On June 19, Shizen, a white wine made in Japan with the native Koshu grape, will make its debut at Vinexpo, Bordeaux. By exhibiting at one of the wine industry’s most important events, Ernest Singer, the man behind Shizen and a project to improve winemaking in Japan, is declaring his confidence in Koshu wine to the international community.

Singer began to make wine from the Koshu grape with the aim of revitalizing Japan’s struggling agriculture industry. “Farmers in Japan are not going to be able to make a living by growing and exporting raw products like tomatoes,” he says as we chat in his office at Millesimes Japan, a wine importer that also produces Shizen, at Chateraise Belle Foret Winery. “Only processed agriculture works and, of course, wine is the ultimate processed agricultural product.

“The reason why French wine is so highly regarded is because of French cuisine. Because Japanese food is now more popular than French food — there are 600 or 700 Japanese restaurants in New York now — I would think that there is a market for the export of a wine that matches Japanese cuisine,” he says.

Shizen Cuvee Denis Dubourdieu is a light wine that has refreshing citrus hints. Low in alcohol, this delicate beverage works well with the subtle flavors found in Japan’s native cuisine.

“If you’re making wine for Japanese food, it needs to be a velvet that shows off the diamonds, not something that competes with it,” explains Singer.

While most grapes do not thrive in Japan, due to problems with mold caused by humidity, Koshu has thick skin that resists infection. But the subject of whether or not the grape is truly native is debatable. Before Singer began his project to raise the quality and the profile of Koshu wine, his chief winemaker, Prof. Denis Dubourdieu of the University of Bordeaux (who is something of a legend in the wine world), gathered some compelling evidence that pointed to the grape having its origins in Europe.

“He took Koshu and we sent it to the University of California Davis for analysis,” says Singer. “The analysis came back, that it’s 95 percent European vinifera.”

The find was a happy one. While Koshu had acclimatized to Japan’s muggy climate, it had many European characteristics that are necessary to make a quality wine.

“Grapes which are not vinifera have foul tastes and smells that are commonly called ‘foxy,’ and that are not suitable for wine,” says Singer.

After analyzing the Koshu grape, the next stage was finding out which conditions were best for it to thrive. This is an ongoing process.

“We haven’t really arrived at that conclusion yet,” admits Singer. “Our biggest vineyard plantings are on the (foothills) of Mount Fuji at an altitude of 1,000 meters. We’re hoping that those will produce the best grapes, but right now the climate is very severe; it’s hard to tell.

“After that, we have a vineyard in Nagano, which has very little rainfall. The rainfall is approximately that of Bordeaux, but it’s still warm in summer. Still, it’s half or one-third of the rain you get in Yamanashi (where Singer’s Mount Fuji vineyards are located), so right now we haven’t quite decided.”

Bucking the tradition of growing Koshu on pergolas or trellises, Singer decided to try training his vines using the vertical shoot positioning (VSP) system, a method developed for training vine growth vertically rather than horizontally on a canopy. This method allows for more airflow through the vine and increases exposure to the sunlight, allowing the grape to ripen more evenly.

“Everyone in Japan insisted that it was impossible to grow Japanese grapes (with) VSP,” says Singer, though in the end it was a success, resulting in the Koshu VSP version of Shizen.

Sugar levels in the Koshu grape are still rather low compared with varieties of grapes grown overseas, and that affects the levels of alcohol in the wine.

“Because the sugar levels are so low, we were only able to get about nine or 10 degrees (percent proof) of alcohol out of the grapes at most,” says Singer. “What that means is that you have to add sugar in order to get it up to 12 degrees, which is considered the minimum for a wine.

“This put us into a big dilemma, so Prof. Dubourdieu came up with the idea of low-alcohol wine. It turns out that there are certain kinds in particular, you know: Vinho Verde from Portugal, which is a low-alcohol wine, it’s about nine or 10 degrees and it’s very acceptable.”

