Sake has long been not only the preferred beverage in Japan but also emblematic of Japanese culture and heritage–but now plum wine is giving sake some stiff competition.
Umeshu is a plum wine that has gained traction in recent years even as sales of Sake continue to also rise. With no current European Union tariffs on Japanese liquor, it’s perhaps easy to see why both drinks are growing in popularity, but plum wine is a bit of a surprise to some.
It’s not just in Japan that plum wine is being enjoyed, either. The United States continues to increase its share of Japanese wine imports, with an increase of a staggering nearly nineteen million dollars of wine imports for the 2018 calendar year.
Of course, that’s for the Japanese wine market overall, but all signs point to plum wine as a promising newcomer and a way to help Japanese wine find even greater market prominence worldwide.
But what even is plum wine, and is it worth the hype? Read on and we’ll give you tips on how to find the best plum wine so you can enjoy it to its fullest.
Is plum wine really overtaking traditional Saki?
There is little evidence that plum wine, of any kind, will completely inundate sales of Saki, either in Japan or worldwide. That’s in part because traditional Saki has such a rich history.
Saki’s origins can be traced back as far as five hundred B.C. in China. It is thought that it used to be made by villagers chewing rice and nuts and spitting them into a public tub for fermentation. Thankfully the process became far more refined as time went on–by the 1300s Sake gained prominence in Japan and was being produced at accelerating the speed in distilleries.
Sake could be found at traditional Japanese ceremonies, and the Meiji Restoration area, during the early 1900s, opened up the ability for anyone with proper resources to make Sake.
The result? Today though only two thousand distilleries for Sake exist, it continues to rise in popularity in the global market and remains a symbol of Japanese culture.
That isn’t to say, however, that plum wine isn’t gaining prominence. Because of Saki’s rich history, it’s compelling to see just how much traction plum wine is gaining, both in Japanese culture and abroad.
Just how big is plum wine becoming in Japan?
When we look at the rise of plum wine in Japan, all eyes are focused on Umeshu, whose sales have doubled in a five year period, from eight to thirty-eight million dollars. Umeshu is made with the ume fruit, which is aged and fermented with the stone left inside. The drink is known for citrus infused, tart notes and almond flavor accents.
But that isn’t the only kind of plum wine–in fact, unknown to some, plum wine also has a foothold in Japanese culture. Much of plum wine produced in Japan comes from plum trees that produce cherry blossoms, long a symbol of Japanese culture. Some of the most ancient poetry collections in Japan mention cherry blossoms often, with one mentioning the trees and blossoms over forty times.
Japanese plum wine has also earned acclaim in recent years, snagging wins for the Monde Selection Awards in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, as well as the brand Choya winning producer of the year at the U.K.’s International Spirits Challenge.
What is ume fruit?
Ume fruit is the base of most plum wine. Ume plums are usually prepared one of two ways: either pickled or made into plum wine. The growing season is ephemeral, usually a relatively short period of time at the beginning of summer.
You may be surprised that ume plums are not grown exclusively in Japan and China. In fact, though these fruits are called plums, they are actually most similar to what we know as an apricot. Both cherry trees are Japanese plum trees produce ume fruit.
As far as appearance, ume fruit tends to be rather small, often smaller than a golf ball, and present with a yellow-green hue, sometimes with peach undertones.
They actually cannot be enjoyed raw as most stone fruit can; due to their high levels of astringency, ume fruit must be pickled or fermented into plum wine to be edible.
Are there health benefits to plum wine?
You may have heard of potential–but sometimes conflicting health benefits of red wine such as Merlot–but plum also potentially has some health benefits. That’s because the ume fruit has several salubrious qualities, including:
- Antioxidant levels akin to cherry and raspberry based wines
- Potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and zinc
Plum wine also contains lower levels of histamines, which can produce reactions or headaches in some. If you find yourself drinking a glass of red wine, such as Malbec and getting a headache, but have little problems when drying a white sparkling wine such as Prosecco, you may have a histamine sensitivity–and plum wine could be a good option.
