You might be surprised to learn that Japan is one of the largest producers of grapes, supplying much of Asia with the fruit. Grape exports have continued to surge; they recently overtook apples to be Japan’s second most exported fruit behind mandarins. Japan’s been able to use their technology and climate to produce numerous varieties that are popular around the world.
Japanese grapes aren’t consumed like a snack as they are in America. In Japanese culture, fruit is considered a luxury item and often given as a gift. Since ancient times, fruit has been a common present in the Shinto and Buddhist religions widely practiced among the Japanese. Fruit sellers resemble jewelry stores, complete with fruit arranged nicely in alarm-rigged display cases.
The Most Popular Varieties of Japanese Grapes
Japanese farmers take grapes seriously. They have leveraged cutting-edge agricultural science to cultivate rare and unique varieties. Here are some of the popular types of grapes grown in Japan.
1. Ruby Roman Grapes
If you have serious cash to burn, then check out Ruby Roman grapes, which can set you back thousands of bucks, but are supposedly worth every penny.
Ruby Romans are plump, brilliantly red grapes grown only in the Ishikawa Prefecture. In 1995, local grape farmers and Ishikawa’s Agricultural Research Center came together to develop a new breed that could compete with more popular black and green varieties. The grape debuted in 2008 and was named Ruby Roman via a public vote.
They are 4x the size of regular grapes, about the size of a ping pong ball. They have a golden flesh flecked with streaks of red. At the center of the grape is bright white flesh. They’re incredibly sweet.
All that sweetness will set you back. You can buy an individual grape for anywhere from $10-26, depending on the grade of the bunch. A premium-rated bunch was sold in 2020 for a record $12,000.
Pione grapes were first developed in the Shizuoka Prefecture in 1957. They were developed from the Kyoho grape and have become the third most popular table grape in Japan.
They are large, seedless, purple skinned grapes with a very sweet flavor. Some have compared the taste to Welch’s grape juice. The grape’s dark purple-red skin is thick and smooth. If you see a bluish film on the grape, don’t be alarmed. It’s a natural protective coating that prevents disease and moisture loss. Inside, the flesh is a pale and translucent green that has a firm, jelly-like consistency.
While pione grapes are meant to be eaten, they have been used for a special variety of rosè wine.
Kyoho grapes are a popular variety of black grape, and their cultivation is considered an art form with rigid rules. Bunches are pruned to contain no more than 35 evenly spaced bunches. Any more than that, and they won’t be as sweet.
They produce large seeds and juicy flesh with high sugar content and mild acidity. They’re also one of the oldest native grapes. Kyoho grapes were first produced in the 1930s as a cross-breed of Ishiharawase and Centennial grape varieties. Today, Kyoho grapes are mainly produced in the Yamanashi and Nagano Prefectures of Japan and sold through luxury fruit retailers.
Kyoho grapes are served as a dessert and meant to be eaten peeled. The skin has a bitter taste that does not pair well with the sweet flesh, giving meaning to the phrase “it’s on the inside that counts.”
You might be wondering how a grape called Delaware wound up in Japan. First off, the grape is named for Delaware, Ohio, where it was first grown, not the state. The seeds were introduced to Japan through international trade and they took off in Japan. Until the turn of the 21st century, Delaware grapes were Japan’s most popular grape before being overtaken by Kyoho grapes.
Still, they are incredibly popular. Because they grow more abundantly than other varieties of Japanese grapes, they are affordable to the lower and middle classes in Japan. They’re regularly given as gifts between friends and family and enjoyed as a sweet table grape.
This red grape is a small to medium size. They grow in tightly packed, clustered oval bunches. The skin is thin, tender, and delicate. It is of the slip-skin variety, whereby skin is able to easily separated from the flesh. They ripen from green to pale red-purple, sometimes appearing almost pink.
Their high sugar concentration contributes to the grape’s sweet, fruity flavor, which makes them a popular grape among children. Thanks to their sweet taste and sweet price point, Delaware grapes make for excellent seasonal gifts to friends, family members, and colleagues.
5. Shine Muscat
Shine Muscat grapes are rapidly becoming one of Japan’s most popular table grapes. They are one of the few breeds of luxury grape that is both seedless and can be eaten, skin and flesh.
Their skin is a little sour, but it provides the perfect contrast with the very sweet flesh. While other varieties of grapes in Japan require that you peel off the skin to enjoy, the thin, edible skin of Shine Muscats make it beloved among grape eaters from children to the elderly. Even though they have thin skins, they don’t squash easily and can stay fresh a long time, which makes them popular with farmers, too.
Shine Muscats were originally developed in 1988 by the National Institute of Fruit Tree Science in Japan. Because they were meant only for the Japan market, NIFTS didn’t register trademark internationally. As a result, South Korea began producing its version of Shine Muscats at a lower price point and are now the main exporters of the grape to Asia. However, if you want to taste the genuine Shine Muscat, then you need to go to Japan.
Koshu grapes are one of Japan’s most popular wine grapes, producing a refreshing white wine. They were the first grapes turned into wine in Japan back in the 1870s. Before then, they were only eaten. They are believed to have been initially introduced to Japan via the Silk Road 1,000 years ago.
These Japanese grapes are grown primarily in the Koshu Valley in Yamanashi Prefecture next to Mount Fuji. The mountain shields the valley from wind and rain that blows in from the Pacific Ocean, and the grape’s thick skin shields it from the effects of humidity.
The pink grapes produce a wine that has a soft, fruity bouquet with hints of citrus, peach and jasmine. The taste is clean, delicate and fresh, pairing well with traditional Japanese cuisine.
The 80 wineries in Yamanashi Prefecture account for just about half of all Koshu grapes produced.
7. Muscat Bailey A
Muscat Bailey A grapes were originally bred a century ago by Kawakami Zenbei, the “grandfather” of Japanese wine who went on to found Suntory, a major spirits distributor. He combined strands of both German and American grapes, creating something beloved among Japanese wine drinkers.
Zenbei wanted to create a grape that could withstand the peaks and valleys of the Japanese climate, and he succeeded. The Muscat Bailey A grapes bloom late in the season to avoid the lingering frost in spring, and then they ripen early to escape the temperature drops of autumn. Additionally, they were bred to be resistant to most diseases, ensuring that they have an abundant harvest.
Muscat Bailey A grapes are grown in Yamanashi Prefecture west of Tokyo. The pink grapes produce light, fruity reds, which are low in both tannins and acidity. They pair best with sushi offerings like tuna sashimi, making them a sought-after wine for eating out.
Wrapping Up Japanese Grapes
In conclusion, the sacred traditions of gifting fruit have given birth to a vibrant grape-producing industry in Japan, where cutting edge science, unique landscapes, and dedicated farming methods have come together to cultivate rare and delicious varieties of Japanese grapes. The next time you’re in Japan, pop into a fruit store and treat yourself to a high-end grape!
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