Zen and the art of winemaking

04 February, 2011

There aren’t many wine styles that are unfamiliar to most people in the drinks trade, but Japanese Koshu is surely one of them. I don’t mind admitting that before a recent Koshu of Japan tasting in London, my knowledge of the country’s signature wine style was next to non-existent. I was more familiar with Korean Gamay than Koshu.

I’m not alone in this. Even in Japan, relatively little is known about Koshu. And those who have tasted it are prone to dismiss it.

How to remedy this state of affairs? KOJ had the smart idea of inviting Jancis Robinson MW to present a masterclass of nine wines before tasters were let loose on the samples. Her comments were typically erudite and concise, based on three visits to Japan. Koshu, she told us, is “quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before”.

It was getting more intriguing by the minute.

Koshu is vitis vinifera (or at least 98% of its genes are) and probably came to Japan along the silk route. It has thick, pinkish skins, is potentially very vigorous and prone to coulure in the vineyard. Most of the 80-odd producers are small, which means that – with a few exceptions such as Suntory and Mercian – economies of scale are rare. The majority of the vineyards are in Yamanashi, the region that includes Mount Fuji, and are grown on pergolas.

And its character, or lack thereof? Even Robinson conceded that it is one of the most neutral grapes but argued that this can be an advantage when the wine is paired with sushi and sashimi. After all, she added, raw white fish can be comparatively neutral too. “I like the zen purity of Koshu,” she said. “It’s low-key, calming and pure. There’s a great correlation with the Japanese character.” Tasting the wines from KOJ’s members, I could see what she meant. To some, we are in ‘white spot on a white wall’ territory – the bland leading the bland, as it were – but there are subtle differences between them, based on yield, soil type, picking dates, phenolics, residual sugar, lees contact and (occasionally) barrel fermentation. Quality also varies considerably. My favourites were from Grace, Soryu, Rubaiyat, Haramo, L’orient, Lumière, Mars Wine and Suntory.

Koshu is, inevitably, often compared with other neutral grapes. Chasselas was mentioned, as were Melon de Bourgogne (the variety used to make Muscadet), but to me the better examples have elements of unoaked Chablis, Albariño and even Loire Sauvignon Blanc about them. It is no coincidence that Denis Dubourdieu, the French oenology professor who specialises in the last variety, consults for Mercian.

The more immediate question is whether there is a market for Koshu in the UK. Prices are steep (I couldn’t find anything below £16 retail), which makes the wines something of a hand-sell. They are best suited to restaurants, possibly as a by-the-glass pour, and with Japanese food. It would help if the wines were bottled under screwcap (very few are at present) as their flavours are so delicate that the slightest hint of cork taint or oxidation can ruin them. They could also do with a few more stockists. Selfridges lists a couple, as do Novum, while Ellis of Richmond and Enotria are looking at the category, but that’s about it.

Now is surely a good time to be promoting Koshu. Is it just me, or is there a strong move away from over-ripe, over-alcoholic, over-oaked blockbusters towards subtler wines? Some of the more prominent American wine critics may be stuck in the 1990s, when bigger was almost always better, but they look increasingly out of step with public taste. Marks & Spencer, among other UK retailers, is focusing on lighter, food-friendly wines, promising to list more than 100 under 11% by April.

Koshu, like other subtle, unoaked white wines, makes demands on us as tasters. Rather than being blown away by gobs of fruit, oak and alcohol, we are required to examine nuance and complexity. The wines whisper in your ear, rather than shout at you, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The differences are there; they’re just hidden below the surface.

I can’t imagine that the buyers from Tesco and Sainsbury’s are considering a Finest or Taste the Difference Koshu in the near future, but this isn’t a mass-market product. It’s too niche and expensive for a start. But I enjoyed my first taste of Koshu. I’m still no expert, but it was great to experience one of the world’s least-known wine styles. Next time I’ll drink Koshu with Japanese food.

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