Grand Cru and the Japanese

POSTED ON 17/11/2011

Sake is the traditional drink of Japan, wine the new kid on the block. While there’s no immediate link between the grape and the rice grain, many of the values relating to sake are similar to those associated with wine. Like wine, the character of sake is determined by a number of factors including climate, location, variety of rice and the philosophy of the (often family) producer.

Equally, the quality of sake is divided into table and premium sake, and at the premium level, sake is sub-divided into different grades. It might be stretching a point to attempt to compare sake and wine too closely because of their obvious differences. Yet as Japan takes fine wine to its heart, and palate, the prerequisites for its enjoyment of fine wine lie in a long-cherished understanding of traditional values of quality and character.

The wine story in Japan is still in its infancy. A generation ago, four out of five bottles of the wine consumed in Japan were Japanese-made, in other words assembled in Japan like car parts largely from unknown imported produce. The Japanese loved – and still love – good packaging and their tastes, as yet, unformed, were mainly for white and rosé and a sweet port-like wine called Akadama.

Thirty years on Japanese consumers have become much more sophisticated in their wine tastes. Today the majority of wine consumed by the Japanese is red wine. More to the point, as Japanese consumers have become more aware of the origins of so-called Japanese wine, only a quarter of the wines sold today are made in Japan, while three-quarters are imported. Japanese sophistication lies in an appreciation of value. According to Tokyo-based wine merchant Ron Brown, ‘today everyone can tell you the difference between a St.Chinian and a Faugères’.

One of the interesting features of the Japanese market is that although its cuisine suits white wines such as riesling, the preference in restaurants and 5-star hotels tends to be for high quality cabernet sauvignons and pinot noirs, in other words, for Bordeaux and Burgundy styles. Given how price-conscious the Japanese market is, wines of ‘Grand Cru’ status do not form part of the experience of the average Japanese consumer. All the more so since the catastrophic earthquake of 11 March destroyed, at least for a while, the fine wine market in high class restaurants and hotels.

A knowledge and understanding of what Grand Cru in wine means is therefore limited to a small tranche of high end consumers in Japan who associate the term with quality and, generally speaking, French wine. Katsuhisa Fujino, of Mercian Corporation and many others feel that while great wines can be, and are, made anywhere in the world where the ideal of terroir is respected , the term 'Grand Cru' itself tends to be confined in the Japanese mind to a very high-grade and a very expensive Bordeaux Grand Cru wine such as first growths Château Margaux or Mouton Rothschild.

Because it’s so specifically French, the term ‘Grand Cru’ is generally seen to relate to the historic 1855 Bordeaux classification and other traditional classifications of the best French wines including the pyramid of appellations in Burgundy leading to the great domaine Grands Crus such as the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. It is starting to extend however, according to experts Ken Ohashi and Kevin Whelehan to include other ultra-expensive wines such as California’s Opus One. So while ‘Grand Cru’ enshrines the finest of French tradition, its meaning is slowly growing to include the new fine wines of terroir from around the globe.

Japan and Grand CruJapan and Grand Cru

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