Japan is a land of alcohol aficionados. There are single-malt whiskey enthusiasts, Belgian beers buffs, and domestically, it’s not difficult to find someone with a surprising grasp of domestic rice-based tipples like shochu and Nihon-shu. In light of this general level of mastery, it should come as no surprise that Japan also has a fair share of wine doyens.
Placing a bottle of Johnnie Walker on the shelf or keeping a bottle of shochu chilled in the refrigerator is no big deal. But in a land where space is at a premium – with many living in cramped studio apartments – what’s a serious amasser of wine bottles to do? This reality inspired the idea for the Wine Apartment,
“Some people living in Tokyo who are serious about wine run their air conditioners 24 hours a day, seven days a week to mimic the conditions of a cellar. Others rent warehouse space an hour or more drive from the city just to store their wine,” Shiki Shu of Tokyo’s Bordeaux Winebank, the biggest wine merchant of Bordeaux France, told The Diplomat. “This is where the idea came from to create the Wine Apartment,” a unique project designed by architect Keiji Ashizawa and backed by the Bordeaux Winebank.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The second through tenth floors of the indulgent structure in the posh Shinsen neighborhood of Tokyo’s Shibuya district house 18 rooms of around 40 square meters each – going for 239,000 yen to 258,000 yen; around 30 percent above market price for the area – that come with mini-cellar for 26 bottles that is likely sufficient for casual imbibers. But for those with a more serious bacchanalian streak there is an extensive wine cellar – referred to as the “WineCave” – underneath the complex capable of storing a total of 10,000 bottles. Rather than paying for a parking space, tenants have the option of reserving their monthly wine space in the cavernous basement cellar for around 20,000 yen where they can shelve yet more bottles – up to another 348 for the “Deluxe” option.
And this is just a start. Shu adds, “We also keep around 100 types of glasses at the entrance, which suit different varieties. Tenants can use them on the weekends when a sommelier is on staff.”
According to Shu, there is a glut of wine expertise in Japan’s capital, which has a highly systematized testing process in place. A rigorous standardized exam must first be passed, with various possible ranks to attain, starting with wine “experts” who know their varietals. Then there are true sommeliers adept at all things wine, from the process of making it through to the types of glass works with each strain.
While the vast majority of the wine on storage by tenants comes from abroad, Shu notes that Japanese wine – produced largely in Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures – has come into its own as a “very fruity, light variety that goes well with foods like sushi and tempura.”
French, Japanese, Argentine, Australian – she adds, “If we are talking about people at the ‘expert’ level, the Tokyo market is simply overwhelmed by the number of people who can claim that level of knowledge,” Shu says. “Even at the sommelier level, there are around 30,000 people working in Tokyo alone. People in Japan – especially Tokyo – really understand wine. Many sommeliers have studied in France and speak fluent French.”
She continues, “If anything, there are almost too many wine experts in the city. The wine community here is very advanced. It has had around 50-60 years to develop. By contrast, it is still developing in other Asian countries. But the potential is huge in places like China, Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand.”
In particular, China has an enormous market to tap. Although many have declared wine produced by mainland vineyards undrinkable, it is gradually coming around. Chinese adults drink an average of 1.4 liters of wine per year, with the rate of growth clocking higher than any other nation on earth. From 2012-2016, consumption in the PRC is expected to jump by an additional 39.62 percent, after already having spiked 142.1 percent between 2007 and 2011.
Wine Apartment – and doubtless many other players – hope to get a piece of this action – but first, more at home. “In 2015 we will build a second apartment in Tokyo,” Shu said. “After that, we hope to expand into other parts of Asia.”