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An early start for Japanese wines

by Felicity Hughes

“Please don’t drink too much,” screeches a man wielding a megaphone, but he’s a bit too late because half the genteel crowd are already totally hammered. It’s not surprising, really, seeing as there are around 70 wines to sample and there’s not a single spittoon in sight.

It’s a mid-week mid-day in Hibiya Park, Tokyo. The crowd gathered by the fountain are enjoying the sunshine, the um-pah-pah of a nearby brass band and copious amounts of freshly bottled wine.

Yamanashi Nouveau tastings during November are a great opportunity to assess the quality of the year’s harvest from Japan’s most famous wine region. As with Beaujolais Nouveau, this is an incredibly young wine, bottled almost straight from the harvest. The practice of drinking Beaujolais Nouveau, made from the Gamay grape, from the third Thursday of November is often criticized by wine experts who feel the wine needs some time in the bottle to develop its flavors.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the youthful bubblegum flavors of Beaujolais Nouveau, so I was interested, if a little leery, to find out whether Japan’s white-grape Koshu and red-grape Muscat Bailey A would taste as good when consumed so early in the year.

But first I wanted to find out how favorable the weather conditions had been this year. While most of Japan suffers from prohibitive levels of precipitation, Yamanashi is rather drier and many of the region’s wineries are located near Katsunuma town in the Kofu basin, which enjoys good grape growing conditions.

This year’s vintage was a bit of a mixed bag and it was definitely up to the skill of the winemaker to transform difficult grapes into refreshing wines. “The weather conditions were rather unfavorable up until June, but from then until August we didn’t have any rain and we had perfect conditions for grape growing,” said Seichi Funabashi, who was here to represent Grace Winery.

The key issue is balancing the wine’s acidity without adding excessive levels of sugar (chaptalization is allowed in Japan).

The Koshu grape has been grown in Japan for about 1,200 years. It’s a light fresh grape with citrus flavors that can bite a little too hard if not handled with appropriate care. Recently Koshu has made some ripples on the international scene, because being a long-standing native grape, it partners well with sushi. Funabashi informed me that Grace Winery’s now sells its Koshu wine in mainland Europe and isabout to export it to Britain in February 2010.

Despite the international buzz surrounding Koshu, I found that not all the wines lived up to the hype. Out of 10 that I tried, only three were particularly well balanced. The other wines suffered from either a syrupy sweetness that masked defects in the wine or an ill-tempered acidity. But there were some more elegant renderings of the grape.

Katsunuma Nouveau Koshu (¥1,500) had gooseberry-sharp aromas, tempered with sweet sherbet that followed through nicely on the palate. Chateraise Belle Foret Winery’s offering for 2009 (¥1,200) had intriguing honeysuckle scents that could also be detected in a floral honeyed palate. Floral hints could be detected again in Ohizumi Winery’s Koshu (¥1,600), this time the faint scent of pressed violets was augmented with a velvety mix of soft honeys and citrus fruit. While I liked the dryness of Grace Winery’s Koshu (¥1,300), its lemon-peel hints on the nose became overly sharp in the mouth, though it’s likely this will mellow with age.

It was time to try Muscat Bailey A, a hybrid variety of the Bailey grape and the Muscat Hamburg grape. Developed in Japan in the early part of the last century, it was specifically developed to withstand the rigors of the Japanese climate. The grape has a cherry-fruit sweetness and was originally intended to be used for sweeter wines; however, winemakers have changed their style with fashion and many dry versions of the wine were available at the tasting. Though many of the wines I tried were not to my taste, having a peculiar tang of tobacco, Grace’s Muscat Bailey A (¥1,300) came up trumps. Fruity but not overly sweet, I was told this wine works well with the succulent barbeque flavors of yakitori. Rubiyat Winery’s Muscat Berry A (¥1,300) also managed to bring this rather odd-tasting wine into balance, and drinking it reminded me of the dubious pleasures of smoking cherry tobacco as a teenager.

