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Forget Sake, let the Koshu pour

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Most people, if asked to name a Japanese alcohol, would reply ‘sake’, or perhaps Suntory whiskey or Asahi beer. It comes as a surprise to many to find that Japan is an emerging wine producer.

I have just returned from a conference in Japan, and while there I had the opportunity to sample local, fully domesticated, Japanese wine.

Wine can be labelled Japanese if bottled there. This allows for imported grape juice or must, or even bulk wine, to be called Japanese. One has to look for the fully domesticated label for the true home grown product.

The main regions include Yamanishi, near Mt Fuji, where there are more than 130 genuine wine producers; Nagano/Niigita; and Hokkaido in the north. Hokkaido is the biggest wine producer. Wine production in Hyogo in the Kobe region and Yamagata is a smaller affair, with areas of less than 200 hectares, but the product is superior.   

The climate in Japan is extreme. Hot summers with battering typhoons rapidly turn to cold snowy winters courtesy of Mongolia’s frozen steppe. Awesome for skiing, though.

The soil is often acidic and land is scarce. Japan is incredibly mountainous, (another feature that makes it great for skiing) but, combined with the pressure of habitation and competition from other forms of agriculture use, it means Japan is tough going for a vintner.

Persistent wet and cloudy conditions are conducive to the development of mould, and hamper the ripening process.

Interestingly, Japanese authorities allow for sugar to be added during the fermentation process, similar to France’s Chapatal laws. Up to 260 grams per litre can be added. This makes sense when on the Baume scale, which equates sugar levels to expected alcohol when the wine is fully fermented, only reaches to between nine and 11 Baume. By comparison, a serious Barossa Shiraz can be 14 or 15 Baume. Incidentally, the addition of sugar is illegal in Australia.

A high trellised system enables good air flow and some horizontal trellising helps resist typhoon winds.

Japanese vintners sounds like they share some of the maladies and challenges those in the Hunter Valley have to overcome.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot dominate the European red varieties, and Chardonnay and Riesling are the mainstays of the whites.

The overwhelming conclusion is that the wines have varietal characteristics.

The Koshu variety, found in 1186 growing in the wild in the middle of Honshu and considered to be Japan’s only true native variety, is the most common used for table wine. The grape is pink in colour, with a thick skin that aids in mould and botrytis resistance. The wine is a pale light yellow colour.

I found delicate white peach and floral notes in some, while in others there were additional grassy aromas. The palate is forward and light, with little acidity.

The four or five I tasted were consistent in this light style, and all were devoid of flaws. Some wine makers are experimenting with barrel fermentation and lees contact for complexity. I thought it was an outstanding match for sashimi of any kind.

Merlot seems to be the most consistent red varietal. A Merlot by Domaine Echigo, from the Niigita region, was outstanding. For $A35, it would match most $A50 Merlot-driven Bordeaux wines. Nice red to purple colour. Restrained red current and spice bouquet, with enough fruit, acid and structure to match lightly seared wagyu.

I had a little wine separation anxiety while in Japan. Certainly, one can pay over the odds in a big hotel for what we consider BBQ wine.

But the bottom line is, “when in Rome…” So, don’t be afraid to try the Japanese wines, but have an open mind, considering it is a fledgling industry.