Words by Sarah Crago
Here’s a surprising fact: Japanese consumers were very early adopters of natural wine, developing a taste for it in the ’90s – even before it became a trend in France. Since then, the natural wine movement has established firm roots in Tokyo, and shops and neighbourhood bars boasting unadulterated wine are now plentiful in the capital.
Despite Japan’s unfavourable climatic conditions, domestic winemakers have become passionate about realising the potential of natural wine, with at least five vineyards producing Japan’s first entries into the market, which are being enthusiastically received. There are several liquor stores in Tokyo that are devoted to natural wine and these days you can even see some brands stocked on the shelves of select department stores.
Natural wine is also a big hit with Tokyo’s new generation of drinkers who don’t consider themselves aficionados. They don’t possess a taste reference acquired from a wine education or shaped by the familiar products of their region. They have no preference over origin or variety. Their palates are not trained nor are their minds aware of the traditional aroma and taste descriptors. They are drinking wine because they like it. They like the easiness of natural wine and the light mouthfeel, and describe it simply as ‘drinkable’ wine.
Tiny even for Tokyo standards, Bar à vin is a wine bar tucked under the stairwell to its sister restaurant Maison Cinquante Cinq. There’s standing room only, around a central table, and wines are available by the glass along with a short menu of French-inspired snacks to sustain you. In such an intimate setting it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the person next to you on which wine they are enjoying. Otherwise, leave it to the sommelier who will bring out the selection of wines he’s just opened for the night.
Giving off a relaxed, local vibe, Lug serves up great coffee and a simple lunch menu during the day and has a very impressive rum selection by night, boasting over 150 different bottles. Unobtrusively located in the far back corner is a walk-in wine cellar that’s stocked with 100 percent natural wine bottles. Sommelier Honzawa-san, or ‘Pon-chan’ by all who know her, is passionate about natural wine and is constantly rotating the wines available by the glass so that customers can expand their palate.
This boutique wine store prides itself on hand-selecting special bottles for its local clientele. With around 80 percent of stock being natural wine, you can find bottles from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Chile, South Africa, Japan, America, Australia and New Zealand. Bottles start at around ¥2,000 and there are plenty of interesting labels to catch your attention. Why not try a punchy 100 percent Grenache from Jauma winery in McLaren Vale in South Australia (¥5,400); it will be the perfect conversation starter when brought around to a friend’s place for dinner.
Numata-san runs this small family-owned but very focused wine store. In 1997, he converted the shop from an everyday liquor store to centre around natural wine after drinking his first glass and finding an instant connection to the grape and a sense of the terroir. It spurred him to learn more and eventually convert not only his shop but his whole philosophy to match that of the natural wine maker and consumer: easy life, easy wine. You’ll find a large selection in the refrigerated walk-in cellar – the majority is French but there are some choice bottles from Italy, Spain, Greece, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Numata-san is always on hand to give recommendations and wraps each bottle in a cold pack to ensure it travels in an optimal condition to its final destination. With bottles starting around ¥2,000, you can find your entry point into the world of natural wine.