Japan’s Koshu grape has had a chequered past, but its reputation as a food-matching wine par excellence is growing. Anthony Rose reports
During my childhood, I used to eat a lot of Koshu and Moondrops, which are sugar-coated Koshu berries’, says Motoko Ishii, a Japanese wine journalist and consultant. She was not alone. Koshu’s claim to fame today
as Japan’s principal indigenous wine grape variety has gained substantial traction over the past decade, but it
was not always thus.
Koshu was cultivated as an eating grape and discovered, according to legend, when a Buddhist monk named Gyoki received divine inspiration while praying. In a vision, Buddha of Medicine Yakushi Nyorai came to him, holding a bunch of grapes. Following this, Gyoki founded a temple called Daizenji in 718AD and started growing grapes nearby.
The Japanese rather like their legends. According to another story, Koshu was discovered and cultivated in 1186 by Kageyu Amemiya in the Katsunuma region of Yamanashi Prefecture.
There’s a certain plausibility to the second story if only because today, the Yamanashi region is at the heart of Koshu cultivation in Japan. Gyoki or Amemiya would have had to have read Murakami to have imagined that the Koshu grape might one day be the mainstay of a burgeoning Japanese wine industry.
The Shogunate also loved it for its crisp, refreshing qualities, but it wasn’t until Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya, two ex-samurai, were sent to Troyes in Champagne’s Aube region to study grape cultivation and winemaking, that its properties as a wine grape were first properly exploited.
The perfect match
The vista of a Koshu vineyard is of an unlikely series of green canopies suspended from the ground, spreadeagled across six-foot-high pergolas growing in a system known as Tanazukuri. More strangely still, vines the size of small trees grow in Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-style to yield an impossible number of bunches
of pinkish, thin-skinned grapes.
Not prepossessing on the face of it, but the Australian wine journalist Denis Gastin first gave me pause for thought of Koshu’s potential as a partner for Japanese food. Shortly after arriving in Japan in 1984 as Number Two at the Australian Embassy, Gastin bought an unlabelled wine in a drinks store, took it home and drank it with food. It was Koshu.
‘What I was tasting then was a free-run Koshu,’ he said. ‘It has good acidity and the sugar level wasn’t adjusted at that time, so it was crisp and clean and particularly good with Japanese food.’
Although I myself wasn’t that struck with Koshu on my first visit to Japan in 2007, I was impressed with the improvements being made by Grace Winery’s owner, Shigekazu Misawa. He showed me a promising Koshu sur lie that he was making as part of a project with Tokyo wine merchant Ernie Singer and the late Professor Denis Dubourdieu from Bordeaux. Robert Parker scored it 87-88 / 100 and the Japanese duly took note.
As Singer told me: ‘No-one has yet made a wine specifically designed to go with Japanese cuisine. By striving for purity of fruit, there are flavour components that are unique to Japanese cuisine.’
At Ryugin, a Japanese answer to The Fat Duck, in Tokyo’s Roppongi District, I drank the Dubourdieu-inspired Koshu with a grilled snapper and tofu croquette complete with flossy lime foam. A Kenkoji Koshu enlivened sashimi of fat belly tuna, sweet shrimp and flatfish with a variety of seasonings: plum sauce, yuzu powder, shrimp salt and a sting of wasabi.
But it was Grace’s Cuvée Misawa Koshu Toriibira Vineyard that convinced me that it could match food beyond traditional Japanese cuisine when I enjoyed its Chablis-like qualities at Michel Troisgros in Tokyo’s Century Hyatt with wafer-thin scallops in basil and truffle oil and fillet of John Dory in bonito jelly.
Koshu has a number of obstacles to overcome where it’s grown, among them humidity, rain, fertile volcanic soils and competition for space in densely populated, Tuscan-like hill country normally occupied by rice paddies and Sumo-sized table grapes. Sunshine hours in Yamanashi are the longest in Japan – comparable to the Rheingau – but the summer normally brings two periods of heavy rainfall, firstly in July and then, even more inconveniently, again at harvest time. The deluges are such that wax-papered mini-umbrellas have to be tied over bunches for protection.
