The Japanese wines to drink with Japanese food

It’s common, if far from essential, to match a country’s food with its cuisine, and with the rise of high-quality, domestically-made wine from Japan, it’s now possible to pair the nation’s food with its wine – so what should you serve with what?

The Japanese wine and food-matching masterclass was held at London’s Asia House on 19 October

This was the subject of a masterclass at Asia House in London last week, where I gave an introduction to Japan’s current wine scene, before considering the ideal partners for the country’s raw-fish based cuisine.

As for the primary wine offer, well, that was Koshu. This grape, almost unique to Japan, is a pretty, pink-skinned variety that’s especially suitable for sipping when your enjoying sushi and sashimi.

Why? Well, it relates to the texture and flavour of wine that this variety produces. Koshu makes delicate wines, sparkling included, with a naturally low alcohol – rarely does it stray over 12%. It has a reasonably high natural acidity, but it’s not hard or sharp in character.

It has flavours that you might find in Japanese food too, from the nation’s own citrus fruit – yuzu and sudachi – and it has a gently salty note, as though someone has added a drop of soy to the glass. Other characters are sometimes evident, such as creamed rice and mint.

Such traits make Koshu a notably good partner for Japanese food, particularly when it comes to the marriage of Japan’s raw-fish-based dishes and the salty-citric nature of Koshu.

This successful union may be by accident, rather than design, but it is real; the tangy Koshu wines enliven the palate after sashimi, prepare the mouth for a dashi dish, and cut through the residue of sticky rice in sushi.

Not only does the Koshu help with the consumption of such food, but the salty character of the dishes elevates the Koshu, bringing out more intensity.

Furthermore, the likes of sparkling Koshu is an ideal accompaniment to the more subtle styles of raw fish-based Japanese food, where traditionally promoted wine matches such as oily Pinot Gris or aromatic Gewürztraminer would overpower the cuisine.

However, where more intense dashi-flavoured fare is on offer, requiring something weightier, one can opt for a Koshu expression with extended lees-contact or some additional skin maceration.

But Koshu can also handle strong flavours, and it’s particularly good at cutting through wasabi, while those wines made with extended skin-contact work brilliantly with the intensely salty, creamy sea urchin – called ‘uni’ – which is so sought-after in Japan.

A full report on the event can be seen in the November edition of the drinks business, out soon.

For now, please see below for some wine recommendations, tasting notes, and the foods they pair well with. All of them have UK importers. They are listed in the order they were served at the London-based masterclass.

The wines served at the masterlcass

1 Lumière Sparkling Koshu, bottle-fermented, 2017

  • Importer: Amathus Drinks
  • Approximate retail price (UK): £22
  • Traditional method, Min. 12 months on lees, zero dosage
  • Ph: 3.1
  • R/S: 0.8g/l
  • Abv: 11%
  • Served with: Sea Bass Sashimi with Light Soy
  • Character: A gently bready quite fruity style of sparkling with notes of peach and citrus, fine bubbles, and a refreshing dry, finish.

2 Manns Wine, Kobo No Awa Sparkling Koshu

  • Importer: JFC
  • R/S: 7 g/l (Brut)
  • pH: 3.14
  • ABV: 11% abv
  • Production: 15,000 cases
  • Served with: Sea Bass Sashimi with Light Soy
  • Character: A slightly fuller style of sparkling Koshu than the Lumière (above) – perhaps due to the dosage – with a hint of toast, some peach, and a creamy-textured fizz, and bright, fresh finish.

3 Grace, Koshu Private Reserve, 2019

  • Importer: Hallgarten & Novum Wines
  • Approximate retail price (UK): £22
  • ABV: 12%
  • Served with: Nori Roll with Avocado and Cucumber, Pickled Ginger and Wasabi
  • Character: A very pale wine with delicate notes of lime and grapefruit, a touch of peach and tangerine, and an attractive, slightly salty finish.

4 Kurambon, Sol Lucet Koshu, 2019

  • Importer: Japan Gourmet UK
  • Approximate retail price (UK): £25
  • Abv: 12%
  • R/S: 2.2g/l
  • pH: 3.2
  • Winemaking: stainless steel, 3 months lees contact
  • Served with: Nori Roll with Avocado and Cucumber, Pickled Ginger and Wasabi
  • Character: Appealing citrus zest aromatics, this Koshu has a medium-weight feel in the mouth, and a touch of creamed rice character too.

