Japan's Tomi no Oka is entering Singapore's wine market

Mr Naoki Watanabe says Japanese wines such as Tomi no Oka Red (above) can pair well with Singapore food. -- PHOTO: SUNTORY TOMI NO OKA WINERY
Mr Naoki Watanabe says Japanese wines such as Tomi no Oka Red (above) can pair well with Singapore food. -- PHOTO: SUNTORY TOMI NO OKA WINERY
Mr Naoki Watanabe (above) says Japanese wines such as Tomi no Oka Red can pair well with Singapore food. -- PHOTO: SUNTORY TOMI NO OKA WINERY
Mr Naoki Watanabe (above) says Japanese wines such as Tomi no Oka Red can pair well with Singapore food. -- PHOTO: SUNTORY TOMI NO OKA WINERY

Mention Japanese tipples and what comes to mind are usually shochu, sake and umeshu. However, the Japanese are making their presence felt in the burgeoning wine scene here, which is dominated by French and Australian labels.

Yamanashi-based Suntory Tomi no Oka winery, which is owned by brewing and distillery giant Beam Suntory, is the latest Japanese winery to enter the wine market here. The 106-year-old winery, which produces wines from European and Japanese grape varietals, is distributing its wares outside Japan for the first time.

On choosing Singapore to test out overseas demand for its wines, executive director of Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery, Mr Naoki Watanabe, 50, says that the city-state's wine market is sophisticated, with consumers more receptive to new wine labels.

He also thinks that Singapore's multi-racial cuisine can be paired well with his wines.

He says: "Japanese wines are lighter and fruity, which are flexible to match with the rich variety of food here."

For starters, Beam Suntory has brought in more than 1,500 bottles of wines spanning six varieties by the winery.

These wines are served and retailed in Japanese restaurants, Ginza Kuroson in Robertson Quay and Tamaya Dining in Cuppage Terrace, and sold in Japanese liquor shop Orihara Shoten in Robertson Quay.

The recommended retail prices range from $50 for a bottle of Japan Premium Koshu Wine to $85 for a bottle of Tomi no Oka Red Wine.

Beam Suntory is looking to expand its outreach across Japanese restaurants here this year. Other Japanese wine labels available here include Grace, Takahata and Izutsu.

Mr Watanabe was in town recently for Gourmet Japan, an annual Japanese epicurean festival, which showcases the best of Japanese cuisine and tipples.

The festival, which ends this month, is organised by event management and exhibitions company Sphere Exhibits, a subsidiary of Singapore Press Holdings, and food and beverage consultancy Poulose Associates.

As part of the six-week festival, Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery collaborated with Japanese steakhouse Fat Cow in Camden Medical Centre for a wine-pairing dinner.

Another factor for the winery's interest in expanding its distribution network to Singapore is the long-standing popularity of Japanese cuisine here.

Mr Watanabe says that the mellow and elegant Japanese wines complement the delicate flavours of Japanese fare better than old world wines, which can be overwhelming.

For example, the citrus notes of Tomi no Oka's Koshu wines, which are made from Koshu grapes, pair well with seafood and fish dishes, such as sashimi and sushi.

He says: "The iron content in Koshu wines is lower than most white wines; the meat does not react as much with the iron, so the fishiness does not linger in the mouth."

Koshu wines are made from grapes grown in five different regions in the 25ha vineyard in Yamanashi, sprawled across the Tomi no Oka hills, which means "hill of beautiful climbs" in Japanese.

After the Koshu grapes are harvested and pressed, the juice is frozen for two weeks to preserve the flavour, before it undergoes fermentation and ageing in stainless steel tanks for more than six months.

Fans of red wines can turn to the Japanese alternative, which features the unique Muscat Bailey A grape, a hybrid between Bailey and Muscat Hamburg grapes. Compared to red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, Mr Watanabe says that Muscat Bailey A wines are "less tannic and taste softer".

He says: "Such wines have notes of caramel and strawberries and go well with yakitori and nikujaga (meat and potato stew)."

With its lighter and subtle flavours, Japanese wines are proving to be a hit among consumers in Japan. Demand for Japanese wines has been growing steadily over the past five years.

According to figures given by the winery, more than 12 million bottles of Japanese wines were produced last year, compared to more than nine million bottles in 2010.

Mr Watanabe, who graduated from Bordeaux University with a degree in oenology, says that more Japanese consumers are more willing to try their home-grown wines.

He says: "The quality of Japanese wine has improved over the years. Instead of beer and shochu, they are turning to Japanese wines to pair with Japanese food, which is elegant and delicate."