Everything you need to know about Koshu from Japan

What does it taste like?

Koshu wines are often said to have a taste of citrus, like the yuzu ‘orange’ of Japan

Koshu-based wines are delicate. Naturally around 11% ABV – and rarely above 12% – they are never tiring to drink, or forceful in character, but deliver something subtly intriguing.

In essence, the wines made from Koshu tend to have a combination of flavours, from citrus (particularly Japanese yuzu) to yellow fruit, and in general, to draw comparisons with well-known European whites, have some of the flavours of Muscadet, with its freshness and breadiness – the Japanese tend to give Koshu relatively extended lees contact – but also Albariño, with its lime-acid and peach fruit. Koshu also has something more unique, in the form of a gentle salty note, as though someone has added a drop of soy to the glass.

What are the main grapes Koshu is compared to?

Over the years, a number of comparisons have been drawn between Koshu and other European grapes. Most common among these are Muscadet’s Melon de Bourgogne, along with Semillon – particularly when sourced from Australia’s Hunter Valley – along with Albarino from Galicia in Northern Spain. Notably, all these grapes tend to come from damp, coastal regions. But Koshu can also resemble light, dry styles of Chenin Blanc from both the Loire and South Africa, as well as Pinot Blanc from Alsace. More obscure comparisons db has encountered from sommeliers and wine writers include Chasselas from Switzerland’s cool Alpine sloes, Arinto from the exposed vineyards of the Azores, and Feteasca Alba from Romania.

What are the styles of wines Koshu can produce?

Koshu does, however, produce wine in a range of styles, ensuring it matches different tastes, and rewards exploration. Some of this diversity relates to particular sites, where certain aspects and soils – particularly if they are free-draining – produce wines of great intensity and individuality. One of these is the Misawa vineyard in Akeno, where celebrated Koshu producer Grace makes the most of high altitude – coupled with, unusually, vertical shoot position training – to produce a remarkably intense, peachy Koshu. Another, the Isehara vineyard from brilliant Koshu producer Katsunuma, yields a sought-after example bursting with pink grapefruit, not unlike a top-end Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire.

However, much of the most obvious variations in Koshu wine style comes from practices in the cellar. As mentioned above, lees contact can be used to build in a bready complexity, as well as more texture to the naturally light-bodied wine, and with great success – much like the techniques used in Muscadet with the delicate Melon de Bourgogne grape.

Barrel fermentations and ageing, including new oak, albeit in low proportions, can yield surprisingly successful results with this subtle variety. The peanut character derived from high-quality barriques seems to marry well with the lemon and peach flavours of Koshu, in the same way sweet oak complements ripe Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux.

Grande Polaire produces a successful example, but in my view, the ultimate barrel-influence Koshu comes from Katsunuma Winery – called Aruga Branca Pipa. To carry with the oak-sourced flavours, this producer freezes the grapes to concentrate the peach and grapefruit notes in its best Koshus.

But it’s not just isolating particular plots or playing with lees and oak contact in the cellar that yields different expressions of Koshu. Some of the most notable wines come from extended skin contact – Koshu produces particularly good ‘orange wines’, coming in a range of hues, from light amber to egg-yolk coloured, cloudy wines. Gently grippy, often with aromas of smoked tea leaves, these are complex, versatile expressions that are gaining popularity in Japan, where there is a strong demand for ‘low-intervention’ wines (more so than organic or biodynamic certified products). Mercian and Lumière make particularly good skin-contact Koshus.

A further interesting and refreshing use for Koshu is in the creation of sparkling wines. Lumière crafts a delicious traditional method fizz with the grape, with the persistent mousse augmenting the citrus freshness of Koshu on the palate.

In short, there’s almost nothing that Koshu makers haven’t tried, with the new wave of winemakers now also looking to make Koshu with no added sulphur, as well as trialling new fermentation vessels, from concrete eggs to amphorae – yes, the experiments common in the cellars of Western Europe are also to be found in this far-Eastern outpost for winemaking.

One Response to “Everything you need to know about Koshu from Japan”

  1. Max Palmer says:

    Hello DB,
    Just wanted to say thank you for a wonderful Koshu tasting on Monday.

    I would very much like to know who we can buy from,I need to convince some colleagues that it is a sure fire winner and we are outside London !!!! how daring.

    So any information would be much appreciated.

    Thanks again for an exceptional tasting.

    Best regards,

    Max

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