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Friday, Dec. 9, 2011

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That's the spirit: Domestic products are featured at the Ninth Japan Wine Competition held in August in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture. KYODO PHOTO

Yamanashi strives for wine 100% made in Japan


For years Yamanashi Prefecture, one of Japan's leading wine regions, has boasted the virtues of its domestic output even though the home market is largely dominated by cheaper imports, including "domestic wine" made with imported grapes.

In 2003, the prefecture launched an annual wine competition that only accepts entries made from grapes grown and harvested in Japan.

For the Ninth Japan Wine Competition, held in the prefectural capital of Kofu last August, some 717 "pure Japanese" wine brands — the largest number so far — were entered, according to its organizing committee.

Koki Yokotsuka, a professor emeritus at the University of Yamanashi who serves as the committee's chairman, says the annual event is designed to enable consumers to discover the quality of genuine domestic wines and help them outperform their imported competitors.

Domestically made wine is light-bodied and goes well with traditional Japanese foods, but supplies have been limited, mainly due to high production costs.

In fiscal 2009, shipments of made-in-Japan wine totaled 83,000 kiloliters, against the far larger 167,000 kiloliters for imported wine, National Tax Agency data show.

But most of the wine considered "made in Japan" contains concentrated grape juice from abroad or is imported in bulk in barrels or other containers.

Although accurate statistics are not available, industry analysts estimate that domestically grown grapes account for only about 20 percent of the ingredients used in wines that bear the made-in-Japan label.

Under criteria set by the Japan Wineries Association and wine producer groups, any product that contains ingredients fermented in Japan, even if the amount is tiny, can carry the domestic label. This is because grape yields are rather small in Japan and growing costs are higher than in major wine-producing countries.

According to Katsunuma Winery Co., based in the city of Koshu, Yamanashi Prefecture, grape production is a whopping 10 times more costly in Japan.

In 2004, the winery took a bold step and stopped bottling imported bulk wine in 2004.

"Although we were destined to struggle against high costs, we were determined to show our resolve to become a winery that can represent Japan," the company's president, Yuji Aruga, said.

Katsunuma Winery was not alone. Smaller wineries in Koshu followed suit.

Dozens of vineyards are in Koshu, especially the Katsunuma area, producing one of Japan's major wine varieties, popularly known as Koshu.

Haramo Wine Co. switched to locally grown grapes in 2006 while Diamond Winery Co. took the plunge in 2008.

The problem facing Japan's wine industry is its unique labeling system, which makes it hard for consumers to distinguish between wines that are purely domestic and those that aren't but still bear the made-in-Japan label.

"Most consumers believe all wine products labeled made in Japan are 100 percent made from domestically grown grapes," says Miyuki Katori, a wine journalist.

As a way of protecting local grape growers, the Koshu Municipal Government introduced a certification system last year under which grapes' origins are examined under strict standards.

The Yamanashi Prefecture Wine Manufacturers' Association also plans to ask the National Tax Agency to allow wine made from grapes grown in the prefecture to be labeled as "Yamanashi."

The request is based on a law that allows farmers and producers to include the region's name on the label of their products if they are made from materials produced in the region.

"We are not against using imported grapes. What we are saying is that the use of such grapes must be displayed on the label," said Hiroshi Yamamoto, chairman of the Wine Importers Association of Japan.

Yamamoto, who is also a lawyer, pointed to the shortcomings of Japan's labeling system, saying that because rules under the system are nonbinding, violators can't be punished.

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