Megumi Nishida has been working in wine in Japan since the 1990s and in this Meet the Member interview, Amanda Barnes finds out how the wine industry has evolved there over this time. Megumi also shares why she has always been a fan of Alsace, her views on Japanese wine, and leaves us with a thought-provoking wine Haiku.
What’s your earliest memory in wine?
My mother was born in Yamanashi Prefecture, the historical viticulture and wine region in Japan, and I had relatives who were also grape farmers. So I grew up with Japanese wine from when I was very little.
I fell in love with wine at the age of 21, when I had a bottle of Egon Müller’s Scharzhofberger Auslese. I don’t remember the vintage, unfortunately.
Are there any wine regions that are particularly close to your heart, or that you specialise in? And why?
Alsace and Piemonte. For my first job at a wine importer, the company had great wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja and Germany, but as a gourmand though not a gourmet, my favourite wines were always from Alsace, which go well with food. Many white wines from around the 1990s were full of oak flavour and did not go well with Japanese food, although recent wines are different. But wines from Alsace, which were not oaked, went very well with Japanese food.
At that time, wines with a lot of oak flavour such as Meursault were popular, and when we had a wine party with friends of Academy du Vin, all of them brought rather oaky wines. No one was interested in my beautiful Alsace Grand Cru simply because it didn’t have the flavour of oak. This situation further ignited my love for wines from Alsace!
The wine that brought me into the world of wine is Josmeyer. The winemaker Jean Meyer was very enthusiastic about food and wine pairings when he came to Japan, and he would visit all the Japanese and French restaurants. He would always take notes on a small voice recorder about the wines and food pairing, the ingredients and the methods used in Japan. He was interested in Japanese tofu, yuzu and umami 30 years ago. I was so impressed with his sincere attitude that I wanted to know more about wines from Alsace. And so I visited Alsace for the first time in 1995 and have visited Alsace more than 15 times since then! I am still captivated by passionate producers and beautiful wines.
The Piemonte is also another of my favourite regions because it is so diverse and beautiful! Nebbiolo drives me crazy. Barbera makes me smile. Dolcetto makes me hungry. Arneis makes me sing. Moscato makes me relax. And the people make me happy!
You have been working in wine in Japan since the 1990s in various roles from a wine buyer to a wine journalist. How have you seen the Japanese wine market change in the past 30 years?
Over the last 30 years, the Japanese wine market has changed dramatically.
Firstly, it was in 1987 that the consumption of imported wine increased more than that of domestic wine. This was triggered by the appearance of Beaujolais Nouveau. From this time on, “wine” became popular. At the same time, the previously popular German wines are beginning to disappear. The volume of imported wine increased dramatically in the second half of the 1990s. The popularity of red wine became decisive in the French paradox, and the subsequent Chilean wine boom expanded the wine market in Japan.
However, it was the revision of the Liquor Tax Law that had a major impact on the Japanese market. In Japan, the Liquor Tax Law is very strict and it was very difficult to obtain a license to sell alcohol. So the only way to buy wine was at a liquor store selling traditional Sake or a speciality wine shop. However, the 2003 amendment made it easier for women and beginners to buy wine, as it became easier to obtain at convenience stores and supermarkets.
The Japanese market has been very conservative for a long time. Many people prefer Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. But in the last ten years, not only the New World but also Central Europe and natural wines have been attracting more and more attention.
The number of importing companies has increased due to the revision of the Liquor Tax Law. Thanks to this, great wines from all over the world, no matter how small the producers or minor regions, are imported into Japan.
Five years ago, the title of number one importing country finally passed from France to Chile. Natural wines (such as SO2 free or by the Quevevry method) and orange wines are also very popular.
This is my opinion, but I think that the increase of female consumers in the wine market has led to this diversification of wines.
What are the key wine trends in Japan at the moment, or ones that will be important in your opinion in the near future?
Firstly, natural wine. There’s a number of wine shops, restaurants and wine bars selling only natural wines, and focusing on orange wine, SO2 free wine, organic, biodynamic etc.
Local and unique varieties are also growing in popularity. And there’s a focus on health benefits in wine, such as low alcohol wines (under 10%), wines with high polyphenol content, or SO2 free wines.
Japanese wine is also growing. Many wineries have started making wine in the last decade or so. The younger generation is earnestly making wine and the quality is improving. Yamanashi Prefecture, which is our famous wine region, is close to Tokyo, and wine tourism is growing too.
How have Japan’s restaurants and wine bars been coping with the pandemic?
The number of Covid-19 infected people in Japan is around 3,000 per day. A state of emergency has been declared, but restaurants, cinemas, museums and even Disneyland are open!
Although restaurants are allowed to open as usual, opening hours are restricted until 8pm and alcohol is only served until 7pm. This makes it very difficult for many restaurants and bars.
Are you a fan of Japanese wine? Are there any regions, varieties or styles that you think have good potential for export?
I am, of course, a fan of Japanese wine. I love Koshu from Yamanashi, Merlot from Nagano, and Pinot Noir from Hokkaido.
I believe that Koshu wines have a great potential for export. It is a unique variety, indigenous to Japan. It is not an assertive variety, but it has the capacity to go well with a wide range of dishes.
Besides wine, what do you like to do to relax or in your spare time?
I like climbing and hiking, to watch movies and Haiku too. It is very difficult to translate a Haiku into English but, here we go:
The pruning dry sound
wakes me up
early white morning.