growing table grapes and in recent decades, attention has turned to producing wine. Nagano currently boasts around 35 wineries with the local ‘Ryugan’ grape variety being the most popular. The region’s expansive growing areas, ideal climate and less-established industry combine to offer young wine producers the perfect environment in which to make their mark and push Japanese wine to ever higher levels and renown.
GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATION (GI): WHAT IS IT?
Used in many countries, a ‘geographical indication’ or simply ‘GI’, is a designation used on products that certifies it originates from a specific location – for example, a region or country – and possesses certain qualities common to products from that place and meets prescribed production standards. Many international visitors will be aware of such protections and standards applied to wine producing regions such as Bordeaux in France, however may not be aware the same system functions in Japan, in this case applied to alcohol including sake and wine.
GI for alcohol in Japan are granted by the Commissioner of the National Tax Agency following application from groups of producers in a region. Once a GI is granted, products claiming to be from that region will be monitored and required to be produced within the defined region and meet certain standards. In doing so, the consumer can purchase goods with confidence while regional brands and reputations are protected. It speaks to the reputed quality of products from that region, which are deemed worthy of both imitation and thus protection.
Japan instituted this system in 1999 and has since that granted GI to various regional products including (as of December 2015) all ‘nihonshu’ – sake produced exclusively in Japan. In June 2021, our home region was awarded GI for both its sake and wine, going the prefectures of Yamanashi and Yamagata with this rare distinction.
WINE & DINE IN NAGANO: BOOK A TOUR OR CHARTER
Based in Nagano and operating all year round, we are the region’s No.1-rated tour and charter operator. As a registered travel agent, we can arrange tours, transport, accommodation or combine them into a travel package that best suits your needs and interests. Want to visit one of Nagano’s best sake breweries, wineries or restaurants? We’ve got you covered! Our ‘Wine & Dine in Nagano: Book a Tour or Charter’ page is a great place to start when planning your visit to Japan’s sake and wine hotspot. We hope to see you soon in Nagano!