Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Japanese Wines: A Taste of Koshu

Rain can sometimes be an enemy to wine grapes but this is the first time I have heard of this type of protection.  As pictured above, the Japanese place parchment paper, by hand, over Koshu grapes to protect them from rain. Such a laborious process, but somehow it seems very Japanese in nature.  

This interesting factoid was learned at a tasting event of Japanese wines held yesterday at the Uni restaurant in Boston. I was invited by Yoko of Winestone, a wine store in Chestnut Hill, and I was extremely pleased that I attended the event.  The event showcased five wines made from the Japanese Koshu grape, to ascertain whether there would be any interest in importing such wines into the U.S.  Based on my tasting of the wines, I believe they are worthy of being on local wine shelves and on restaurant wine lists. 

It is thought that the Koshu grape was transported to Japan, via the Silk Road, almost 1300 years ago. Legend states that in 718 AD, Gyoki, a Buddhist monk, had a vision of Yakushi Buddha (also known as Yakushi Nyorai) holding a grape cluster.  This is the "medical" Buddha so Gyoki believed the grapes were to be used for healing. He thus established the Daizenji temple in Katsunuma, in the Yamanashi Prefecture, and began growing Koshu grapes for medicinal purposes, as well as teaching others the art of viticulture.  Koshu though did not really become popular until the Edo Period (1600-1867), when the Tokugawa Shogunate considered them a delicacy.  At this time, the grapes were still being eaten and not yet made into wine. The Shogun kept all the best grapes, and the rest would then be sold to the commoners.   

The first wine production in Japan really did not occur until the later part of the 19th century, and mainly in the Hokkaidō and Yamanashi Prefectures.  Around 1868, the Japanese government sent a couple of men to Paris to learn about wine making.  But the industry did not develop much until after World War II.  In many ways, the Japanese wine making industry is still in its youth, though the quality of their wines is ever increasing.  They are using both indigenous and international grapes, though I feel the most interesting wines may be made from their native grapes, like Koshu.

Though often eaten as a table grape, Koshu is a vitis vinefera, a wine grape, and that was confirmed in 2004 by the University of California, Davis.  So in that respect, it is like the Palomino grape, which is also enjoyed as a table grape.  95% of Koshu grapes are grown in the Yamanashi Prefecture, located at the foot of Mount Fuji.  There are about eighty wineries in this region and they produce about 40% of Japan’s domestic wines.

Koshu is very disease-resistant, and is also robust and tree-like.  The grape skin is thick and often pink in color while the clusters are long, the grapes being low in acid and sugar.  Like Muscadet, it can have a neutral character so some winemakers have engaged in sur lie ageing to infuse more flavor into their wines. Others have produced semi-sweet and sparkling versions.  Typical flavors from Koshu wines include citrus, lychee, pear, white peach and quince. It is supposed to pair well with sushi, light seafood dishes, and other Japanese cuisine.

All five of the Koshu wines I tasted were from the 2009 vintage, which is considered an excellent vintage. The wines also all had an alcohol content of 12%.  Overall, the wines reminded me of both Muscadet and Saké.  First, they had roughly similar flavor profiles to many Muscadets, and they made me crave a plate of oysters. Second, they had a clean purity of flavor, as well as more subtle flavor notes, like a Saké. So it is easy to understand why I found these wines to be compelling.

The first wine I tasted was the 2009 Sol Lucent Koshu from the Yamanashi Wine Co.  This wine is fermented in stainless steel with wild yeasts. It had a light, fruity aroma which came through on the palate. Though the pleasant citrus flavors dissolved in the finish, which became kind of sour and off putting. This was my least favorite of the group.

The next wine was also from the Yamanashi Wine Co., the 2009 Four Seasons, and it was fermented in 50% stainless steel and 50% barrel.  This wine presented lots of delicious fruit flavors, including peach and melon. It had a clean, crisp and fresh taste and reminded me of Muscadet. A very pleasant, easy-drinking wine.

The 2009 Grace Koshu is produced by Grace Wine, which was founded in 1923.  This winery is unusual in Japan because the winemaker is a woman, Ayana Misawa, the daughter of the owner, Shigekazu Misawa. This wine is sur lie aged for about five months, which does give it more depth, and it most reminded me of a Saké.  It had a clean, fresh taste with good acidity and more subtle fruit tastes, including grapefruit and pear.  But there were also undertones of herbal and floral notes with a bit of white pepper. A wine to slowly savor, relishing the complex and subtle flavors within.

The 2009 Fujiclair, produced by the Fujicco Winery, is a very limited production, only 3500 bottles.  It too was crisp and clean, with prominent melon, lemon and white peach tastes.  There was also a subtle brininess to the finish, which was surprising. Another pleasant, easy drinking wine.

The final wine was the 2009 Haramo Vintage Koshu, produced by the Haramo Wine Co., and it was my favorite of the tasting. It too has aged on the sur lies, for about six months, and had great depth and complexity. Besides its crisp, clean taste, there was a melange of harmonious flavors, including citrus, pear, melon, lemon and more. This was accompanied by some subtle herbal notes and exotic flavors. It had a richer body than the other wines, and really stood out as an impressive wine, showing the potential of the Koshu grape. I would highly recommend this wine.

These are wines that would be very consumer friendly, as well as intrigue wine lovers. One issue though will center on their price. At this time, considering the fluctating value of the yen, the wines would cost around $20 each.  That is probably too high of a price for most of the Koshu wines I tasted, except for the Haramo.  The rest of the wines would be better priced at $10-$15, especially to make them competitive with wines of similar style and quality. That issue is understood though and is being worked on. 

I am always pleased to taste a wine made from a grape that is new to me, so this was a fun tasting.  It was a bonus that the wines were generally good, and one was even excellent.  As I often have said, expand your horizons and try some new wines, especially produced from unusual grapes or less common wine regions. If you get a chance to try some Koshu wines, then do so.  I think you will enjoy what you taste.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Great writeup, and I really wish I had some way to get my hands on these wines. I've always felt that Muscadet reminded me a little bit of sake (they share a certain purity, or clean-ness), so it's not surprising that Koshu could resemble both. Of course, being a big Muscadet fan, now I want to try Koshu even more...