Thursday, February 23, 2012

Japanese miniatures

Water colours or oils? Chamber music or orchestral? Those were the kinds of questions that sprang to mind as I tasted my way through a series of Japan’s best Koshus. For anyone unfamiliar with this Japanese grape (a description that I’d imagine applies to 99.9999% of wine consumers), it is a pink skinned vinifera grown in Yamanashi, a region close to Mount Fuji. It is Japan’s most widely grown wine variety but with less than 500 ha of vineyards, it represents a smaller-than-homeopathic drop in the global bucket. One might imagine that Japan’s 150m population would be able to consume it all over not very many meals, but the producers are evidently keen to export and have taken on a highly respected Master of Wine called Lynne Sherriff to help them develop sales in Europe.

Three years into this process, sales are still tiny (one sommelier says he hand-sold 10 bottles last year) but Ms Sherriff has undeniably created something of a Koshu buzz among the great and good. Last week, Jancis Robinson, Steven Spurrier, Anthony Rose and the (surprisingly humorous) Japanese ambassador) were among the group at Hibiscus restaurant to sample 13 wines with a set of dishes.

So back to those water colours. Koshu is either delightfully subtle or flavour-challenged, depending on your point of view and taste. At its best, it has a very floral (rose, honeysuckle and violet) nose (arguably its best point) and a creamy flavour that reminds me of a light, apple puree and egg-white pudding my mother used to make called apple snow. Some also have notes of quince and sweet spice, but none is flavour-packed. An oaked version from Suntory illustrated the problem with this grape; to my mind it looked like a fragile beauty caked in (high quality) makeup. A sparkling example was unsuccessful for a different reason: it simply did not have enough flavour for the bubbles.

Even the best of these watery-pale wines are challenging though. Serve them as an aperitif to non wine-buff friends and there’s a high risk of them being swallowed without anyone pausing to think about what’s in their glasses. Put them with any flavoursome dish and they will probably suffer the same fate. Maybe you should save them for the day when you are preparing a very, very plainly cooked flat fish.

My own experience of the variety is actually slightly wider than many of the others at the lunch because eight or so years ago I was one of a pair of overseas judges at the first Japan Wine Competition at which I sipped and spat a long series of examples, often struggling to find words to describe their fleeting flavours. My favourites then were, I discovered, still among my favourites today: Grace (the only one to have overt gingerbread and clove spice) and Rubaiyat (the most quince-like), along with L’Orient (maybe the most complex) and Marquis (which combines lemon rind with the apple).

I have no idea where these wines fit into my or any non-Japanese wine drinker’s repertoire; they are a bit like a subtly-patterned tie that goes very well with a shirt one rarely wears. In this, they are not unlike the best examples of Swiss Chasselas and, like those wines, should definitely be sealed under screwcaps to maintain their freshness


  1. I agree with your comments about Koshu sparkling for the 2010 Lumiere...but did you try the Lumiere 2009? I thought it has a lot more going for it...and rather liked the unusual 'violet' colour

  2. Unfortunately, I haven't tasted the 09 which sounds intriguing. To be honest I haven't yet had a sparkling Koshu that had worked for me. or a sparkling Chasselas for that matter, but I'll keep an open mind!