Wine, contrary to what we’ve always been taught in the West, doesn’t have to be made from grapes.
There are a growing number of amateur, home-based winemakers who insist that wine shouldn’t just be made from grapes, as there is a world of fruit that can be used to create an almost infinite variety of wine.
A year ago, we would have questioned that logic and would have sided with Bacchus and cursed the idea that wine could be made from any other fruit except for beloved grapes.
But a lot can change in twelve months, the world can be turned upside down, governments can rise and fall, and a die-hard group of grape fanatics can be forced to question everything that they thought they knew about wine, with the gift of a single bottle of Umeshu.
Umeshu is a wine unlike any other we’ve ever had. Sweet, slightly thicker in body, and with a lower ABV (alcohol by volume) content than most American and European wines, it’s a Japanese drink that’s made from Ume plums and liquor.
Commonly called plum wine, it isn’t made in the same way that wine is in the West, and unlike Sake isn’t really a wine as much as it is a liqueur, Umeshu is a light, refreshing alcoholic drink that is a perfect base for cocktails and is delightful when served with ice.
Think of it as a lighter, less alcoholic brandy or much subtler Port or Sherry, and you’ll be closer to what Umeshu really is. It is a wine, but it’s unlike any wine that you’ve ever had before or will ever have again.
A Brief History Of Plum Wine
Made throughout Japan, the history of Plum wine or Umeshu is almost impossible to define as no one can seem to agree where it comes from or when it was first made.
All that the devotees of this wonderful drink seem to agree about is that it was almost certainly first made in China and while the Ume, the fruit that gives the wine its distinctive flavor is loosely referred to as a plum, but is genetically closer to the apricot.
It might have originally been a Chinese wine, but as it was wholeheartedly embraced by Japan, Umeshu has become a tradition and is an often highly sought-after Japanese liqueur.
Common mythology and legend adhere to the idea that it was made by peasants for its medicinal qualities, as it is thought to be able to soothe sore throats, arthritic pain and cure a common cold.
How much of that belief is actually based on fact or the ability of alcohol to numb pain and make any and all illnesses take a back seat to pleasure, is anyone’s guess.
But as Japan doesn’t strictly regulate or control the production of Umeshu by its population, it would tend to suggest that a nation of homebrewers have probably played a role in pushing the medicinal myth as far, and as hard as they possibly can.
A Wine For Those Who Don’t Like Wine
As we’ve already mentioned, even though it’s labeled as a wine, Umseshu doesn’t actually taste like wine. Its low ABV (alcohol by volume) fades into a low background heat, while the rich taste of apricots and slightly almond-like finish imbue it with an almost sweet brandy-like flavor.
The oddly distinct taste of Plum wine is entirely due to the naturally sour flavor of the Ume, the fruit used to make the wine, and the sugar of the alcohol which makes it utterly unique and almost incomparable, as the Western notion of wine is completely subsumed by the powerful complexity of Umeshu.
Here’s To Good Health
The idea that Umeshu could be beneficial to the health and wellbeing of anyone who enjoyed a glass of wine just wouldn’t go away, and in 2007 the Japanese government commissioned a report to finally get to the bottom of the mystery once and for all.
And it found that… Umeshu wasn’t any better or worse for those who enjoyed it than a glass of red wine was.
It contains a similar level of tannins and antioxidants to red wine, both of which can help to prevent cancer and heart disease, but it isn’t a miracle cure for the common cold, it won’t cure arthritis and it certainly won’t stop your throat from hurting.
Unless you drink too much of it, and then it’ll stop everything hurting, until you wake up the next morning. Is Plum wine good for you?
Yes, in the same way, that red wine is, but if you’re looking for a marvelous, magical miracle cure for whatever it is that ails you, Umeshu isn’t it.
A Thousand Different Wines For A Thousand Different Palettes
As you’d expect with a drink that has become a national institution, there is a seemingly endless variety of different Umeshu, all of which are delightful. Or at least, we assume that they are, as we haven’t had the opportunity or chance to try anywhere near all of them.
But we can tell you about four of our personal favorites that have reinforced our faith in the belief that the humble Ume is just as important to “wine” making as the grape is.
