The joyous song of the cicadas under the blazing sun, surrounded by a delicate and aromatic scent of ripe grape. For a short while I thought I was lost somewhere in Provence. But the breathtaking view of the Mount Fuji soon reminded me I was in Japan.
When thinking about Japan, the first thoughts crossing your mind are surely sushis, kimonos, sumos, mangas and modern skyscrapers. But any wine lover would be wrong not to include “wine” somewhere at the top of his list.
Grape growing activities date back to about 1850 in the Yamanashi region at the foot of the Mount Fuji. The main difficulty here is the humidity and the unforeseeable climate variation, alternating heavy rain showers and overpowering heat.
That’s why international grape varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot noir have to be protected with…. small parasols!
However, the local grape varieties, Koshu and the very prestigious Roman Ruby are more resistant despite their delicate pinkish skin. Tougher but not cheaper! Chef Masayuki Hirai of Hotel Nikko Kanazawa bought a single bunch of Roman Ruby for 1 million yen (about £5200) at auction last week.
The bunch was grown in the Ishikawa prefecture on the west coast of Japan and comes from a highly selective grape variety bred over 14 years to be sweeter and lower in acidity. A wonderfully ripe and succulent fruit. But how is it really different to the $2 grape basket you can get from your local supermarket? Fruits in Japan are considered like real treasures: sold individually and carefully wrapped up to protect them from any possible impact that might damage them. And like apples and oranges, bunches of grapes are also sold individually, presented (and priced!) like pearls on a display shelf.
And there’s a reason why!
A grape can only be classified as a “Roman Ruby” if it meets certain standards regarding its weight (at least 20 grams), sugar concentration (18%) and physical appearance (perfectly shaped with a cherry tomato- red hue). Nurturing the grapes to these very strict standards means the supply is limited and prices are up. But after talking to a local buyer he tells me the price is soon forgotten and only the taste remains engraved in your memory…