What is Japanese Wine?
“You mean sake?”
That is the response most often encountered when asking if someone has tried Japanese wine. Given the huge international success of Japan’s “rice wine” (and the fact that nowadays your sake is as likely to be served in a wine glass as a cup or masu box), this is understandable. Here the most interesting point is not how sake has come to represent the wines of Japan, when in fact it is brewed in a process more closely related to beer than wine, but how Japan’s winemaking industry has managed to stay hidden away for so long.
The notion that Japan makes wine is something that has stayed a secret from not only the world at large but also much of the population of Japan itself for over 140 years. That is 140 years of winemaking in a valley hiding in plain sight just an hour and a half outside Tokyo. From small-scale beginnings here in Yamanashi, there are now over 300 wineries nationwide, from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu and Okinawa in the south. To put that in context, that is almost as many wineries in Japan as there are Houses of Champagne in France.
“Ah, you mean Japanese plum wine?” you would be forgiven for asking next, for umeshu too is an increasingly common sight internationally. Again, the naming is misleading: this plum “wine” is a liqueur made from fresh plums and sugar steeped in a clear spirit such as shochu. Although a delicious nectar-like tipple, umeshu is - like sake - not actually wine.
So what is Japanese wine? In its purest definition it is wine from the native Japanese grapes Koshu and Muscat Bailey A - both recognized by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV). In wider terms, it is a broad repertoire of wines made in Japan from all the big name international grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and even Nebbiolo and Kerner, as well as a plethora of other lesser-known varieties joined by obscure indigenous hybrids. But it all began with the enigmatic Koshu grape, named after the ancient Koshu region. Koshu is the grape most evolved to suit the local climate and most widely planted here, and it is crafted into a wine that is intriguingly Japanese in its nature. It is fair to say that when it comes to bringing Japanese wine to the world stage, it all starts with Koshu wine.
Koshu is thought to have arrived in Japan around 1,000 years ago from the Caucuses via China, probably brought over by Buddhist monks and initially cultivated for medicinal purposes. It has unusual (and most photogenic) pink skins and lends itself to crisp, light white wines, both still and sparkling. These dry aromatic wines are known for their citrus, white peach and sometimes honeysuckle or jasmine aromas, the latter manifesting themselves especially in wines given some skin contact during vinification - a fine art given that the thick skins that guard against disease in the humid vineyards have a bitterness that needs to be approached carefully in the winery. On the palate are lychee and dried fruits such as apricot and pineapple.
But for all the talk of zesty citrus and exotic fruit, Koshu is a subtle wine. It wins your affections over time rather than bowling you over on the first date. It is elegant and distinctive but it demands thought to fully appreciate and the right environment to bring it out of its shell. This is not a wine that is comfortable in a crowded nightclub, but find it at home with a record playing and it is most beguiling, and placed in the intimate serenity of a high-end Japanese restaurant it could not be more charismatic.
In appearance, Koshu wine is clear with a hue of peach or straw of varying intensity depending on its age and how it was made. Sur lie is the predominant style of production, a process introduced to Japan by Chateau Mercian in the early 1980’s that first brought out Koshu’s potential as a sophisticated dry white wine. The recent trend among local wine makers is experimentation with differing degrees of skin contact during vinification, as well as a more subtle approach to oak aging (when used at all) so as not to overwhelm the delicate aromas and flavours characteristic of the grape. The leading winemakers continue to innovate: Aruga has seen success with a Koshu produced with freeze-concentration to intensify the flavour, for example, while Grace recently discovered the potential for malolactic fermentation in Koshu – a secondary fermentation known for bringing characteristic butteriness to Chardonnay. Terroir differences are also becoming more apparent, some even displaying aromas of lime and lemongrass one would more commonly associate with Sauvignon Blanc.
I hesitate to use the word zen, for it is over-used, but that is arguably the essence of the peaceful, minimalist environment in which best to enjoy a glass of Koshu, as well as the enjoyment of the wine itself – getting into the depths of something deceptively simple. There are of course exceptions – more intensely flavoured Koshu orange wines and Koshus fermented and aged in new oak, for example, but the predominant style is understated elegance. Either way, Koshu is uniquely Japanese and perhaps it is the relative neutrality of the wine and the umami (admittedly difficult to put your finger on, but let’s call it a savoury edge) in the finish that make it so well suited to sushi and sashimi.
Although closer in nature to sake, it is actually Japanese whisky with which Japanese wine may have more in common: both were born from Meiji Period (1868-1912) curiosity with the West, both are made with the personal devotion and highly professional precision Japan is best known for, and both have recently come into their own to present something to the world that is reassuring familiar yet distinctly Japanese.
By Rosemary Mitchell of KoshuValley.com, writing from Katsunuma in the Koshu Valley