We know twelves of devotion isn’t the same as a lifetime of flavor, but we have used that time wisely and invested it well, which is why we’re confident that you’ll feel the same way about these four varieties of Umeshu as we do.
Choya Umeshu – As soon as you open the bottle, the fruit-rich, sweetness of this wine sweeps over you and beckons you to try it. It’s a near-perfect symbiosis of flavor and alcohol, and a perfect introduction to plum wine.
Choya Ume Blanc – This was an Umeshu that was actually recommended to us in a Japanese restaurant by our waiter who told us that it was made using green Ume that were picked before they were ripe and would serve as an ideal accompaniment to dessert.
He was right, and it’s been a fixture on our wine menu ever since.
Choya Kokuto – Quite possibly the sweetest wine we’ve ever tasted, as it combines brown sugar with the fruit sweet flavor of Umeshu, and imbues the wine with an almost syrupy consistency.
It’s an incredible taste experience, but it’s the best drunk in moderation, not because it’s particularly alcoholic, but because it’s so sweet that the sugar content alone can power you to the highest of sugar highs if you’re not careful.
Takara Plum Wine – This was the Umeshu that started it all for us. A family friend bought a bottle for us to share while we were visiting EPCOT, and the first sip quite literally changed our lives.
It was a taste unlike anything we’d ever experienced, and one that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. Sweet, warm, and endlessly enticing, Takara’s Plum Wine proved that our theory about grapes being the only fruit was one born from Western ignorance.
Give yourself over to absolute Eastern pleasure and luxuriate in the depth of flavor that only Takara can bless you with.
The Six Secrets Of Umeshu
The simple truth is, we’re as smitten by Umeshu as generations of Japanese wine fanatics were before us, and while we’re more than partial to Sake, it can’t even begin to compare to the rich, delicately sweet flavor of Plum wine.
And to submerge you a little more deeply in the world of strange wine that we found ourselves in, we’re going to share the Six Secrets of Umeshu with you.
Drink The Wine, Eat The Fruit – When it’s made in jars by Japanese homebrewers, as soon as they’ve finished drinking the wine, they then eat the fruit. The liquor adds an additional sweetness to this normally bitter fruit that becomes a cherished delicacy when the wine is finished.
Nothing is wasted and everything is savored.
It’s A Health Thing – Maybe we were a little harsh when we dismissed the possible health benefits of Umeshu earlier, as it’s a part of modern folklore that just won’t go away, and as the old saying goes, “There’s no smoke without fire”, so there must be some substance to the old wives tale, mustn’t there?
After all, it has been scientifically proven that drinking plum wine is as good for you as drinking red wine is, so that does lend it a little credence…
No Laws, No Rules – The Japanese government doesn’t regulate or restrict the production of Umeshu in the home of its citizens, so anyone can make their own Umeshu.
And with hundreds of millions of possible home brewers, the possibilities for Umeshu are almost endless. And you thought that we made a lot of wine in the West….
Pickled Plums Never Go Bad – As long as they’re pickled in the wine that they make, the Ume plums at the bottom of a jar will never rot, or go bad. At least that’s what the Japanese say, but we’d beg to differ as we know that everything has a shelf life.
But, as long as the plums are resting at the bottom of a jar of Umeshu, they should be good for a couple of years at least. And they’ll keep on adding flavor to the liquor that surrounds them. It just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?
Umeshu Means… – Umeshu is a combination of two Japanese words that literally means “Fruit Liquor” (Ume-Shu), but as the word Ume is now used to describe the plum used to make the wine, “Umeshu” is used in the West as a way to describe plum wine, even though technically it doesn’t mean that.
But, if the shoes fits, we say you wear it.
Don’t Eat The Fruit Before You Pickle It – You can’t eat Ume before they’re used to make Umeshu as they’re much too sour.
After they’ve been pickled in liquor for a couple of months they’re great but before that… Not so much, and you wouldn’t want to feed them to your worst enemy. Trust us, you really wouldn’t.
The Final Umeshu Word
And that’s about it for our brief guide to Umeshu, and we hope that you’ll be tempted to try it and that when you do, as it did for us, plum wine will change your life.