2020 April-May Analysis Featured

What’s behind the unlikely duo of Georgia and Japan?

Though the geographical and cultural distance between Georgia and Japan has historically limited contact between the two countries, new business partnerships are blooming, especially in the wine trade

Japan is fascinated by Georgia’s rich history, as the Ambassador of Japan to Georgia, His Excellency Tadaharu Uehara, has remarked more than once on his Embassy’s website.

Georgia’s historic viniculture and its aeons-old way of making wine in qvevris epitomise to many there the character of the Caucasian country.

Wine exports to Japan are growing and are now worth around $40 million, up over 700% on a couple of years ago. This is adding a further strand to a relationship that goes back far into history, one which Georgia hopes will give it another Free Trade Agreement.

Such is the special status ascribed to qvevri wine that Japan Airlines has just included in its wine-list offering to first-class passengers – a premium qvevri amber wine from a small Kakheti artisanal producer, Rkastsiteli 2018 from Shalauri Cellars. Last year over 200,000 bottles of Georgian wine went to Japan, much of it made in qvevris, making this a major export there (along with scrap metal, residues of precious metals and unprocessed aluminium).

Last year, Tokyo also hosted the same major exhibition of Georgian wine that launched France’s new show-case wine center in Bordeaux – Georgia: Homeland of Wine, an exhibition combining unique archaeological exhibits and modern technologies.

Some may be surprised that Japan should have taken so strongly to a non-traditional beverage, yet even a few years ago, according to a report by the Japan-EU Trade Center, wine market tracker website Vinitrac found that over 50 percent of the Japanese population was drinking wine at least once a week. So, given this level of interest, the exhibition won the support of two major companies – Sony Music and Japan’s global printing company TOPPAN.

As Tina Kezeli, the director of the Wine Association tells it, what started with exports by the small Georgian qvevri wine producers is now becoming business for the large wine companies.

“The Japanese really venerate tradition and ancient customs, and appreciate the history of the qvevri and the place it has had in wine-making for thousands of years,” she says.

Clues to Japan’s interest in Georgia’s traditional premium wine product can be found in Vinitrac’s explanation of the difficulties faced by new Central & Eastern European producers in selling in the Japanese market:

“This is partly owed to the ingrained ethnocentric mentality of Japanese culture. Consumers have also traditionally been elitist in their tastes, an approach that has permeated into the wine market as well. Even with Chilean and Australian wines gaining ground in Japan, they still cannot measure up in terms of appeal to the classic wine-growing regions of the Old World, such as Bordeaux and Burgundy.” It is impossible to be more “Old World” than Georgian qvevri wine!

Having discovered qvevri wine at the supras held to celebrate the many business and investment links between Japan and Georgia, Japanese businessmen introduced it to Japan’s growing number of wine drinkers. Japan has also added a traditional Georgian dish to its gastronomic scene: the fast-food company Matsuia has begun to sell the classic Racha dish Shkmeruli (made of chicken, garlic and milk). Importers are already bringing in Georgian kiwi fruit and berries.

There is, in fact, a long history of wine-drinking in Japan.

Legend has it that Japanese viticulture began in 718 AD, in Katsunuma, Yamanashi Prefecture. The first regularly documented wine consumption in Japan was in the 16th century, with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries from Portugal. Saint Francis Xavier brought wines as gifts for the feudal lords of Kyūshū, and other missionaries continued the practice. However, it was not until the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, a period when Western culture was avidly received, that wine grew in popularity and Japanese viticulture emerged. It used then mainly imported American grape varieties, according to the Vinitrac survey.

Japanese wine production grew slowly in the last century and in the 1970s and 1980s, yet for the first time domestic wineries began to focus on producing superior wines using only domestically cultivated grapes. Also, in response to demand from Japanese consumers, the production of organic wines became popular.