Of course, there are also drawbacks to plum wine. In of itself, alcohol is a source of calories, but plum wine, when it’s sweetened, is also a source of added sugars, which should be limited,and this, as with any alcoholic beverage, should be consumed in moderation.
How is plum wine made?
This is where it’s a little tricky because the term plum wine is sometimes misused. Just a quick search and you may find recipes using American plums–but for the most part, and for the purposes of this article, when we’re discussing plum wine, we’re referring to Japanese and Chinese plums, which have that famous astringency.
The process of making plum wine actually is helpful in understanding how the wine develops flavor and signature characteristics:
- Unripe plums are harvested in early summer, typically June
- The inner pedicel is removed, often by machine
- Fermentation begins, with the addition of sugar during fermentation, plums are often submerged in fruit alcohol and infused with other flavors
What is Choya?
If you’re looking to find the best plum wine, chances are at least a bottle of Choya will be on your list. Boasting international awards and prominent sales, Choya began grape cultivation in 1917 and today is perhaps the most prominent producers of true plum wine. It now has operations across Japan, China, and Taiwan. Choya also opened a location in San Francisco in 1998, and more recently, in both Singapore and Poland.
How does plum wine compare with red wine?
As we’ve already mentioned, compared with red wine, such as Cabernet Franc, plum wine is lower in histamines. Plum wine is classed as fruit wine, meaning simply that it’s categorized by the type of fruit, as opposed to the grape variety.
The reason sugar is added to make plum wine is that compared with grapes, there are far lower levels of naturally occurring sugars available for fermentation. Though sweet plum wine can be made, from ripe red plums, most of the best plum wine is made from Japanese plums.
Plum wine is not inherently better or worse than red wine–it’s simply different and a little less known. Instead of grape variety, much of the variations of plum wine come from the fermentation process itself, as well as flavor infusion during the fermentation process.
Plum wine gets less recognition, but that’s mostly due to the fact that unlike red or white wine, it’s not produced with grapes.
The final difference? Color. Though some Western plum wines are made with red plums, traditional Japanese plum wines are closer in color to white wine, though some are blended with other fruits, included dark cherries for a light red hue.
What are the most common ways to drink plum wine?
For plum wine made from Western origins, using regular plums, it’s most often sweetened and served as a dessert wine. Japanese plum wine, on the other hand, is a semi-dry or dry wine and most commonly served one of the following ways:
- An exception to dry is a sparkling Umeshu, which is often served during summer as a dessert or appetizer wine
- Oak aged, for a bolder, more rounded flavor
- Fermented with brown sugar for more potent fragrant notes
- Unfiltered, or cloudy, which contains flavorful pulp with robust flavor notes and added texture
What are the main characteristics of the best plum wine?
In order to find the best plum wine, you need to be able to recognize the signature characteristics of plum wine. For each category, we’ll give you some details about the normal properties of true plum wine, and, when applicable, how to find the plum wines offering the very best of those properties.
- What rule do tannins play in finding the best plum wine? Unlike a red wine like Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, fruit wines, in general, are fairly low naturally in tannins. Tannins produce an astringent, bitter taste similar to black tea, but it also adds complexity. However, Japanese plums are a source of tannins and are superior to other fruit for fruit wines in that they do not necessarily require tannins to be added.
- The best plum wines include a moderate to a high level of tannins, which adds complexity and structure.
- Is Western or Japanese plum wine better? To be fair, Japanese vs Western plum wine is a matter of preference in some ways. I case it’s still unclear, Japanese plum wine is produced using ume fruit, which is most similar to apricots but inedible on its own. Western plum wine uses what we know as plums, which are naturally sweet, red or purple, and consumed fresh.
- Japanese plum wine tends to be more astringent, higher in acidity, and brighter, with bolder flavors, and often used for dry wines. Western plum wines tend to be more subdued, lower in acidity and is most popular for sweet dessert wines.
- If you like a bold, dry wine, Japanese plum wine will be more to your taste. If you are looking for a dessert wine, Western plum wine may have some more options, but you can still also purchase dessert Japanese plum wines, including sparkling varieties.
