Profiling Japan’s top Koshu producersBy Patrick Schmitt
Koshu is the king of Japanese grapes, and as Patrick Schmitt MW prepares to lead a masterclass on the subject in the UK in February, he explains its appeal.
Of the many things that make Japanese wine stand out, the most distinctive must be the Koshu grape. Not only does the variety produce wines with a particular character, but the grape is grown pretty much exclusively in Japan. Koshu is allied to the birth of Japan’s wine industry, but has barely spread beyond the nation’s boundaries. And, in the country itself, as much as 95% of the variety comes from one region: Yamanashi.
But what makes Koshu special, and where should you look for the best examples? Koshu has become the emblematic grape of Japan for a number of reasons. The most important concerns its resistance to disease. With thick skins, it is particularly good at fending off rot, which is a prevalent threat in Japan’s main winegrowing areas because of the combination of warmth and rainfall during the summer. There’s also its appearance. Koshu has pink berries, making it a pretty and striking addition to the landscape. Then there’s the style of wine it produces. Naturally low in alcohol, delicate in flavour, and bright, with a slightly salty tang, it also pairs extremely well with the range of food commonly found in Japan, above all the raw fish-based cuisine.
However, Koshu can take many forms, depending on where it’s grown and how it’s handled in the vineyard and the cellar. And here are my top picks, chosen for quality, and to highlight the stylistic diversity of Koshu from Japan. If there’s a go-to producer for top-end Koshu it is Katsunuma Jyozo Winery, which takes its name from the heartland of Koshu growing, the Katsunuma sub-region in Yamanashi. This single producer specialises in a small but varied range of Koshus, and makes wines of sufficient quality to attract the attention of famous French wine operator Bernard Magrez, who in 2008 launched a Koshu in partnership with Katsunuma Jyozo Winery. This Koshu specialist is also a dynamic business because Yuji Aruga, president of Katsunuma Jyozo Winery, has handed over the winemaking to his son, Hirotaka, who is trialling various treatments of the grape, including fermentations in concrete eggs.
However, of the existing wines produced in commercial quantities – sold under the Aruga brand – the standouts are Katsunuma Jyozo’s single vineyard Koshu and its barrel-fermented version. The former takes it name from a site called Issehara, and thanks to free-draining gravel soils seems to yield particularly powerful Koshus, with a strong grapefruit scent, similar to good Sauvignon from the Loire. As for the oak-influenced example, this employs an especially concentrated Koshu, a style obtained by freezing the grapes before fermenting them in barriques to yield a delicious lemon and peach flavoured white with a touch of toastiness.
Another great name in Koshu is Grace Wine, the brand from Shigekazu Misawa, who is chairman of Koshu of Japan. Misawa is on a mission to raise not just the profile of Koshu internationally, but also the quality of the wines made from this grape, which he insists must be treated to the same meticulous handling as a chef would when preparing Japan’s raw fish dishes. He’s also a strong advocate of vertical shoot positioning as a training method for Koshu, rather than the more common pergola system, because the former yields more concentrated grapes. He has a particularly good example of this in his single vineyard in Yamanashi’s Akeno area. Called Cuvée Misawa Akeno Koshu, the wine has a lovely peachy scent and a delicate lemon-fresh palate, and a naturally low ABV of 11.5%. Like Katsunuma Jyozo Winery, Grace Wine has a new generation bringing different approaches to the cellar, with Shigekazu Misawa’s daughter, Ayana, now in charge of the winemaking. In particular, Ayana has trialled a Koshu from the top site in Akeno with no added sulphur, meaning the wine naturally goes through malolactic fermentation, giving it a pleasing, slightly more creamy taste and mouthfeel. Such a change came about with the 2017 vintage, and yields a better wine as a result.
Beyond these two first-rate wineries, one can also find brilliant Koshus from Lumière Winery. Also located in Yamanashi, this producer offers two notable Koshus that add to the diversity and interest of the grape from Japan. One is a lovely sparkling version that captures all of the refreshing lemon-scented appeal of the grape. It also pairs wonderfully with delicate raw fish dishes, particularly as the fizz is bone dry – the wine contains no dosage. The other comes in an amber hue, and is named Lumière Prestige Orangé Koshu. Created by allowing the grape must to stay in contact with its skins for up to two weeks, the wine taps into an increasing demand for orange wines in Japan. Peachy with a strong aroma of dried tea leaves, and a gently grippy finish, this is an excellent example of this type of wine.
Other great examples of Koshu exist, such as the range from Shirayuri Winery under the L’Orient brand, and Grand Polaire, both of which source Koshu grapes from the Katsunuma zone, and also craft good barrel-influenced versions at the top end. However, the wines mentioned in this article represent my favourite examples of the styles on offer from Japan today. And they are also the wines I plan to show in London at a masterclass for the trade in February. So if you want to try them for yourself, please register your interest by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Koshu: five picks from across the stylistic spectrum
Lumière Sparkling Koshu, bottle-fermented, non-vintage
Cuvée Misawa, Akeno Koshu, 2017
Katsunuma Jyozo Winery, Aruga Branca, Issehara, Koshu, 2016
Katsunuma Jyozo Winery, Aruga Branca Pipa, Koshu, 2015
Lumière Prestige Class Orangé, Koshu, 2017