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The Japanese, although not a wine-drinking nation, have a long history of wine production. In 1186 Japan's only native vinifera variety, Koshu -which can make fruity white wines - was cultivated in vineyards around Mount Fuji, south of the Kofu Valley and west of Tokyo. This is still the most important wine district, the best vineyards lying on gravelly, volcanic soils on south-facing slopes. The majority of Japan's wine-producing districts are in the southern half of the main island. Hokkaido island in the north has two districts, Kyushu in the far south has one.

The most widely-planted vines are American hybrids, a legacy of Japanese researches abroad in the late 19th century. The dull, red Campbell's Early; Delaware (a delicate though acidic white particularly suited to sparkling wines); Muscat Bailey A (a hybrid of Koshu and vitis labrusca, making acceptable roses), plus Koshu, account for approximately 85% of Japan's vineyards. The rest has varieties such as S6millon, Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The total vineyard area, 35,000ha (86,450 acres), produces 7,220,000 cases annually.

The hybrids are better suited to this inhospitable archipelago than European or Asian varieties. Freezing winters, typhoons, monsoons and salt winds contrast starkly with Mediterranean climates of the same latitude. The foxy flavours associated with hybrid wines are partially masked by the legal allowance of up to 260 grams of sugar per litre -sweetness is favoured by the ordinary consumer.

The 1970s saw far-reaching developments: first was the introduction of French and German grapes and foreign (mainly French and Australian) wine expertise. Second, three multinational Japanese companies, Sanraku, Mann and Suntory, set up gleaming, high-tech wineries for the home market. The wines tend to be of reasonable quality, though lacking varietal definition: the harvest is during the heavy September rains. Third, there was the growth of well-priced domestic wines, some from European varieties, to compete with expensive imports, and the belief worldwide that Japan was about to become an important wine-drinking nation.

All but the best of these European-style wines are blended with cheap imported wines, yet they are labelled Produce of Japan. If the imported bulk wine is more than 50%, this must be stated on the label. Such wines are disappearing as imported wines are more widely and competitively distributed.

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