Global and local: the world of wine law


First produced thousands of years ago, wine is loved around the world. Europe, in particular, has many laws aimed at protecting production areas and ensuring quality. In 2015, wine labeling standards were introduced to Japan, marking the first time that clear rules based on legal grounds were used to indicate production areas and varieties. Professor Ebihara is a leading expert on wine law, having worked in this area long before wine law became widely known in Japan. Informed by both global and local perspectives, his work addresses the various legal issues involved in wine production and distribution, including climate change and diplomacy.

Kensuke Ebihara Professor, Department of Global Legal Studies, Faculty of Law After completing the doctoral course in Public Law at Ritsumeikan University in 2000, Ebihara joined the MGU Faculty of Law in April of the same year. He has been teaching in the Department of Global Legal Studies since 2018. Ebihara’s fields of specialty include EU law, wine law, and public law. He started researching and teaching wine law at Meiji Gakuin in 2006 and now teaches Japan’s only seminar on wine law. A member of the board of directors of the International Wine Law Association (AIDV), Ebihara won an OIV Award for his 2014 book, Hajimete no wain-hō [An introduction to wine law] (Koyusha). This award is one of the most prestigious accolades in the wine world.

Wine law: The rules of wine

Wine law is currently my primary area of research. I imagine that for most people, wine law is an unfamiliar subject. It is a field that has not really been studied in Japan, and Meiji Gakuin is the only Japanese university that offers a concentration in wine law.

It’s widely known that a wine cannot be called Champagne unless it was produced in the Champagne region of France in compliance with French product specifications. Regulations and standards like these are collectively known as “wine law.”

Wine law is very broad; it covers all manner of wine-related rules, such as acquisition of land for viniculture, cultivation and harvest of grapes, wine-making methods, distribution, sales, and purchasing. Of these many regulations, the most unique ones pertain to labels and indication of product origin.

Why are these labeling rules unique to wine law? The reason is that wine is made only using grapes, so the characteristics of those grapes are closely related to the type of wine that is produced. Grapes are greatly affected by the natural conditions under which they are grown, including soil type, temperatures, amount of sunlight, and weather. Even for grapes of the same variety, fields separated by just a few hundred meters can produce fruit with completely different flavors. The source of the grapes is therefore extremely important for determining the quality and price of a wine. There's a clear difference in the price of Champagne and sparkling wine. Moreover, depending on their place of origin, some wines can potentially cost millions of yen, while others having the very same net weight but produced elsewhere can be bought for just 500 yen. I doubt that any other beverage has such a range in prices. The rules regarding place-of-origin labeling are thus very important for protecting manufacturer profits and for helping consumers choose products that fit their tastes and budgets.

Labeling rules gain traction in Japan

Until just a few years ago, labeling of wine origins and grape varieties in Japan was left to the voluntary standards of industry groups. No compulsory regulations were put into place until 2015, when the National Tax Agency issued a notice for labeling standards to be enforced in 2018. These rules defined a “Japan wine” as one fermented within Japan using only domestic grapes. Wines that fit these criteria could therefore be labeled as such.

The rules also stipulate that labels must list place of origin, grape variety, and year of harvest for at least 85 percent of a wine’s contents. Producers made great efforts to meet these strict standards, resulting in new wineries in grape-producing regions and new vineyards appearing near existing wineries. In recent years, new wineries have been opening at a steady pace throughout the country, and I believe this to be a result of wine law becoming better established here.

Japan’s geographical indication (GI) protection system is another important set of laws related to wine labeling. Geographical indications for agricultural and food products have also been introduced as part of a system aimed at providing legal protection for regional brands by establishing production standards and quality regulations for individual production areas. As of July 2021, there are geographical indications for wines from Yamanashi, Hokkaido, Yamagata, Nagano, and Osaka, and more will be created in the future. Although Japan wine is not currently regulated for quality, I believe there will be a need for at least minimal standards in the future.

The complexities of wine law: issues in labeling wine as “Koshu”

Exporting Japan wine to Europe may seem like a simple task, but there were once various legal barriers to doing so.

Around fifteen years ago, Japanese cuisine experienced a sudden increase in popularity. Producers, especially those based in Yamanashi, sensed a prime opportunity for exporting wines to Europe. As an expert in the field, I was asked to help out.

Koshu is a type of grape variety that is frequently used in Japanese wine. At first, the producers had hoped to use Koshu to emphasize the uniqueness of Japan wine, but there was a big problem. The EU has very strict wine laws, and labels on wines sold there can list only officially recognized grape varieties. Originally, these varieties included grapes used around the world, such as Chardonnay and Merlot, but not Koshu, which was specific to Japan. Japanese winemakers were thus not allowed to write Koshu on their labels. After some investigation, we learned that varieties registered with L’Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV) could be listed on EU wine labels, so once Koshu was registered, wine could be labeled as such in the EU.

