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Sunday, Nov. 9, 2003

BEHIND THE BOOM

Wine trade in gear for party of the year


Staff writer

Just 10 days to go, and the scramble to cash in on Japan's biggest-ever demand for France's youngest wine is heating up.

News photo
A poster announces the new wine "is here!"

As the number of wine-drinkers continues to grow, and with interest in Beaujolais Nouveau as high as it's ever been, everything points to imports of this year's vintage topping 600,000 cases (one case contains 12 × 750 ml. bottles) -- 3 percent up on last year.

Despite weaker wine sales than usual this year, the nation's major wine merchants are bullish.

"The size of the market is expected to top last year's record high," Ryosuke Shiomi, chief executive of the wine division at Suntory Ltd., confirmed.

For the big day, Nov. 20, Suntory is bringing in both Beaujolais Nouveau and Beaujolais Villages from Georges Duboeuf, France's leading Beaujolais winery, which accounts for almost a third of French nouveau wine sales in Japan. The company plans to import 215,000 cases, up 16 percent from last year, and for the second year running will be selling a special premium label through 7-Eleven outlets nationwide in addition to regular bottles at 2,480 yen.

However, Suntory is not resting on its laurels, and Shiomi declared confidently, "We still see great potential in this wine market." He cited a company survey which found that a little over 10 percent of potential consumers buy Beaujolais Nouveau every year, around half have tried it at least once -- and 40 percent have yet to try it at all.

Meanwhile, Mercian Corp., another major wine dealer, will this year import its new Beaujolais from Maison Albert Bichot, to sell at 2,310 yen (Beaujolais Nouveau) and 2,590 yen (Beaujolais Villages). With a total of 82,000 cases in its pipeline, up 3 percent on last year, Mercian, too, is decidedly optimistic -- especially over sales of Beaujolais Villages. Although this variety soaks up only 20 percent of the French nouveau wine market in Japan, it comprises half of Mercian's sales.

Up the ranks

"We want to offer consumers, who are accustomed to the freshness of Beaujolais Nouveau, labels that are one rank higher," said Hirofumi Mori, the company's wine division manager. He added: "Bichot wine comes from vines at least 15 years old, so that makes it tasty with deeper and more complex tones than wine from younger vines."

Other distributors, too, are moving up a gear this year. Asahi Breweries Ltd. -- which last year overtook Sapporo Breweries to rank third in the market -- upped this year's order by 5.6 percent from last year to 75,000 cases. Kikkoman Corp., too, is posting a 6 percent rise in its imports, to 25,000 cases -- including the addition of fruity and aromatic unfiltered Beaujolais Nouveau.

Such optimism among the trade's big players is clearly not misplaced, with liquor and department stores widely reporting being inundated with advance orders for the French wine. For example, as of the end of October, Seibu Department Stores in Ikebukuro, Tokyo had advance orders for more than 3,500 bottles, representing an astonishing 90 percent rise year-on-year. "Even though we have ordered 15 percent more bottles than last year, it seems we may well sell out quickly," a company spokesman said.

That, too, is despite prices that industry sources expect to be 5 to 10 percent higher than last year. This is because of the yen's current weakness against the euro and April's hike in liquor duty here -- and because of a stormy spring in the Beaujolais region that has knocked something like 40 percent off this year's supply. As a result, retailers are likely to be charging around 2 yen,000-2,500 yen for a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau -- compared with prices in France of around a mere 300 yen.

Distant domains

Of course France is half a world away from Japan, so a perennial pricing factor here is also the cost of shipping -- three-quarters of which is by air. But what's bad news for tipplers is good news for the airlines, whose average cargo charges skyrocket to two or three times the regular rate in the days before Nov. 20.

So, unsurprisingly, Japan Airlines and Air France are laying on 10 "Beaujolais Nouveau Specials" between them. Ten other airlines are bringing in another 6,000 tons of the French wine in bottles and barrels, and DHL Danzas Air & Ocean are operating seven dedicated cargo flights -- up from five last year.

To keep the cost to customers down, some wine dealers here choose to import their new French wines by sea, which can virtually halve the retail price to those for whom the novelty has not worn off by late December.

For most purveyors of this freshly made plonk, though, it's all about that novelty -- and being able to pull the first corks on precisely the day. In Japan, in fact, more than half of each year's supply of the new French wines is sold from the day of the release to the following weekend -- and nearly 80 percent is downed within a month.

With timing at such a premium, Shiomi at Suntory said that this year, "We plan to finish delivering Beaujolais Nouveau to the core cities around Japan on the morning of Nov. 20." For an even better service this year, his company is using 50 charter flights to Sapporo and Fukuoka in addition to those to Narita and Osaka in order to speed customs clearance.

Previously, the all-powerful Beaujolais Wine Union in France granted a special dispensation of only three days before the release date for Japanese importers to fly millions of bottles here for customs to clear and truckers to then speed it around the land from special airport parking lots the moment the appointed day arrived.

This year, however, the union decided to bring forward its embargo. Consequently, this year's Beaujolais Nouveau will be shipped from France from 8 a.m. on Nov. 13 -- a full week ahead of the big day. "Clearing it all used to be a big job because it all came at the same time," one customs official said. "Now, the work has become a lot easier."

Nonetheless, French regulations on the timing of the release are so strict that every importer of Beaujolais Nouveau in the world is required to submit a written oath to the French authorities, promising that they will not sell any until the third Thursday of November.

Frivolous beginning

Despite all these problems, the longstanding French tradition of celebrating the young wine's release is a firm fixture on the Japanese calendar, too. Helped by astute marketing campaigns by both the wine-makers and importers, millions are now thrilled to party on Beaujolais Nouveau from the very minute they can each year. And, from this frivolous beginning, those in the industry hope and believe a greater and wider appreciation of the fruits of the vine will continue to develop.

"Japan's taste for wine has evolved significantly," said Shiomi at Suntory. "The initial attraction to sweet wines was gradually supplanted by an appreciation for dry whites and then for dry reds.

"Now, the Beaujolais Nouveau boom is helping the Japanese develop their taste for red wine -- and we hope this will work as a primer for them to move on to vintage wines and help the sales of imported wines generally," he said.

Finally, though, there remains the misconception that Beaujolais Nouveau and Beaujolais Villages have to be drunk as fresh as possible. In fact, according to Norimichi Yamasaka, president of the wine importers Izumi Trading Co.: "The taste and bouquet of these wines actually improves if it is left in a dark place for at least a week after arriving in Japan. After that, it will continue to improve even beyond the new year."

So, why be in a big rush to drink it? It looks like the party is going to flow for quite a few months.



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