Japan’s reputation as a conservative market which has reached a natural plateau is looking increasingly outdated, according to a Wine Intelligence report – and it’s the 20-34 age group that’s doing most to shake things up.

Japan is a country where respecting elders is engrained in the culture. But, that doesn’t mean that younger people don’t branch out with ideas of their own. Indeed, the country’s wine market, which once seemed in serious danger of stagnating, has recently been quietly revitalised by adventurous consumers who are making different choices to those of their parents.

It’s a welcome development. The Japanese economic situation has been problematic for a decade or more, and the 2011 earthquake only added to the pressure. It hardly created a favourable environment for wine sales to thrive.

And yet, wine has experienced a mini-boom. Volumes have increased by nearly 17% over three years, with the growth split equally between imported wines and the domestic alternatives. Wine Intelligence research reveals that younger consumers are feeling more confident and knowledgeable about wines, and keen to explore the wine category.

Wine is already a widely-established drink in Japan, especially by Asian standards. More than half of Japan’s 103.2m adults are wine drinkers, and 47.4m can be classified as regular consumers – in other words, they drink wine at least once a month. Just under half of these people drink wine on a weekly basis, or even more frequently.

This doesn’t make Japan a huge market in global terms. In 2011, still wine volumes stood at a fairly modest 28m cases, ranking Japan 23rd in the world league table, behind much smaller nations like Hungary or Croatia but ahead of Austria, Sweden and Denmark. Compound annual growth of nearly 5% has been recorded over the past five years.

And, although the 20- to 34-year-old demographic shares many commonalities with older groups – a marked preference for red wine, for example – there are some interesting differences.

Consumers in the younger age bracket are much more likely to say they have a strong interest in wine, and more likely to take some time over their buying decision – indeed, they attach much more importance to the decision-making process than all other age groups.

And, despite their youth, members of this group are more than twice as likely to feel competent about their wine knowledge than those from any other demographic. Sixteen per cent of the 20-34 age group make this claim, double the figure recorded in the same survey a year ago.

Younger Japanese consumers also base their buying decisions on different criteria to their older peers. Japanese drinkers as a whole say that the country and region of origin are the most important considerations, and this holds true for younger consumers too. But the 20-34 group attaches more importance to several other factors that are less pronounced in the older age brackets. 

Grape variety plays a bigger role, along with the appearance of the bottle and label, the alcohol content and any form of recommendation – whether it comes from friends, family members, store staff or critics. Young Japanese wine drinkers are ready to listen to advice, from wherever it may emerge – or, more accurately, they’re more open to such recommendations than older consumers.

It would be misleading to portray all young Japanese drinkers as adventurous and experimental, however. Most of them say they don’t mind what they buy, as long as the price is right. That’s something that holds true for the wine-buying population as a whole, though more than a quarter of those in the 20-34 group say they enjoy trying new and different styles on a regular basis, and relatively few say they usually stick to what they know.

That’s a particularly interesting statistic, because younger Japanese drinkers are more likely than older consumers to describe wine as an expensive drink. It seems that, despite economic hardship and a relative lack of disposable income, the under-35s enjoy seeking out unfamiliar wines.

France leads the field in the Japanese market, and younger consumers are more likely than most to choose a French wine. Chilean wines are the next most likely to be consumed, helped partly by a free trade agreement which has led to a sales explosion.

But, younger drinkers are also developing a taste for the wines of Australia, New Zealand, Hungary and Bulgaria in a way that is not seen among the older demographics – though the 20-34 group shares the Japanese enthusiasm for wine from Italy, Germany, Spain and California. It’s less likely than any other age bracket to drink Japanese wines. Grape varieties like Gamay, Malbec and Zinfandel are also much more likely to be on the radar screens of younger consumers.

This youthful impetus is one of the reasons why Wine Intelligence recently reclassified Japan as a 'High Growth Established Market', alongside countries like the US, Canada and New Zealand. The economic clouds have not exactly lifted, and there is no guarantee that the 20-34 age group is going to have sufficient disposable income to live up to the expectations of Japanese market watchers. But, it’s reassuring to see that the foundations are in place.

It’s too early to say whether Japan is about to shake off its reputation as a conservative wine market. But we can definitely say that younger drinkers are behaving differently, and the signals they’re sending off give cause for optimism. Japan may yet surprise us all.

The Japan Landscapes Report 2012 is published by Wine Intelligence.