Many of you are aware by now that I get excited by new wine experiences and often seek out the unusual. A few of you may even have read my write up of a Japanese wine made from the Koshu grape, if not please give it a go.

Well, the other day I was fortunate enough to be able to build on that lone experience and, under Jancis Robinson’s guidance, taste more Japanese wines made from Koshu, which is a fascinating grape. It doesn’t grow anywhere else in the world other than Japan, it is at least 98% Vitis Vifera and as far as we are aware is unrelated to any other grape variety.

Koshu grapes

The grape is undeniably pretty – the skins are a gorgeous pink – and the flesh is sweet, with low acidity, so although records show that it has been grown in Japan since 1592, it has been a table grape for most of that time and only emerged as wine producing grape over the last 10 years or so.

Japanese grape growing and wine production is largely based in the Yamanashi Prefecture, some 30 miles or so from Tokyo.  Hokkaidō also produces wine though,  which is fitting given that the region is the agricultural heartland of Japan. Beer lovers amongst you may well notice that the area is home to Sapporo – both the city and brewery.

Map of Japan - click for a larger image

Yamanashi is a pretty wet and humid area, so traditionally the grapes are grown on pergola systems to give them a little protection as well as allowing free movement of air to limit rot, but in keeping with modern grape growing practices Vertical Shoot Position trellis systems are beginning to be widely used – Koshu is pretty thick skinned and resistant to disease though. There are only 80 wineries in the region and the great majority of them are tiny and measure their output in bottles rather than barrels or cases, but together they account for some 95% of Japan’s 480 hectare (1200 acres) Koshu production.

So important has Koshu become, as a signature grape for the region and Japan as a whole, that when the city of Enzan and the village of Yamato merged with the wine town of Katsunuma – all in the Yamanashi Prefecture –  in 2005, the name for the new city became Kōshū.

The Wines

2009 Lumiere Petillant
sparkling – Charmat method – 11.2% alcohol – 3.9 g/L Residual sugar

Delicately pink, almost like a Pinot Grigio Ramato.
Very delicate red fruit aromas, hints really of dried raspberry etc.
The palate was pretty frothy with delicate characters of rose hip, it was very fresh in style until the finish when the skins dry the mouth out & mask the acidity.
This wine looked great and I had hoped for great things, but on this showing sparkling is not Koshu’s forte and they should keep the colour and skins away as the phenolics can be too much and destroy the balance, so perhaps it could have used a little more sweetness – 82/100 points.

2010 Sol Lucet Koshu
Yamanashi Wine Co

Very pale, fruit syrup hue, just a touch of white fruit colour to differentiate it from water.
Fresh nose, with the merest hint of white fruit & fermenting must.
The palate was pretty neutral  delicate, but quite attractive and clean with a bit of green apple creeping into the finish. Pretty low, but not negligible, acid allows the mouth to dry out on the finish which is quite long. This was dry, very light and refreshing – 87/100 points.

2010 Soryu Koshu
Soryu Winery

Even more pale, only just off water!
Very delicate aromas of unripe white stone fruit, but hardly anything really.
More body, inching towards medium bodied with some fat on the palate. leaving it textured like fruit syrup. Some lees like character give it a touch of some complexity, very delicate, but nice acidity follows through on the finish giving it a green tinge. Pretty good and very well balanced – 89/100 points.

2010 Sadoya Zenkouji Kitahara

Very, very pale, water white or silver really.
Extraordinary nose with lees notes and a character reminiscent of rice vinegar notes, or even sake!
Strange palate too, waxy, slightly spicy & full of character, but in an odd way that verges on the unattractive really.
Long dry finish like licking peach skin – 84/100 points.

2010 Rubaiyat Koshu

Very pale with the merest hint of green, like cucumber.
Most wine-like nose so far with fresh notes and a tiny dash of something orchard fruit like.
Lovely palate, quite nice weight with a little fatness and freshness balancing each other.
Very clean and pure, like very fine, but bland Muscadet, even slightly salty on the finish. Nice balance, good acidity, phenolics balanced. Works very well indeed as long as the food is delicate!
Very long, pure and elegant – 90/100 points.

2010 Haramo Vintage Koshu

Pale, but a tiny touch of apricot like yellow.

Attractive nose, v clean & pure, but delicate – like sniffing untold whole apricots & something floral too.
Nice wine-like texture, ripe & slightly gloupy. Phenolics creep in at the finish, but this brings out v delicate Viognier-like notes.
Delicate spice & apricot long finish with tannic mouth-feel – 89.

2009 Grace Private Reserve Koshu

Tinned peach syrup hue.
Musky and unripe grapefruit nose, very delicate again.
Has musky, almost corked-like notes, which is never a good idea, especially when it isn’t corked!
High acidity, nice flavours of citrus and apricot, long finish with high acidity following through to the end keeping it all balanced, clean and pure with a slightly fleshy texture.
Very much a ‘curate’s egg’ of a wine – 90/100 points.

2009 Grace Misawa Vineyard VSP Koshu

More colour, still pale, but more European in hue, with touches of very, very pale gold.

Richer nose, more soft peach with some subtle citrus notes and some smoky lees character and complexity.
Melon-like characters, nice balance, fresh & very good, almost assertive – as forceful as such a delicate wine can be!
Good texture, high acidity on the finish keeping it very mineral and pure. 92/100 points.

2009 Suntory Tomi no oka – barrel fermented Koshu

Much deeper colour, but still pale.
Nice vanilla, sarsparela, cream soda notes from the American oak.
The oak really enriches the texture of the palate, delicate vanilla, pretty cream soda like characters. Very pleasurable actually, high acidity really shines through too giving a lively apricot finish. 91/100 points.

It must be admitted that other people there did not like what the oak did to Koshu, likening it to oaky Riesling, I disagreed with them, but was in a minority.

What makes Koshu so interesting is the sheer delicacy of it. Wines made from this grape seem to hint at characters, flavours and aromas, rather offer fully-formed points of reference. It is this very subtlety that Jancis Robinson MW described as the ‘the Koshu-ness of Koshu’.

This is not a grape that would suit drinkers who only want big wines, but the flavours and the inherent subtlety do seem to feel very Japanese and to suit Japanese cuisine very well indeed. In some respects they appear to have much in common with fine Muscadet, or Galician whites, but they are less crisp and more subtle than both and tend towards lower alcohol too.

If you want to try something very different with some fine fish, the sort of meal where the quality of the ingredients are more important than how they are cooked – then Koshu could be the the perfect wine to try. In many they are not about anything other than elegance and subtlety, so fall outside the norms of wine. As long as you understand that I think that in the main this selection succeeded really well, they were basically very well made and not frightened about being what they were. I look forward to the day when they are readily available in Japanese restaurants and sushi bars.

Some Koshu wines are available from Selfridges wine department

8 thoughts on “Koshu

  1. I tasted, and enjoyed, the 2009 Grace Misawa Vineyard VSP Koshu at the end of a busy tasting and was pleasantly surprised by its robust delicacy.
    Thanks for this interesting post!

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