5 SoRyu, Curious Type N, 2018

  • Importer: Tazaki Foods
  • Approximate retail price (UK): £20
  • Abv: 12.5%
  • r/s: less than 2g/l
  • pH: 3.0
  • Soil/training: sand/clay/pergola
  • Winemaker: 4 months lees contact, stainless steel tank
  • Production: 1,700 bottles
  • Served with: Spinach, Courgette and Pickled Ginger California Roll
  • Character: Lime and lemon dominate this zesty, salty very pale Koshu which also has a touch of mint and creamed rice.

6 Katsunuma Winery, Aruga Branca, ‘Clareza’, Koshu, 2018

  • Importer: Japan Food Express Ltd
  • Approximate retail price (UK): £33-35
  • Abv: 11% abv
  • Winemaking: free run juice, no oak, fermentation on lees for 6 months
  • Served with: California Roll with Crab and Mango with Wasabi
  • Character: A benchmark for Koshu quality, this has plenty of pure pink grapefruit flavour and a gently creamy texture, before finishing with a lingering apple-like freshness.

7 Haramo, Koshu, 2017 – ¥2,700 (£18-20)

  • Importer: TK Trading
  • Approximate retail price (UK): £18-20
  • Abv: 11.5%
  • r/s: 1.3g/l
  • pH: 3.2
  • Winemaking notes: Volcanic/clay soils, Pergola/cane training, Stainless steel ferments
  • Served with: Scallop Sashimi encrusted with Pepper and Coriander
  • Character: Notes of peach and lemon feature in this medium-weight Koshu along with a palate-cleansing touch of fine phenolics on the finish, giving a dry, mouth-coating sensation.

8 Château Mercian, Fuefuki Koshu, Gris de Gris, 2019

  • Importer: Boutinot
  • Approximate retail price (UK): £18
  • Winemaking: 3 weeks on skins, fermentation in tank for 28 days then oak barrel for 10 days, followed by 4 months in oak and stainless steel.
  • Fuefuki district in Yamanashi
  • Abv: 11.5%
  • Gravel soils/pergola training
  • Character: A complex Koshu with noticeable vanilla aromas from the oak use in the winemaking process and some fine grippy tannins from extended skin contact. The wine also has appealing flavours of peach juice and tea leaves.

9 Lumière ‘Prestige Class’ Orangé, Koshu, 2019

  • Importer: Amathus Drinks
  • Approximate retail price (UK): £14
  • Abv: 11%
  • pH: 3.2
  • winemaking: 2 weeks skin contact
  • Served with: Salmon Nigiri with Pickled Ginger
  • Character: A quite deeply-coloured, almost amber wine with flavours of tangerine, tea leaves, and soy, finishing with a dry, fine tannic sensation.

10 Kurambon, Natural Muscat Bailey A, 2019 (£32)

  • Importer: Japan Gourmet UK
  • Approximate retail price (UK): £32
  • Abv: 12%
  • r/s: 2.9g/l
  • pH: 3.5
  • Winemaking notes: Clay and sand/pergola, cold maceration/skin contact for 3 weeks. Ageing in French oak for 7 months
  • Production: 2,000 bottles
  • Served with: Seared Beef Nigiri with Wasabi
  • Character: A light soft wine with notes of freshly crushed strawberry and vanilla.

11 Château Mercian, Mariko Syrah, Nagano, 2017

  • Importer: Boutinot
  • Approximate retail price (UK): £30
  • Abv: 13.5%,
  • Winemaking notes: clay soils, vsp training, planted in 2004 at 620m, stainless steel fermentation, 18 months ageing in oak.
  • Character: An attractive cooler-climate style of Syrah with lots of white pepper spice and red cherry fruit, fresh acidity and fine tannins.

12 Manns Wines, Solaris Shinshu Higashiyama ‘La Croix’, 2016

  • Blend: Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) Merlot (40%)
  • Importer: JFC
  • Abv: 12.3%
  • Region: Higashiyama, Nagano
  • Winemaking notes: Clay soils, 20 months in French oak barrels
  • r/s: 1.0g/l
  • pH: 3.8
  • Production: 420cases
  • Character: Gently herbal with some soft red berries mixed with richer blackcurrant fruit characters, a touch of attractive tobacco and cedar notes, with fine, dry tannins, and a persistent finish.

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