Ideal conditions have Yamanashi's thriving Koshu grape vineyards eyeing global market

High hopes for Japan’s young wine

by Patrice Novotny

AFP-JIJI

A thousand years ago, a vine that had traveled from the coast of the Caspian Sea along the Silk Road arrived in Japan, where its fruit was heralded as having unique medicinal properties.

Now, the Koshu grape fills terraces on the foothills of Mount Fuji, where those in the know say it makes a pretty decent and uniquely Japanese white wine that industry leaders intend to export to the West.

“The grape is well-suited to the climate,” said winemaker Naoki Watanabe. “Its skin is thicker than other varieties to better withstand the heavy rainfall we get here.”

Around 95 percent of the 480 hectares of Koshu vineyards lie in Yamanashi Prefecture in towns such as Kai, a picturesque place with views of Mount Fuji.

Koshu has evolved to thrive in the volcanic soil of the region, where heavy rainfall is balanced out by plentiful sunshine — around 2,250 hours a year. France’s Bordeaux region gets just over 2,000. Growers also benefit from the wide disparity between daytime high temperatures and night-time lows, a difference that concentrates the naturally occurring sugars in the fruit.

The grapes are picked in October or early November — relatively late by European standards — before being pressed into a fruity white wine that connoisseurs say complements local foods.

“In the mouth it is fresh at first . . . with a nice balance between acidity and natural sugar. To finish it has a little astringency that makes it special,” said Watanabe, adding it “goes well with dishes like sashimi or grilled fish, as well as with sauces like soy or miso.”

Japan’s wine market is still relatively small. On average, adults drink just 2.5 tiers, or around three bottles, each year, of which roughly one-third is grown domestically, compared with the annual 50 liters the French drink.

It’s also relatively young: Despite the Koshu grape’s long history in Japan, it was not pressed into use for wine until after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, marking the end of more than two centuries in which the country was closed to the outside world.

“The Japanese began to produce wine after their first large-scale contacts with Europe,” said Ko Sakurai, chief executive of Suntory Wine International, one of Japan’s top five wine firms.

Koshu is starting to attract interest from wine’s global cognoscenti, who say it marks a departure for a relatively underdeveloped industry.

“This is a very interesting variety that the region can use to make itself better known as a wine producing area.” said Benjamin Roffet, who was named French Sommelier of the Year in 2010. He said the wine “is semi-aromatic, with an expressive nose . . . the flavors are very nice and it has a medium acidity.”

It goes well with slightly spicy food, but can stand on its own.

As well as Koshu, Japanese vineyards also grow Muscat Bailey A, from which they produce red wine. Varieties of French origin are also cultivated, such as chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon. Sakurai says Japanese wine is now of sufficient quality to export and could even compete with some Old World wines.

“We are hoping to sell some of the higher-end wines in Europe, and build up a prestige brand,” he said.