- In terms of national awards, Japanese plum wine appears to have received more acclaim and recognition. Overall, Japanese plum wine offers more in terms of bold, signature flavors, but is less useful as a dessert wine.
- There’s also less variation of quality. Japanese plums refer to a specific variety, but plums, in general, could refer to many varieties and origins.
- What flavor notes are best in plum wine? To find the best plum wine, you want to look for apple, pear, and fruity fragrant flavor notes. The plum wine should contain flavor notes within the same general family and be described as bright and refreshing–when looking for the best plum wine, it’s better to think in terms of a sprightly white wine as opposed to a rich red wine. Bright acidity should complement signature fruit flavors for a pleasing glass. A low acid plum wine will not produce as fresh or bright of a flavor.
- Some of the best plum wines are described as both sweet and sour, for a pleasant blend of flavors that feel both refreshing but also interesting on the palate.
- Less common, but a delightful flavor twist, is spicy elements, such as chili pepper. The blend of heat and sweeter notes makes for a zesty and nuance plum wine.
- Aged, or toasted plum wines, meanwhile produce a smoother plum wine.
- Where does the best plum wine come from? We’ve already somewhat addressed plum wine origin, in that wine made from Japanese plums is generally preferable, but when it comes to who produces the wine, it need not necessarily come from Japan. Look for a distillery with a history of producing authentic plum wine; even better if it has garnered international acclaim. Choya is the leading and award-winning producers of plum wine.
- What ingredients should I look for? All plum wine needs three key ingredients: plums, sugar, and alcohol. Beyond that though, different ingredients will impact the flavor and quality of the wine. Ripe plums, of course, will produce a more astringent taste, while mature plums will produce a smoother, slightly richer taste. But one of the most important ingredients to look for, in Japanese plum one, is Kishuu. Kishuu refers to the highest quality plum and is also known as a “South High Plum”.
- Avoid fakes. There are many beverages packed under the label of plum wine, so always be careful before purchasing. Suspects are exceptionally cheap bottles and bottles that have been heavily flavored with flavor notes that don’t make sense, such as bananas. Some bottles are sold where plums have not truly undergone the process of fermentation.
Can you summarize some easy ways to find the best plum wine?
First of all, most of the time, Japanese plums are more consistent in quality and produce more flavorful plum wine. S a bonus, South High plums will represent top quality fruit being used. Bright acidity, medium tannins, and pear, apple and fruity flavor notes are ideal, though accents, including pepper, pair well for a sweet and spicy combination. If you want a smooth wine, however, it should be aged.
What about some specific recommendations?
Here are just a few of the best plum wines you can find at a reasonable price. As always keep in mind that personal preferences do come into play when finding the best plum wine for you.
- Shiraume no Niwa: As a top recommendation, this award-winning Japanese plum wine is aged ten years to produce balanced acidity, complexity, but a surprisingly gentle finish. It’s produced by a brewery that’s been in operation for over a century and a half and uses high-quality Japanese plums for a classic bottle.
- Gekkeikan Plum Wine: This plum wine comes from California, is made from ume plums and is fermented for three years to develop nuanced but not overpowering flavor. Apple and pear notes play well with a prolonged and smoother finish.
- Choya Umeshu Plum Wine with Fruit: Another pleasing Japanese plum wine, it’s made with topic selection ume plums from Wakayama. Pleasant, subtle touches of sweetness are balanced by tart acidity that makes it a good match served alone or in cocktails.
- Kikkoman Plum Wine: Looking for a sweet plum wine? This is a good option. Though the wine originates in Japan, it is pleasantly sweet and not overly complex, adding cherry and dark berry notes to create a pleasing dessert wine. It’s been known to be served in restaurants and while it does not exhibit some of the deeper flavors or brighter acidity, it’s a good option if you’re just starting to try plum wine.
- Hakutsuru – Plum Wine: Our final pick for best plum wine also is produced in Japan and is about as classic of plum wine as you can get, featuring nuanced fermentation and that iconic sweet and sour taste Japanese plum wine is known for. It also has strong flavors from the plums themselves, rather than other infused flavors.