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Koshu: the poster child of Japanese wine?

Japanese restaurants seem to be the hottest ticket in town at the moment. You cannot go anywhere in London without passing a sushi or Japanese fusion restaurant.

The great thing about Japanese cuisine is that it delivers not only on the exotic, unusual flavours of the East but, unlike its Chinese and Indian counterparts, appeals to the growing trend for lighter, healthier eating.

On the drinks side, too, Japan has become a really exciting place. We all know about Sake’s popularity. This iconic alcoholic beverage is synonymous with Japanese culture the world over. But, Japanese beers – Kirin and Asahi in particular – are also becoming more and more popular in the UK. Certain Japanese whiskies such as Nikka and Yamazaki are also hugely sought after nowadays and enjoy stellar reputations among whisky connoisseurs.

But, what about Japanese wine?

Most people will tell you that they did not realise that Japan even makes wine. In fact, records show that Japan has been making wine since as far back as 1874. Admittedly, until recently, quality levels have varied greatly from producer to producer. But, over the last 20 years, a wine revolution has been taking place in Japan.

This revolution has arisen out of the Yamanashi Prefecture, about 100km west of Tokyo. Surrounded by Mount Fuji, this region is not only known for its breath-taking scenery but has also established itself as the premier wine growing region in Japan.

The main focus of the wineries in this region – of which there are around 80 – has been centred on the Koshu grape. This native grape variety is said to have travelled the Silk Road across Central Asia from the Caucasus to China and then to Japan around a thousand years ago.

The long summer days and well-drained volcanic soils of the Yamanashi Prefecture allow the winemakers in the region to produce wines from the Koshu grape that are fresh, citrusy, and have a distinct mineral character – what could be described as a Chablis-esque style.

This, of course, makes them a natural fit for Japanese food. Much of the Japanese food that we find in the UK has a fish and seafood focus. The flavours tend to be pure and delicate, making them the ideal match for these crisp, floral Koshu wines.

But, despite its food friendly credentials, it is still rare to find Japanese Koshu on a wine list in the UK. That said, there are signs that restaurants are beginning show more interest in Koshu. There have recently been tastings organised at high end venues like Umu in Mayfair, and in October, Nobu held a special Koshu and food tasting dinner at its Old Park Lane restaurant.

In September, I attended an event focused around Koshu. It was held at See Sushi, a Japanese fusion restaurant situated in Paddington’s Waterside. The event, fronted by the formidable Lynne Sherif MW, was pitched to demonstrate Koshu’s versatility as a food wine.

A variety of dishes were served alongside Koshu wines from two of Japan’s leading wineries – Soryu and Lumiere. Both wines demonstrated the familiar profile of citrus and mineral. The Lumiere had a certain freshness to it – it was light and lemon focused, making it a superb match for the sashimi and nigiri sushi dishes. The Soryu had less bright fruit, was weightier and had a textured mouth feel. This actually made it a particularly good match for the sweet and spicier dishes that were served up like the vegetable gyozas and chicken yakitori.

We may have tried only two wines at the event, but it was very encouraging to see that they both delivered on taste and food-friendliness. It is undoubtedly still early days for Koshu and Japanese wine as a whole. But with our love of Asian cuisine here in the UK, it potentially has a bright future ahead of it.

If you are a true wine lover, you will have a sense of adventure and be motivated by trying new and exciting wines from off the beaten track. And, what’s more different than a wine from Japan. So, if you ever spot one on a restaurant wine list, give it a go.

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