‘A’-list star: considering Japan’s native red grape

Koshu may be Japan’s leading native grape but the versatile Muscat Bailey A is hot on its heels, used in producing a wide range of the country’s wines.

MBA at Shirayuri Winery

If you have more than a passing interest in the wines of Japan, you will doubtless have heard of Koshu. Not only is this grape considered the country’s native variety, but it is the nation’s most planted, and, in export markets, certainly Japan’s emblematic vinous offering. We have written extensively about Koshu in previous editions of the drinks business, and on our website too, but, to recap, it is a pink-skinned, hybrid grape, grown almost exclusively in the Yamanashi wine region, where it thrives in the free-draining valleys beneath Mt Fuji, and produces delicate, light, pale, citrus and peach scented whites (as well as sparkling wines, and some still ones that are barrel-fermented, or undergo skin contact to produce fashionable orange wines).

Japan’s second-most planted variety is another native hybrid grape. But it’s red. It’s called Muscat Bailey A, although the Japanese refer to it as Bailey A – I’ll shorten it to MBA in this article. You can read more about its history in the boxout, but it was one of the successful crosses made in the early 20th century by Zenbei Kawakami, a ceaselessly experimental grape grower, who is rightly considered to be the father of viticulture in Japan.

Like Koshu, it performs well in Japan because MBA has a thick skin. This is important because the climate in much of the country’s wine-growing areas is warm and wet throughout the growing season – conditions that would leave fragile varieties susceptible to fungal infections, particularly rot such as botrytis.

While it may be overshadowed by the noble reds of Merlot and Cabernet, which are employed to create Japan’s most expensive and collectible wines, MBA is popular in Japan, and common in the restaurants and bars as the preferred by-the-glass red option.

This is for several reasons. First, MBA yields, at its most basic, an extremely pleasing, easy-drinking, soft, light, juicy red wine. The best comparison is Beaujolais, not Nouveau, but a style similar to Villages, with sweet-smelling strawberry aromas and a light body. Yamanashi’s Shirayuri Winery makes an MBA called Cellar Master under the L’Orient brand that tastes like a fruity Gamay or juicy Grenache.

Second, MBA can be employed to create wines in a range of styles, from delicate rosés, even red sparkling, to surprisingly concentrated, barrel-aged reds. Shirayuri Winery, for example, has an off-dry MBA rosé, which winery president Takao Uchida says pairs well with spicy Chinese food, while appealing to Japanese women – especially since this particular pink wine won a Gold medal in the Saqura competition, where the wines are judged by female-only critics and journalists.

Meanwhile, Château Mercian proclaims the grape’s union with large US-oak vats, which they use to age MBA for extended periods, impart a vanilla flavour and creaminess that complements the strawberry fruit of this grape.

The team at Iwanohara

Experiments in wine

At Niigata’s Iwanohara Winery, the birthplace of MBA, and now part of Suntory, a number of viticultural experiments have taken place to produce more concentrated, healthy bunches, including green harvesting, higher-trained pergolas, and vertical shoot positioning. However, it’s a free-draining soil that has the greatest impact on the cleanliness and concentration of the berries, according to this producer, which is also a source of organic MBA, and Japan’s most expensive, with its 70% new-oak barrique aged Heritage MBA retailing in Japan for ¥5,000 (£35).

Third, it is an excellent blending partner of other grapes in Japan, with Japan’s flagship winery, Suntory’s Tomi no Oka in Yamanashi producing a complex red wine combining all the key grapes of Bordeaux (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, plus Petit Verdot) with a dash of MBA.

Then there’s its suitability for Japanese cuisine. While, as previously recommended by db, Koshu pairs brilliantly with the raw-fish-based dishes Japan is so famous for, MBA, particularly in its simple, fruity form, complements another type of cuisine this country is well-known for, and that’s grilled meat with teriyaki sauce – a hard match for most reds thanks to its combination of strong flavours, particularly sweetness and saltiness.

But there’s a further reason to seek out MBA. Because it’s only grown in Japan, MBA is unique to this country’s red wine offering, and because producers have been working hard to improve the nature of wine it produces, MBA-based reds now offer appeal on the grounds of inimitability, as well as quality. Also, due to the increasing breadth of styles of MBA, there’s a Japanese red for most tastes that complements the Koshu-based whites discussed at the start of this article. So, for those Japanese restaurants listing Koshu, don’t forget there’s a native red grape to sit alongside this distinctive white variety. In other words, you might want to recommend Koshu with sashimi, but MBA with chicken teriyaki. And when suggesting such combinations, you can confidently tell your diners that what they are enjoying is an undiluted Japanese dining experience.

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