In the 1990s and 2000s, due to a reduction in taxes on imported wine and a diversification of Japanese food culture, wine consumption continued to grow. In 1995, Shinya Tasaki became the first Japanese to be awarded the title of Meillieur Sommelier du Monde and helped to significantly raise public awareness of wine appreciation.

Media attention given to the beneficial effects of tannins (in which Georgian red wine is rich) and local government led efforts to promote high quality domestically produced wine also contributed to industry expansion. From 2002 onward, leading with Yamanashi Prefecture, competitions focused on “Japanese wine using only 100% Japanese grapes” began.

Of significance is that Japan has found, from DNA analysis, that its Koshu wine grapes are scientifically identical to one of the Georgian species, according to former Japanese Ambassador to Georgia, His Excellency Tadaharu Uehara.

Characteristics of wines made from the Koshu grape are typically a pale, straw colour and a soft, fruity bouquet with overtones of citrus and peach. Its ancestry, according to The Winegang website, includes the Davide hybrid, which is believed to have come via China, travelling the Silk Road from Georgia across Asia a thousand years ago.

This grape comes from a long-established Japanese vinicultural center. A report written in 1869 by John Adams, Secretary to the British Legation in Yedo, describes “a quantity of vines, trained on horizontal trellis frames, which rested on poles at a height of seven or eight feet from the ground” in the region of Koshu, Yamanashi.

Referring to Koshu grapes’ history the then Ambassador explained to Georgia Today in 2017: “It is definitely a very interesting discovery as it goes to show just how far back the two countries go.”

Moreover, he wrote, Japan has “a very old national treasure warehouse ‘Shosoin’ in Nara prefecture that was built in the 8th century by the then-Emperor. Within that warehouse, we found Sasanian (an Empire of Iranians in Late Antiquity that encompassed Georgia) in ornamental jugs, plates and pots: Japan is one of the destinations of the Silk Road, that bridge between East and West and a project that Georgian government is emphasizing.

“Since Japan is recognized as a part of that, this bridge between the cultures, it is very natural for Japan to play a cooperative role to develop this strategy in modern form,” he commented.

While some Central and Eastern European producers have faced difficulties in entering the Japanese market, due to lack of country and brand awareness, it helps that Japan is very much in sympathy with Georgia on a number of levels.

“Japan and Georgia are two countries looking at a geopolitical mirror. At first sight, the two countries are far apart, physically and qualitatively”, wrote veteran Georgian diplomat and politician Tedo Japaridze, a few weeks ago after a visit to Japan.

“And yet we are so close! Both our countries have part of our territory effectively annexed by Russia.”

He added: “But we are also becoming physically closer. As technology and economic growth are revitalizing the ancient Silk Way, Georgia and Japan emerge as bridges between mature and emerging economies. Japan is of course the third biggest economy in the world and is a global investment and technology hub that pioneered the road to the Pacific Century. Georgia on the other hand is an emerging economy that tries to imbue its location with economic significance, creating a nexus of free trade agreements and physical infrastructure that bridges Europe and Asia.”

Are Japan and Georgia too far apart to be relevant to each other, he asked: “No, we are not. The distance between us is shrinking, as we are at opposite ends of a tunnel linking the Atlantic with the Pacific economies, developed and emerging economies.”

He added: “Georgia is strategically located between Europe and Asia with preferential access to the Single European Market – through the Association Agreement (AA) and the Deep and Comprehensive Trade agreement (DCFTA), the CIS, and China. We have been negotiating the same kind of Trade regime with India.

“Given globally low energy prices, a competitive workforce, and increasingly sophisticated logistics infrastructure, Georgia is precisely the kind of partner Japan seeks as an export-driven global manufacturing powerhouse: this is a place where the vectors of localization and globalization intersect with each other, making Georgia a reliable partner in the localization of a qualitatively different corporate culture and a purveyor of Western digitalized standards and ideals, thus creating opportunity for anyone who can see it and exploit it.”

And a toast to that, be in with a glass of Rkatsiteli or Koshu wine!

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