Recently, I was thinking about the fact that wine is made in many countries where you wouldn’t expect to find it, including Tunisia, Ireland and Burma. It got me to thinking about Japan. It occurred to me that I know and love Sake, Japanese rice wine, but I don’t know anything about grape wines from Japan. So I decided to do some research, and I discovered koshu wine. In this article, I will share my findings.
Traditional Winemaking Is Relatively New in Japan
While sake (Japanese rice wine) has been made in Japan for centuries, the making of grape wine only got seriously started in Japan after World War II. According to Wikipedia, for the first 25 years, winemaking remained at an early stage of development. A lot of wine was made from imported juice, and honey and sugar was added regularly to the wine.
Japanese Tastes Had a Big Influence
A number of articles I read talked about a Japanese dislike of astringency and acidity that contributed to the heavy reliance on adding honey and sugar to wines. Sweet wines and fortified wines were front and center until the 1970s.
Introducing Koshu Wine
A New York Times article called “Japanese Wineries Betting on a Reviled Grape” talks about the fact that “no one outside Japan wanted to drink [Japanese wine], particularly if it was sweet swill made from a native table grape called koshu.” Koshu is a tart, gray grape found almost exclusively in Yamanashi Prefecture at the base of Mount Fuji. It’s a grape that’s well suited to the wet world of Japan, because it resists rot and ripens late, retaining its natural acidity. It produces wines that are light and crisp with subtle citrus flavors. The problem with koshu was that, until the 1990s, it was known as nothing but a sweet swill.
Ernest Singer Is Working Hard to Make Quality Koshu
In the 1990s, a number of Japanese wine makers began to try to make quality wine from the grape. A key player in this effort is a man named Ernest Singer. Singer is the president of a company called Millesimes, which means vintage in French. Singer created an organization calle Koshu of Japan, whose members are committed to producing quality wine from the koshu grape. This group is no longer adding sugar to the wine, making the wines quite low in alcohol. They are also being careful to minimize the skin’s contact with the juice, since the skin is very bitter.
According to the article, “Mr. Singer’s confidence in koshu is due in no small part to the wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. The two men have worked together since 1998 when Mr. Parker hired Mr. Singer to be his representative in Asia. Mr. Parker tasted Mr. Singer’s 2004 koshu… in December 2004 and gave it a score of 87/88 on a scale of 100 in what Mr. Parker refers to as ‘an educational tasting.’”
For those of us who know Robert Parker, we know that a score of 87 on a somewhat simplistic white wine is highly unusual.
So will koshu make it big? It’s hard to say. According to one expert, “It is simple, clean, fresh, nice. That, and no more. This is Asian wine for Asian food.”
I hope it makes it big enough that I will get to try a bottle in CA. If you’ve gotten to try it, I would love to hear about your experience.