The domestic wine industry limped along until a decade ago with mostly cheap and cheerful, medium-sweet and dilute plonk. But Misawa, who liked its taste and believed in its potential, decided to carry out experiments with a view to making Koshu in the crisp, dry refreshing style.
Convinced that reduced vigour was key to getting greater expression from the variety, he planted selected vines at Akeno in 2002, which is at 700 metres altitude at the foot of the Kayagateke Mountains. In 2014, Grace won the first ever international Koshu gold medal for the 2013 Cuvée Misawa Akeno Koshu at the Decanter World Wine Awards, repeating the feat in 2016.
The Yamanashi region is dominated by small growers. Misawa has discussed the need for change with them, but most growers are not ready to make the necessary adjustments.
‘Each grower inherited their own vineyard site and their parents told them how to do it, so they don’t want to change the system,’ says Misawa, who still only makes around 5% of his wines from his own vineyards.
The pergola system is the method of choice for Yamanashi’s growers for its commercial advantages. Katsunuma Jozo’s’s Yuji Aruga likes it because he can control each bunch in a relatively small area with ventilation and shade.
At Kizan Winery, Yukari and Kozo Tsuchiya believe that improved ripeness in the vineyard and better equipment and cellar techniques allow them to make wines, which, if not as serious as Koshu grown by VSP, at least make economic sense.
Kurambon sells its Sol Lucet Koshu to the UK’s Marks & Spencer chain. Its owner Takahiko Nozawa acknowledges that what Grace is doing by keeping the vigour down is good for the future of Koshu. But he thinks that wineries are generally improving the quality of their Koshu by selecting location, keeping yields to a minimum through adapted trellising systems and improvements in the cellar.
Koshu’s delicate aromas and elusive flavours can certainly be challenging. When Koshu is well made, though, the wines are subtly aromatic and delicately flavoured, sometimes floral, smoky or spicy, with deceptive concentration and a bone-dry finish.
A versatile vino
At the annual Japan Wine Competition in Yamanashi, Koshu is one of four main all-Japanese categories that also include European white and red varieties, hybrids and sweet and sparkling wines. Judging the wines in 2014, and again last year, the 100-plus Koshu wines I tasted ran a gamut of styles… and qualities: dry and medium-sweet, Koshu made from free-run juice, chaptalised and unchaptalised, sur lie, stainless steel- and barrel-fermented, sparkling and blended with other varieties.
Koshu: the Facts
Last year Lynne Sherriff MW, a consultant for Koshu of Japan, put together a lunch at the Basque-inspired Ametsa with Arzak Instruction in the Halkin Hotel. The aim was to show Koshu’s potential with dishes that were not just Japanese and they included sea bass, suckling pig and cheeses (the latter admittedly served with Japanese red wines).
By imaginatively matching Koshu with exciting Basque food, Sherriff was able to demonstrate that Koshu’s moderate alcohol levels and pristine purity work not just with sushi and sashimi but with seafood and even meat dishes in which subtlety and nuance require a wine that sits happily alongside them and doesn’t overwhelm. That wine is Koshu.
Three to try
2015 Grace Kayagatake, 11.5%.
Bright and floral in style with a slightly smoky, clove pink floral perfume and an intense appley ripeness etched with a tongue-curling citrus fruit quality mingling with cleansing acidity.
£14.38, Hallgarten Druitt, 01582 722538
2015 Sol Lucet, 11.5%
Water-white in colour, this Koshu from Kurambon has a delicate aroma and pure melon fruit that’s soft and juicily refreshing in a subtly moreish, saltily fresh way. Just as you’re wondering what the fuss is about, it turns into a vinous page-turner.
£9.25, Eclectic Wines, 020 8788 4048
2015 Lumière Koshu Hikari, 11%
Almost Muscadet-sur-lie-like, this subtly perfumed, fresh Koshu has spent a few months on its lees to bring texture and limpidity to its juicy, apple and gooseberry-ish fruit character, which tapers to a clean, refreshingly bone-dry finish.
£12.53, Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840