Shizen was accepted for export by the EU in 2008, and since then, other wineries making Koshu, most notably Grace Winery in Katsunuma, Yamanashi Prefecture, have also begun to export their wines.

Surprisingly, though, Singer is rather critical of his rivals. He claims his manifesto of reviving Japanese viticulture through his project has been warped by some existing wineries that he feels have ridden on the coattails of his successes.

“(Some companies) were making this terrible wine called Koshu that no one would buy; the domestic wine market had completely collapsed; (some winemakers) were pulling out the Koshu and putting in more expensive table grapes,” he alleges. “It was finished; it was on the verge of disappearing when I made the wine. All of a sudden, people had been able to sell the same bad wine they’d been selling before, so there’s no motivation to improve the quality. So all these bad Koshu makers have become stars.”

Lynne Sherriff is a certified Master of Wine who has been acting as a consultant to Koshu of Japan, an organization made up of 15 Koshu producers that aims to promote the wine overseas. She responds to these criticisms in an email.

“I have been going to Japan since 1986,” she says. “It is undoubtedly true that when I first visited Japan, the quality of most Koshu wines was very dubious. In the last four to five years, the quality has improved dramatically, with the result that some Koshu wines entering international competitions have picked up medals.”

Though Singer will not be exhibiting his wines alongside any other Koshu makers at Vinexpo, his efforts may have paved the way for other Japanese Koshu makers to enter the world stage. The Koshu of Japan organization, declares on its website that its mission is to “improve the quality of the distinctively Japanese Koshu grapes and wines and to increase the awareness of these wines (in) global markets.” Despite the controversy, Singer has helped ensure that Koshu’s star is on the rise.

Flying the nest from Koshu to the world

Because of its delicate flavors, Koshu is now making inroads into European markets as a beverage that compliments Japanese food. At the time of writing, three Koshu of Japan wineries have successfully arranged for their wines to be exported to the EU. Below are tasting notes from Master of Wine Lynne Sherriff for those wines that have made the grade, plus some information on the wineries themselves.

Grace Winery:

Lynne Sherriff describes Grace’s Kayagatake Koshu as having “light aromatics of white peach and citrus. These aromatics continue onto the palate, which is elegant, fruity, with a crisp acidity on the finish.” Another wine, Grace Koshu Hishiyama, is said to have aromas of peach and citrus. “The palate is finely tuned and the mineral character shows on the palate. The finish is rounded, with lively acidity adding balance and finesse,” says Sherriff.

Grace Winery has been in the Misawa family for four generations. The current owner is Shigekazu Misawa, with his daughter, Ayana Misawa, in charge of winemaking. The family are happy to break with tradition to get the best from their grapes and, like Ernest Singer from wine importer Millesimes Japan, have recently started to grow their grapes using the vertical shoot positioning system.

Sold in London’s swanky Selfridges department store and featured on the menu of that city’s Zuma Japanese restaurant, Grace has a small but firm foothold in Britain.

Yamanashi Winery: Sherriff says of Sol Lucet Koshu, “The nose is delicate with citrus notes and some stone fruit. The palate is light and fresh, with the fruit and the acidity well integrated.”

Located in Katsunuma in the titular prefecture, Yamanashi Winery makes wine using both own-grown and bought-in grapes. It’s currently shifting toward organic agriculture. Having made a deal with British wine importer Enotria, Yamanashi Winery is expecting to export to the EU this summer.

Shirayuri Winery: On Shirayuri’s flagship wine, L’Orient Koshu, Sherriff comments: “Delicate notes of pear drops and white fruit. The palate is soft and delicate with a lively finish.”

L’Orient Koshu made a name for itself in Japan when it was featured in volume 80 of celebrated manga “Oishinbo” (“The Gourmet”). The wine’s French name reflects Shirayuri’s aim to produce a wine that adheres to the high standards of European winemaking techniques.

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