With export sales hovering over the last fifteen year between $33 and $55 million dollars annually, Japan has been outshone in spectacular fashion by the growth of the China market for Australian wine. While the introduction in 2015 of the Japan–Australia Economic Partnership Agreement has seen growth from $40 million to $51 million (the figure for the 12 months ending June 2019), it remains baffling that one of the world’s three largest economies, a wine market of great maturity and Australia’s second-largest trading partner takes such a tiny proportion of our wine.

According to Wine Intelligence, there are 30 million regular wine drinkers in Japan of whom almost half are aged 55 and over. It’s not surprising that Old World producers, France especially, dominate this market. However, as seen in many Asian countries, an emerging younger group aged between 20-24 is showing more willingness to experiment with different wines. While Chile currently dominates Japan’s taste for cheaper wine, Wine Intelligence has evidence to suggest that buyers are looking to move more upmarket. And right now, little is being done by Australia to steer them our way.

One individual who is doing his bit to turn Japanese palates towards Australia is Ron Brown, a former military officer turned lawyer turned restaurateur and wine and spirit industry executive whose direct experience in Japan goes back to 1981 after he learned the Japanese language. Today, as the owner and maker of Maverick, a small and sustainably-focused Barossa producer, and as the individual behind Japan’s International Wine Challenge (Asia’s first professional wine competition), he’s well qualified to talk about the scale of the opportunity presented by Japan and what Australian makers might do to seize more of it.

Brown pinpoints the sophistication of the alcoholic beverage distribution system in Japan and the huge numbers of highly trained sommeliers and wine professionals in the country as key advantages not shared by other markets. ‘Take the 10,000 members of the Japan Sommelier Association plus the 10,000 in other associations and you have a great basis of knowledge to tap into’, says Brown, who concedes that the French, as they are prone to do, have taken the high ground. 

‘The Japanese are also a very cultured people who are deeply interested in what is happening in the rest of the world’, he says. ‘They also have an inbuilt thirst for wine knowledge and an appreciation of education and training.

‘Over the last 20-30 years wine has also become so much more available in Japan. You can drop into a supermarket almost anywhere in the country and you’ll find wines on the shelves from many of the most famous regions.’

Except ours.

Australia’s relationship with high-end Japanese consumers came to an abrupt end with the recession of the 1990s, but even prior to then, we weren’t really able to entice Japanese visitors south of our tropical resorts and tourist destinations and capitalise on their spending power. Brown suggests we became pigeonholed in a way that we’re not experiencing today with visitors from China, who are developing a deep affinity with Australia’s southern and more urban culture. ‘Australia was never really properly explained to the Japanese in a way they could relate to’, he says.

So what do we need to do better in Japan? It’s not rocket science. Australia needs Japanese-speaking Australians to connect deeply with and educate this highly professional market, to rebuild a focus on the mid and upper categories of Australian wine and to show them the kinds of wine that appeal to their tastes. And that can’t be done remotely – it needs boots on the ground. 

Australian wine used to be promoted with energy in Japan, but our focus today is almost exclusively on China, the US and the UK. 

It’s a common view amongst leading exporters that Japanese wine drinkers believe that Australian red wine, shiraz in particular, is just too rough and clunky for them. While it’s true that our traditional richer styles are significantly less suited to this market, that perception should be easy to redress. The Japan buyer tends to favour reds of more elegance and complexity, which should indicate a pathway for makers in our cooler and less arid regions. Varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay resonate strongly with Japanese wine drinkers. And while there’s no denying the conservatism of Japan’s wine market, Wine Intelligence places 22% of Japanese wine drinkers under the age of 34 – a group certainly crying out for this kind of attention.

Despite all this, Ron Brown has found a way to succeed in Japan for his Barossa-based Maverick wines, which are typically more gentle and supple than most of their peers. Working hard to cement a place for his high-end wines – since Brown says you can only market from the top down in Japan – he’s listed across the country’s leading 5-star hotels, best restaurants and department stores. 

‘The Japanese just don’t see wine as an Australian thing’, he says. ‘We lack an official presence in the market and most Australian makers consider Japan just to be too difficult.’

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider Japan and to use this kind of experience to do it properly. Looking ahead, should it really represent one-twentieth of our sales to China?