Of all the wine regions of the world, the Yamanashi prefecture of Japan has to be one of the least-known. While cosmopolitan consumers may be on nodding terms with Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon, or happily open southern English sparkling, or be familiar with wines from Turkey, Georgia or Moldova, few could say they have tasted Koshu of Japan.
Koshu – a large, pink, thick-skinned and fragrant grape – has been grown as a table grape in Japan for a thousand years, but only in the last century has it been vinified. And only since 2010 has it been officially recognised by the EU as a wine grape and thus allowed into Europe.
The efficient trade organisation Koshu of Japan (KOJ), a grouping of 15 wine producers, was set up in 2009 by Shigekazu Misawa, managing director of Grace Wine, one of the most internationally-recognised producers. Koshu for wine is produced primarily in high vineyards in Yamanashi province, at the foot of the 3,000m Mount Fuji. The region, with its volcanic soils and milder climate, is the centre of wine-grape growing in Japan. Production is still tiny, with only around 300 ha cultivated for wine production. The majority if this is Koshu, but almost all the KOJ members grow a wide range of international varieties as well.
Grace Wine, for example, has 4 ha of Koshu and 9 ha of Bordeaux varietals and other grapes. It produces a $100.00 Chardonnay which sells well in Australia, the winemaker (and owner’s daughter), the Bordeaux-educated and internationally-trained Ayana Misawa says.
KOJ’s aim is straightforward: to increase awareness of Koshu in international markets – and, according to Misawa, to increase plantings of all grapes to 3,000 ha within 10 years. Judging by the latest packed London tasting and standing-room-only seminar, with the eminent Gerard Basset MW MS OBE on the panel, it is succeeding in the first aim. Jancis Robinson MW OBE is a keen supporter, praising the wines’ “delicacy, purity and limpidity”.
Koshu is an intriguing grape, producing wines that are both delicate and aromatic but with a certain food-friendly robustness. At their best their high acidity is contrasted by white flower and lychee aromatics – which can sometimes slip over into Turkish delight and parma violets – and a tart, tannic finish. Some examples are aged sur lie, giving them exotic yeasty notes reminiscent of sake.
Steve Daniel of distributor Novum Wines lists five wines from Grace and places them both in the restaurant market and in independents, and top London outlets like Selfridges. “They are my kind of wine,” he says. “Ethereal, esoteric, with that tense minerality that reminds me of Santorini, or Etna – you can taste the volcano.” While most exponents say the finest match is with sushi, some, like Roger Jones at the Michelin-starred UK restaurant The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, insist they go well with British food.
Koshu has many fans. Selfridges wine and spirits buyer Dawn Davies reports healthy sales of two wines from Grace, despite prices of around £20.00 ($32.70), and Marks & Spencer’s Emma Dawson is taking the Sol Lucet from Kurambon winery, slightly cheaper at £12.99 ($21.00). Sweden’s Systembolaget is interested too, with buyer Johan Larsson telling Meininger’s he has snapped up 3,000 bottles of Grace’s Private Reserve. He feels it offers a point of difference: “Koshu is not your average Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. It gives personality; it’s something to write about.” He also notes that Sweden is the biggest consumer of sushi outside Japan.
Koshu fits nicely with the latest trends in white wine consumption: for lower alcohol, as Koshus seldom come in at more than 12%; for aromatics; for freshness; and the general interest in esoteric, unusual wines. There’s also a craze for all things Japanese, Davies says, pointing to the popularity of the 20-odd sakes and Japanese whiskies she lists.
Koshu’s rise has been swift, and it’s not difficult to find sceptics. The Daily Mail’s Matthew Jukes, who consults for upmarket London restaurant Bibendum (no relation to the importer of the same name), balks at what he describes succinctly as “nose-bleed” prices. On a restaurant wine list, prices would get out of hand, he says. “Most of the still Koshus will be £85.00 on an average list,” he said. “Only white Burgundy and a handful of other world classic white wines are more expensive on my Bibendum list, for example.” He added that the sparkling wines would be around the £129.00 mark, “which is the same price as NV Billecart-Salmon Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs and NV Gosset Grande Réserve, for example, and more expensive than every other NV Champagne.”
Prices aren’t his only problem: he also considers most Koshu “dilute”. Another respected London-based journalist, Margaret Rand, said, “They’re perfectly pleasant, and they get a bit better year by year, but the world is awash with white wines of far more character. There’s a certain amount of hype about Koshu, and it’s honestly not justified.”
There are many wines which polarise opinion, but few which give rise to such heated debate. Koshu’s fans reckon its detractors confuse subtlety for dilution, its critics say it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes. The arguments will continue, but there is no doubt that the wines will continue to intrigue.