For years Koshu was overlooked in Japan as a fruit worthy only of table grape status, or for making bland wine. However, in more recent times it’s been given the attention it deserves thanks to a couple of pioneers who recognised its potential and began planting it in on specific soils using modern vine training systems. The results have been so good that when Grace winery, at the forefront of this movement, took their wares to the the Koshu of Japan tasting at the Imagination Gallery in 2010 merely to get some feedback, Steve Daniel, buyer for Novum Wines, saw the grape’s potential for the UK Market.
The two wines that are now available to the on trade are the Kayagatake and the Hishiyama Private Reserve, both of which are 100% Koshu. Koshu wine was first made in Japan in 1874, though the vines are believed to have been first planted around a thousand years ago after being brought to Japan by monks along the silk road that spans Central Asia from the Caucasus to Japan. The grape is now known for producing a dry, elegant style of wine.
In a food and wine pairing evening held at Zuma last week, Grace winery showcased their two Koshu wines to a room full of sommeliers and wine buyers, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Grace winery is based in the Yamanashi region, where the region’s terroir – a long growing season, well draining volcanic soils and extremes of hot and cold – seems to offer ideal conditions to this variety of grape. The Kayagatake exhibits lots of minerality along with elegant citrus and melon notes; it’s a delicate, low sugar, wine that cuts through the batter of chilli squid and sits comfortably alongside the similarly fragile flavours of white fish sashimi. The Hishiyama Private Reserve is a considerably fuller bodied wine, whose delicacy is still apparent but is accompanied by aromas of melon and peach. Both wines exhibited a distinct freshness and mouth-watering acidity that make them ideal partners for lighter Asian dishes.
The success of these wines can be attributed to owner of Grace, Shigekazu Misawa, who was the first to introduce European methods of vine training and pruning in 1990, in order to control yields and facilitate even berry ripening. There was also move to modern techniques in the winery with practices such as aging the wine ‘sur-lie’, Muscadet style, to improve richness, as well as a short period of skin contact to add complexity.
Beyond Koshu, Grace showcased a Chardonnay, aged for 6 months in 40% French oak, boasting good acidity and a minerally salty finish, and a Merlot. The latter, 15 months barrel-aged in 80% new oak is a cool climate wine, verging on New World green.
The future of winemaking in Japan looks bright. At the moment Grace winery import two Koshus, both distinctly Japanese wines. But if the popularity of the Merlot is anything to go by, it won’t be long before demand rises for European grape varieties that have been given this distinctly Japanese, studied treatment. The industry is young, something that is revealed in the experimental nature of growers and vintners who are eager to explore the country’s untapped wine potential.