Japanese Wine

Tasting a slew of Japanese wines for a Tokyo magazine tasting-panel recently…

…made me realize just how different foreign perceptions of wine’s role are to those among many Japanese.

Tasting a slew of Japanese wines for a Tokyo magazine tasting-panel recently made me realize just how different foreign perceptions of wine’s role are to those among many Japanese. While I experienced a number of wines made from various grape varieties, many good enough to bring me back for a second and third taste, it was to Japan’s peculiar Koushu (often spelled as Koshu, but more accurately, pronounced with a longer ‘o’ thus, Koushu) that I paid most attention.

Koushu is ‘peculiar’ because while it is not indigenous to Japan as some claim, it is cultivated almost exclusively in Japan (there are also patches grown in Germany and probably, elsewhere). It is Vitis Vinifera and likely arrived on Japanese shores by way of the Silk Road’s arteries of trade and has remained as a table grape and more recently, as a grape used to make wine. Thus Japan’s grape-growing heritage largely rests on Koushu’s shoulders, while foreign attention paid to Japanese wine, increasing due to the successful export of Japanese cuisine, largely focuses on Koushu.

The spotlight is also firmly on Koushu because the foxy nature of the many disease-resistant hybrids grown in Japan, such as Muscat Bailey A, detracts from quality in the finished wines. Moreover, while there is much to encourage in Japanese wine, there is no forceful Japanese voice expressed through the better wines made from international grapes yet. No doubt that will come with better site selection, clonal choice and vineyard management. Conversely however, there is indeed a definitive ‘Japaneseness’ to Koushu that demands further exploration.

Koushu has largely produced relatively neutral wines to date. Its flavor precursors are similar to Sauvignon Blanc. It is a pink grape variety with thick skins and relatively low acid. Subsequently the trend has been to pick before the skins have thickened too much, retaining a modicum of freshness while avoiding ‘skinsy’ phenolics. Thankfully, Koushu is a low alcohol variety meaning that this can generally be achieved without under-ripe green notes. Free-run juice without pressings or any further skin contact, is tantamount to the relatively fresh, subtle expressions that have been common to date. The wines that result are often fattened a little and imbued with a tad of complexity through lees contact, much like the way in which Muscadet is made. Otherwise, most examples are bottled without much messing about.

One Japanese journalist described Koushu wines as akin to Japanese women, lacking personality. In contrast, both Tim Atkins and Jancis Robinson noted in recent articles that there are differences among Koushu’s more delicate expressions albeit, they are very subtle. Robinson referred to the wines as ‘Zen-like’ while Atkins, quite rightly, suggested how refreshing it is to taste highly drinkable wines due to controlled alcohol levels and poise. Both writers agreed with the famed Bordeaux consultant Denis Dubourdieu who consults on a couple of Koushu projects, noting the natural affinity of Koushu with Japanese food, which brings me to an interesting digression and the crux of this piece. While Westerners largely see wine as something to be enjoyed with food, wine is seldom consumed with (Japanese) food in Japan.

Japanese cuisine is largely based on a minimalist, compartmentalized rubric. In a culture lacking the laissez-faire approach to pairing wines of many origins with a range of foods that immigration and a polyglot of cultures bring, many Japanese perceive wine as a drink to pair with Western food-tightly defined as French or Italian-while Japanese fare works with traditional drinks including Nihonshuu (sake).

In Japan the food on the plate is not designed to be enhanced, augmented or altered in any way with wine, or other accoutrements. Perfection is reached when nothing more can be removed from a dish, rather than through manipulations and / or additions. Thus it stands to reason that the more dainty and, I suggest, simple, expressions of Koushu harmonize with this aesthetic which is, intrinsically, ascetic. However while I would hope that subtle styles of Koushu and their physiological affinity with much Japanese food helps to introduce the joys of wine to many Japanese, possibly leading to greater wine consumption, parameters followed by Western scholars when assessing wine quality lack the same grist if Japanese consumers are not drinking wine with (local) food-pairings in mind.

Surely this means that many alternate styles of Koushu, dismissed by foreign commentators and yet championed by many Japanese wine critics, demand a different set of tenets from tasters when determining quality. The point of this article is not to map out what these are because frankly, I have no idea. It is merely to suggest that Koushu styles that have undergone oak handling, ambient yeast fermentation, judicious amounts of malolactic fermentation and, anathema to those for whom delicacy is the leitmotif, skin-contact; represent a different paradigm and are, in certain instances, a good drink if the notion that Koushu is to be made as a delicate limpid wine (to obviate phenolics) that harmonizes with subtle Japanese dishes, is dispelled.

There is room for a number of stylistic expressions of Koushu, at least on Japanese shores. While I cannot divulge the best Koushus, across a number of styles yet (the magazine for which the tasting was conducted is yet to be published), I can see myself drinking a broad, leesy, orange example, toned with a whiff of new oak and reminiscent of Gravner’s wines from Friuli in northeast Italy, as the sun comes up here in Tokyo and it is time to stop clattering away.

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