The next problem was writing placenames. As a general rule, only those names specified as geographical indications are protected in the EU, meaning there would be no legal recourse even if counterfeit products bearing the same name entered the market. To safely sell wine labeled “Yamanashi” in the EU, then, Yamanashi had to be first designated as a geographical indication in Japan in order to be protected in the EU. In 2013, “GI Yamanashi” was officially designated as the first geographical indication for Japan wine, and the rules for safe export were finally put in place.

The Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between Japan and the EU, which came into effect in 2019, simplified procedures for exporting Japan wine to the EU. In this way, establishing wine law in Japan also has important international implications.

Courses and seminars that emphasize on-site learning

My first specialty was French public law. In 2005, I had the opportunity to conduct overseas research at the University of Montpellier in southern France. Montpellier has long been a center of wine production in the Languedoc region of southern France, but declining wine sales posed a serious problem for the region at that time. Affordable wines from the Southern Hemisphere and North America had become increasingly available, and European wines in relatively cheap price ranges were no longer selling well. Having seen protesting wine-industry workers up close, I began to wonder how things got to be the way they were. This experience, along with my growing interest in wine-related policy in the EU, led me to research wine law.

Some graduate schools overseas offer courses in wine law, and there are international conferences related to wine law, but few Japanese researchers are active in the field. As one of the first, I am finding it difficult to establish an entire academic field, but it is a rewarding experience nonetheless.

In my wine law courses, I have students plan specific projects related to winery management. I then ask them to consider what legal problems might arise during the implementation of their projects, and how they might solve them. I believe this gives them an opportunity to further their studies while utilizing what they have already learned about law and politics. I also offer special classes led by wine importers and viniculturists. In doing so, I hope to give students the opportunity to learn from experts outside the university.

Students from other faculties often ask to audit my classes, and some of my students make visits to wineries to ask questions and learn more. These students no doubt realize that they are part of the select few that have the opportunity to specialize in wine law at a Japanese university. I think that this gives many of them a sense of pride and the motivation to engage in self-directed study.

In my seminars, I make it a point to take students outside the classroom to learn about wine law. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we took field trips to wineries in Yamanashi, Nagano, the Tohoku area, and Hokkaido. Now, we’re growing hops on the Shirokane campus to brew beer as part of a social outreach program. Students are growing and harvesting hops in collaboration with the East Japan Railway Company. They are also working with other businesses to choose logos, product concepts, label designs, and more. I hope these kinds of practical activities will help them acquire communication skills that can be used in society, and I hope they will help them learn about working with the community.

Sustainability in the wine industry

Sustainability is a growing trend in the global wine industry. Grapes are susceptible to disease and insects, so viniculture has traditionally used a lot of pesticides. Furthermore, shipping and cultivation produce significant carbon emissions. As temperatures continue to increase due to global warming, it will become possible to cultivate grapes in regions where it was once too cold to do so, but there are concerns that some famous wine-producing regions will become too hot to produce quality wines.

Wine-producing regions are taking various measures to meet these challenges. These include switching to organic farming, reducing bottle weights, and developing and registering new grape varieties that can be adapted to global warming. Some wine districts in France are trying to incorporate sustainability requirements into their labeling rules, and this movement is expected to grow in the foreseeable future.

Maintaining regionalism in the international wine market

Wine is a global product, but at the same time it is also extremely local. Even two thousand years ago, long before national borders existed as they do today, wine was bought and sold across great distances. Two-thirds of the wine consumed in Japan is imported, as are seventy percent of the ingredients used to produce the remaining one-third. Wine also plays a role in diplomatic issues. In 2019, U.S. President Trump imposed additional tariffs on French wines in retaliation for trade conflicts with the EU. China also made headlines in 2020 when it imposed import duties exceeding 200 percent on some Australian wines.

Nevertheless, Champagne can only be made in France’s Champagne region, and Nagano wine can only be produced in Nagano. While factories can be moved to countries with lower labor costs, wine-producing regions cannot be relocated. The key questions for wine are: what type of grapes were used, and where was it produced? The region is so important that it, along with quality, effectively determines the price. I can’t think of any other food product that has such strict labeling requirements. In that sense, wine is an extremely local product. At the same time, wines are now sold globally, and it is now necessary to protect regional brands both domestically and abroad.

In the Department of Global Legal Studies, students learn about issues in multinational trade from legal perspectives. By teaching and researching wine law, I hope to consider global issues, increase the value of regional products, protect brands, and contribute to regional revitalization.