Speaking of rather weird flavors, I stumbled across a few wines made from the Adirondac grape. As far as I can gather, this variety is usually consumed as table grapes, and judging by the rather foul potion I tasted, they ought to be enjoyed in no other way. An enticing burned caramel on the nose, leads you into taking a sip, which reveals a sickly flavor reminiscent of the unpleasant sensation of eating ancient toffees that had melted and hardened numerous times on some forgotten sunlit shelf.

There was one pleasant surprise left for me at the tasting, however; Suzuran Winery made an excellent Merlot (¥1,800). A whiff of burned leaves leads you into good strong oak flavors supported by balanced tannins, and a tiny hint of strawberries added just the right daub of bright color to this somber wine.

While it was good to see winemakers experimenting with other varieties, there was no contest as to which grape won the prize for sheer glugability. “While I prefer red wines from overseas, in Japan, I think Koshu is strongest,” said Katsuo Sakai, a keen-nosed aroma therapist who was attending the festival. “I like the wine from Souyu Winery, the aroma is very well balanced and it has flavors of lemon and grapefruit that would go well with tempura. Japanese wine has rather too much flavor and is lacking balance, I think that’s because it’s hard to find a temperate area that’s perfect for making wine.”

If you would like to try Yamanashi Nouveau wines, there are two tastings at Kose Sports Park, Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture on Sat. 14 and Sun. 15 Nov. Kose Sports Park is 10 min. by taxi from Kofu Station on the JR Chuo Line. A ¥1,000 entry fee will buy you a glass with which you can taste unlimited amounts of wine. For more information visit wine.jp/nouveau/ (Japanese only).

Wine-tasting tours that make Yamanashi even better to visit

Japan’s wine country is only a few hours’ drive from Tokyo, nestling in a basin surrounded by stunning mountains, including Mount Fuji. At this time of year, a drive out to this region reveals vistas of splendid autumn foliage as leaves turn regal shades of red and gold and set our olfactory sense abuzz with the poignant smells of decaying leaves and damp earth. I always find that the nip in the mountain air sharpens my senses and appetite, making it the perfect time of year to visit a winery.

Marufuji has a history stretching back to 1890 when it was founded by Oomura Sakuzi. Four generations later, the winery has stayed in the family. One of the most famous wines produced there is called Rubaiyat Koshu Sur Lie, which is served in Executive Class on JAL flights. The wine was named after a selection of Persian poems written by Omar Khayyam around the 11th century, when a visiting poetry professor sampled the wine in the 1950s and proclaimed it superlative enough to match the Arabic prose.

(0553) 440-043; www.rubaiyat.jp/index.html (Japanese only). Call in advance before visiting.

Chateau Sakaori is a winery to watch — three of their wines won a seal of approval at this year’s Japan Wine Challenge. Low yields mean that the wines produced are of exceptional quality, and the chateau is interested in experimenting not only with the Koshu grape but also with Western varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Tours of the winery are free, but if you’d like to attend a tasting in addition, the cost is ¥1,500. It’s well worth the price because the winery is high up on a slope and offers panoramic views of the mountains nearby.

(055) 227-0511; www.sakaoriwine.com (Japanese only). For a tour, make a reservation at least a week in advance.

Katsunuma Winery concentrates on making the finest possible wine from the Koshu grape, and 70 percent of the grapes grown there are of this native variety. Katsunuma wines can even be bought in France under a partnership with Bernard Magrez who owns Chateau Pape Clement. Nestled in a picturesque spot between the Chichibu mountain range and Hakone, the mountains protect the grape harvest from damaging heavy rains. The winery itself is built in the same traditional Japanese style as when the business started in 1937. Tours cost ¥1,000 with a member of staff, or ¥7,000 to be accompanied by owner Yuji Aruga.

(0553) 440-069; www.katsunuma-winery.com. Book at least a week in advance.