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Koshu: Japan’s great white hope

by William Campbell

Winemaking in Japan has a long but difficult history. At first glance, there’s the auspicious fact that Japan lies at a similar latitude to sunny, dry California. But here, unlike California, the rainy season strikes during the early summer flowering, and recurrent typhoons batter vineyards just prior to harvest. These conditions render grape cultivation in Japan a difficult and sometimes quixotic undertaking.

In response to these challenges, growers have developed unique vineyard systems and rot-resistant varietals. To win consumers for wine made in Japan, marketers have also attempted to play their part — with a slew of wacky ideas including a wine theme park, a wine onsen, and even a wine aged underwater.

In recent years, serious winemakers have refocused their attention on Koshu, a grape with distant European origins. Because it has been cultivated here since the eighth century, however, it is now considered native to Japan. A trip to Yamanashi, Japan’s “Napa Valley,” reveals the state of Japanese winemaking today.

Located just an hour from Tokyo, Yamanashi has long been considered the fruit bowl of Japan. Its high altitude and location in the rain shadow of Mount Fuji means that it is cooler and drier than other surrounding areas.

Grapes are grown on enormous overhead canopy trellises (tanazukuri) to keep the fruit high above the dampness and allow more air to circulate among the bunches. The predominant varietal is Koshu, a high-yielding, pink-colored grape. Its skin is so thick and bitter that the varietal is naturally resistant to the mildew and rot that make growing traditional European varietals such as Chardonnay and Cabernet so precarious in this country.

Yet the virtues of its tough, repellent skin in the vineyard become a hazard during winemaking. The bitter edge often asserts itself, affecting the character of the juice during crush. Winemakers have responded to this dilemma in various ways, including leaving a touch of residual sugar in the wine to balance out the bitterness; toning it down via the use of fining agents or hyperoxidation; or attempting to complement it via oak barrels or aging it sur lies (with extended yeast contact). One school of winemaking has even sought to define the bitterness as the “correct” taste of Koshu.

Regardless of these issues, Koshu is so emblematic of the region that three local towns recently merged into a new legal entity known simply as Koshu City.

For those game to take a look for themselves, the Katsunuma Budoukyo Tourist Association publishes a detailed map including the locations of more than 100 wineries in the area (for a free copy, call them at [0553] 44-1111). The Association of Nippon’s Wine Lovers also maintains a useful list of the individual Web pages of its members (found at www.jp-wine.com/en/search.html ).

If it is wine that you’re after, top producers include Grace, Katsunuma Jouzou, Marufuji (aka Rubaiyat) and Kizan. For those looking for a bucolic vineyard experience, perhaps the most inviting tasting rooms can be found at Suntory, Katsunuma Jouzou and Haramo Winery, which has a nice attached cafe as well.

One of Yamanashi’s more unusual destinations is Budo no Oka, or Wine Hill, a government-sponsored hotel/onsen complex perched high above the vineyards. The hotel distinguishes itself mainly due to its inexpensive rates (7,300 yen/person, including breakfast). But the real find here is its “Wine Cave,” which can be accessed by descending a spiral staircase from the hotel’s gift shop. The entry fee of 1,100 yen includes a shallow metal tastevin saucer (hint: use it to water your pet and sneak in a real wine glass for yourself), and access to more than 170 different wines from the area, all set up in an unlimited self-pour format.

The Wine Hill center contains many oddities, such as a wine aged under the tropical waters of Palau. However, our all-time, only-in-Japan favorite remains the Wine Onsen in Hakone (visit www.yunessun.com for more details).

Yamanashi wineries focus on Koshu, and it is clear from the wide stylistic range on display that Japanese winemakers are currently experiencing some soul-searching about the true nature of the grape. Perhaps most controversially, a few producers in the area have sought to grow and vinify Koshu in ways that emphasize the aromatics it potentially shares with Sauvignon Blanc.

Although it is a distinctly Japanese story, this trend began in the University of Bordeaux research laboratories of Denis Dubourdieu — who is widely considered to be one of the top research scientists in the world for white-winemaking (he heads the Sauternes powerhouse Doisy-Daene as well). Visiting organic chemist Takatoshi Tominaga was studying the origin of wine aromas there, and discovered that a compound known as 3-mercaptohexanol (3-MH) was in part responsible for the unique grapefruit and passion fruit aromatics typically found in Sauvignon Blanc.

Tominaga went on to write a book poetically titled “Kiiro no Kaori (The Smell of Yellow).” In it, he identifies various aromatic precursors that are converted during winemaking into the compounds responsible for the signature aromas of certain wines (such as 3-MH and Sauvignon Blanc). His idea was that the more precursors you start with, and the better the conversion ratio, the stronger the flavor in the end. He ultimately proposed different ways to modify the grape-growing and winemaking process in order to maximize any particularly desirable compounds in a finished bottle of wine.

Japanese wine giant Mercian found this idea intriguing, and hired Tominaga to come up with a specific set of protocols to maximize the amount of Sauvignon Blanc-esque 3-MH compounds in Koshu.

Although exact details remain secret, they are believed to include growing well-shaded fruit (3-MH precursors suffer from photodegredation); avoiding the use of traditional copper-based “Bordeaux mix” sprays in the vineyard (copper may interfere with precursor conversion); aggressively limiting any oxygen contact during winemaking (by, for example, gassing hoses with carbon dioxide and dumping blocks of dry ice into fermentation vats to blanket the surface with inert gas); and the use of specially isolated yeasts such as VL3 — a strain that its manufacturer markets as designed for enhancing the varietal character and aroma in Sauvignon Blanc.

The new Mercian wine is called Kiiroka, a play on the title of “Kiiro no Kaori,” and it has proven quite controversial in the Japanese winemaking community. As the saying goes, this certainly ain’t your father’s Koshu!

At the same time, Ernie Singer, a Tokyo-based wine importer, hired Dubourdieu as a consultant and began to produce a Cuvee Denis Dubourdieu Koshu for sale to Japanese restaurants overseas. A great deal of interesting information can be found on their Web site ( www.koshu.org/en/project/index.html ), which contains the unusual statement, “First wine made in Japan from 100 percent grape.”

Jonathan Nossiter’s 2004 documentary film “Mondovino” attempted to explore the issue of the globalization of taste. Lost in Nossiter’s sophomoric diatribe was the interesting question of whether the influence of popular critics — in particular, the influential Robert Parker — and so-called “flying winemaker” consultants (such as Michel Rolland) who jet from vineyard to vineyard is really leading to a homogenization of global wine tastes.

This debate is being carried out in miniature in Yamanashi today, as different winemaking interests champion completely divergent ideas about what the “true” nature of Koshu should be.

Mercian’s Kiiroka bottling has grabbed the lion’s share of the press in Japan, while Singer’s Koshu has received good coverage overseas (perhaps unsurprisingly, considering that his company is Parker’s publisher in Japan and organized the $9,000 Parker wine-tasting dinners staged here).

The style debate — no matter how heated — benefits all Koshu winemakers and grape growers, because it draws long-overdue attention to Japan’s “native grape.” But given the parallels between Mondovino and the Cuvee Dubourdieu project (an American promoter with ties to Parker using a French oenologist to make a Japanese wine in an international style to be sold overseas), a more suitable name for that wine may be in order. Perhaps Mondo-Koshu?