By Charlotte Read

Japan has long been one of the most important Asian markets for New Zealand wine due to the sophistication of its wine scene compared to its Asian neighbours. In the latest New Zealand Wine Export data to the end of Nov 2010 for the first five months of the financial year, Japan showed the highest export growth of any Asian market – with a growth a 57% upon the same period year ago.   This is very encouraging when in the year to June 2010, Exports of New Zealand wine grew by 16%.

New World wines, including New Zealand wines, are generally more competitively priced than old world and are therefore gaining in popularity at a time when the Japanese economy is suffering from the global recession and more people are drinking wine at home. The perception that New Zealand products are clean, green and sustainable is increasingly important in Japan where ‘healthy’ products are big business. Sustainably produced, organic and biodynamic wines can do very well in this market.

The delicacy of Japanese cuisine is a perfect match to the pure vibrancy of New Zealand’s wine and we look forward to expanding our presence beyond our most popular Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir wines currently available. The wine trade in Tokyo see New Zealand wines as an increasingly important part of their quality/value proposition – the premium alternative to French wine with a diverse range of varieties and compelling stories.  Events like the Bledisloe Cup, held overseas in Tokyo for the first time in October 2009 heightened awareness of brand New Zealand, including that of NZ wine.  We are looking forward to the Rugby World Cup being help in New Zealand in September 2011.  The first match of Japan vs New Zealand in our oldest wine producing region of Hawkes Bay will be one to watch out for!

New Zealand Wine Growers, www.nzwine.com the generic marketing body for our industry are doing a great job to boost the profile of New Zealand wine in Japan.   For the last two years they have run a restaurant promotion called NZ in a Glass promotion that saw many restaurants in and around Tokyo carry 3 or more New Zealand wines by the glass. When it was first conducted in July 2009, sales of NZ wine increased by over 400% during the promotional period and a similar promotion run in September 2010 yielded even better results.

Villa Maria Marlborough Winery

Last night Villa Maria has just hosted the winners of the 2010 competition at our Marlborough Winery.  Motoko Ishii, who acts as NZ Winegrowers’ Japan-based event coordinator and is a respected wine judge and educator wine consultant, journalist and event organizer, accompanied the sommelier winners.   Mr Takushi Obi  from Daimasu Wine-Kan and Mr Yoshifumi Sakamoto from WW (World Wine Bar and Bistro – part of the PJ Group). Kate Garton, Market Manager Asia, from New Zealand Winegrowers also joined in the fun.

Winemaker Jeremy with Motoko,Taku and YoshiTasting at Villa Maria Marlborough

Daimasu Wine-Kan is a three-storey wine bar and restaurant, which is situated in Asakusa – the tourist hotspot in the heart of downtown Tokyo. The restaurant has had many favorable reviews in Japanese gourmet, food and wine magazines since its opening in 2008. It receives high praise its range of reasonably-priced range of wines by the glass. Mr Ueki, the owner, also owns a supermarket, wine shop and pub in Asakusa. Daimasu Wine-Kan sold 707 bottles during the recent NZ in a Glass promotion in September 2010. www.e-daimasu.com

WW restaurant was also one of the top-performing restaurants from the 2009 promotion, WW is a popular bistro and wine bar in the Marunouchi area, owned by PJ Group and Australian chef Luke Mangan. WW sold only New Zealand wines by the glass during the promotion – a total of 589 bottles during September 2010. WW performed very well in 2009 – making them the top-selling outlet over the two years that the promotion has been operating. www.pjgroup.jp/ww

We had a great tasting at Villa Maria last night with Senior Marlborough winemaker, Jeremy McKenzie taking the group through the 13 Villa Maria wines that Villa Maria’s longstanding importer Kinoshita International sells in the Japanese markets www.kinoshita-intl.co.jp/

We also were treated to a barrel tasting of the different Pinot Noir clones that shape our wines.  Jeremy is pictured here nimbly jumping up on highly perched barrel.

Winemaker Jeremy McKenzie

Our Japanese guests were then very impressed to see Jeremy and fellow Villa Maria winemaker, Murray Cook prepare a delicious meal afterwards.  I think Murray has his last name for a reason – the meal was delicious.  The gigantic green lipped mussels that NZ is famed for were beautifully prepared with an Asian both of coriander, lemon grass, chilli and Vietnamese basil and Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc thrown in of course.

NZ Green Lipped Mussels prepared by winemaker Murray Cook

This was washed down with the stunning Villa Maria Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc.  As you can see the broth was too good to go to waste:

An excellent broth

We were then treated to eye fillet cooked to perfection on the barbecue accompanied by fresh sweet corn which is at the height of its season in New Zealand.

BBQ overlooking the vineyard

Mr Sakomoto was intrigued as to how our Bordeaux blends improve with age so we decanted the Villa Maria Hawkes Bay Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2006 from the Gimblett Gravels.  He commented that that 2008 that we tasted in the formal tasting was just a baby – but the 2006 was coming into its prime.  We finished the evening off with our rare Villa Maria Reserve Noble Riesling.  Unfortunately we don’t have enough to export to Asia.  Lets hope the 2011 vintage conditions allow some good Noble rot to set in.

We are looking forward to receiving Mr Kinoshita in a few weeks time in New Zealand.  He is passionate about New Zealand wine and he and his team have has done a great job building the Villa Maria brand in the Japanese market.  I have enjoyed tasting his delicate wine made from the Koshu grape from his winery Chateau Sakori.  I wonder if New Zealanders will take an equal interest in Japanese wine in the future?