Not renowned as wine connoisseurs, Tokyoites are nonetheless gaining a keener sense of a good bouquet. Stuart Braun has a taste of what's on offer.

Wine was long a niche drink in Japan, an exotic accompaniment to a meal that took second fiddle to staple beer and spirits. In recent years, however, Tokyo has seen a surfeit of wine importers fill restaurants and liquor stores with a variety of exotic vintages (average yearly wine consumption increased from 5 to 40 million cases between 1970 and 2000). In addition to ever - popular French and Italian wines, a number of smaller boutique vineyards from as far afield as New Zealand and South Africa have started to ease their wares onto Tokyo palates. The increasing variety of hybrid grapes and complex flavors offer a greater opportunity to taste the product, and wine tasting has become a burgeoning Tokyo trend.

Wine tastings in Tokyo were long limited to exclusive wine dinners, featuring, for example, a 1922 bottle of Saint-Milion Grand Cru Classe - held around the five - star hotels of Ginza, Azabu and Akasaka. While it's still possible, for JY120,000, to try the world's most famous boutique wine - the extremely limited edition Screaming Eagle Cabernet from Napa, California - as part of a six-course, six-wine dinner, many wine dinners can now be enjoyed for less than JY10,000.

Adam Schneider of PacRim Wines, who imports a range of relatively obscure Californian wines to Tokyo, says his wine dinners are intimate affairs held at small restaurants for under JY6000 - most often at Ermit in Toritsu Daigaku. He says the shifting fortunes of the economy have contributed to more accessible tasting options. "Changing consumer habits and the general economy (recession and increased competition) are pushing prices more toward the international norm. People are smarter and they are looking for better value," says Schneider. "The wine scene has definitely changed over the past few years," he adds. "There has been a move towards better quality wines as Japanese consumers have increased wine consumption and have begun to recognize differences in tastes." As consumers become more educated, they have also started to experiment with their buying habits. "This will mean that great undiscovered regions - such as California's Mendocino, Amador, Monterey and Central Coast - and interesting varietals - Viognier, Pinot Blanc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, etc. - will become more popular as well," he concludes.

If you're looking to make tastings regular events on your social calendar, a number of clubs offer consistent access to the latest wines. The Tokyo Wine Society (TWS), for instance, was established seven years ago as a forum for connoisseurs from both the Japanese and foreign community. Shoichi Okuyama, president of the TWS, says that in addition to being a "good forum for people to get drunk," the Society is a unique opportunity to savor a broad selection of wines. "We try everything. We find it is an advantage to be in Tokyo because there is so much diversity," says Okuyama, who argues that the city is becoming a hub for wine from around the world.

The TWS typically charges around JY10,000 for their wine dinners. Held most often at the Shanpia Hotel in Akasaka, the event features an innovative menu of mixed French and Japanese fare prepared by a dedicated chef to complement the vin rouge - the theme in July was wines of Germany, Italy, Spain, and France. Limited to 30 guests - get in early with your reservation - these are French - style "blind" tastings in which nine unmarked wines are presented. Standouts from recent tastings include the Providence red from New Zealand, classed, says Okuyama, as a "super wine" and currently gaining a strong following worldwide.

While French wines have long dominated the Japan market, there is a strong move toward "New World" wines says Emily Eden, president of the Japan International Wine Challenge, the largest wine competition in Asia. This year's challenge, held in July, featured 1400 wines from 21 countries. Eden says the "overwhelming trend" this year is toward wines from Australia and California, reflecting the fact that "Japan is rapidly becoming as cosmopolitan in its drinking as the rest of the world."

So what should one look for in the quest for a great wine? Schneider says that "complexity" alludes to that elusive quality where many layers of flavor can be discerned, while superior "balance" combines all flavor and taste components in almost miraculous harmony. In the end, however, judging whether a dry, delicate, crisp or tart finish defines a good wine is, as they say, a matter of taste.

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Upcoming Events

Tokyo Wine Club
Shanpia Hotel, Akasaka. Wed, Sept 11 from 7pm, JY11,000. Reservation required.
Email:  Fax: 03-3584-7259.

Japan Wine Challenge Gala Dinner
To honor the trophy winners, this year the Gala Dinner is being held at the Hilton Tokyo in Shinjuku-seven trophy-winning wines will be served. Wed, Oct 10. Reservation required. Info: Japan Wine Challenge, 2/f Amagi Annex Building, 7-7-8 Roppongi, Minato-ku, tel: 5771-2440.

Shimokawa Wine Club
Shimokawa wine club, Hyogo. Sun, Aug 19 from 2pm, JY5000. Reservation required. Info: 078-221-3434, fax: 078-242-0004.

Suntory Factory Harvest Festival
Suntory Yamanashi Factory. Fri, Aug 24-Mon, Oct 8. Reservation not required. Tel: 0551-28-3232.

Printemps Ginza B1 Wine Tasting Bar
You can taste vintage wine or adviser-recommended wine from JY500 a glass.
Printemps Ginza, Tokyo. Every Fri 5-7:30pm, Sat-Sun 1-7:30pm, from JY500. Reservation not required. Info: 03-3567-0077.

Odeur wine tasting
Maison d’Odeur, Jiyugaoka. Sun, Sept 9, 11:30-3am, JY21,000.
Reservation required. Tel: 03-3724-3631, fax: 03-3724-3632
PacRim Wines
Future wine dinners to be announced. Contact: