My first serious encounter with Japanese wines was around 12 years ago at a grape festival in Yamanashi Prefecture, the center of Japanese winemaking.
Previously, I’d tasted several wines made from European grape varietals — in particular, Bordeaux-style blends of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and whites made from chardonnay. For the most part, however, they left little impression on me, so I went to Yamanashi Prefecture seeking wines made with native Japanese grapes in hopes of discovering vino with real local flavor.
Specifically, I was interested in Koshu, a pink-skinned grape originally from the Caucasus that arrived in the Yamanashi region roughly 1,000 years ago. The Japanese variety is an indigenous hybrid with thick skins that can withstand the country’s humid, rainy climate (the history of winemaking in Japan is, in essence, a bitter 150-year-long battle with mold and fungus). Koshu grapes are typically used to make fresh, delicate whites, and I found plenty of these styles during my visit. But apart from a few labels, such as Grace Wine’s Gris de Koshu and Rubaiyat Winery’s Rubaiyat Koshu Sur Lie, many of the wines were so subtle as to lack any distinctiveness.
After sampling a dozen fairly insipid Koshu wines, I stumbled upon a red varietal that I’d never heard of before: Muscat Bailey A. It was developed in 1927 by pioneering winemaker Zenbei Kawakami, who founded the Iwanohara Vineyard in 1890. Struggling to find a hardy vine that could cope with the freezing conditions that plagued his vineyards in Niigata Prefecture, Kawakami bred Muscat Hamburg, a dark-skinned variety more commonly eaten as table grapes, with the hybrid Bailey grape.
The wines made from that grape caught my attention, but for all the wrong reasons. Aggressively fruity, with candy-like scents on the nose and exaggerated berry flavors on the palate, they felt like clownish caricatures. Experts frequently refer to this peculiar mix of musky and fruity aromas as “foxy,” but the wines tasted to me like a handful of cherry Jolly Rancher candies that had been rolled in dirt.
Needless to say, I avoided these two varietals for a while.
However, in the intervening years, a quiet revolution has been underway in the Japanese wine world. By 2012, Japanese wine began developing an international reputation and, these days, the quality and range of styles is unprecedented. Thanks to the internet, a wealth of technical information is available, and more Japanese winemakers travel to work with vintners in Europe, the United States and Australia. Wineries rely less on grapes imported from overseas, instead increasing domestic grape production and focusing more attention on native varieties.
I decided it was time to take another look at Koshu and Muscat Bailey A, and am delighted by some of the expressions. At Shinjuku Bu-an, a restaurant and bar stocked with hundreds of bottles of Japanese wine, I tried Coco Farm & Winery’s Koshu F.O.S. — which stands for “fermented on skins” — an orange wine from Tochigi Prefecture that derives its copper hue and tannic backbone from extended skin contact during fermentation. The wine has excellent concentration, with hints of dried apricot and fig and nutty notes in the finish. Who knew Koshu grapes could have this much muscle?
It turns out that Muscat Bailey A also has a multifaceted character. From Kyoto, Tamba Winery’s Tegumi Muscat Bailey A is a playful unfiltered sparkling number that tastes like springtime in a bottle, with soft strawberry sweetness balanced by crisp acidity. Recently, I tasted a sophisticated blend of Muscat Bailey A and black queen — another hybrid bred by Zenbei Kawakami — from Yamagata Prefecture’s Sakai Winery at the Japanese wine and sake specialist Kurabuu in Ginza. Matured in oak, the wine has red and black fruit on the palate with a touch of that exotic foxy flavor; black queen adds body and gravitas. Kawakami would be proud to see his baby all grown up.
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