22 Feb 2012

Discovering Koshu wine from Japan

Koshu: a Japanese grape variety sometimes used for winemaking

I had not tried many wines made with the koshu variety until earlier this week, when a tasting organised in Paris by the association called Koshu of Japan gave me the opportunity to try about a dozen of them in an hour or so.

These pictures show the colour of the Koshu grape, its long bunches, and the little paper hats used to protect these from storms as harvest approaches. The trellising is the pergola system.

Koshu is an unusual variety in that its skin is a pinkish-gray colour, but its juice is very pale, almost white. It has apparently been known in Japan since the 12th century (some say earlier), where it may have been introduced by Buddhist monks coming from China. For most of the time since then it has been used as a table grape, but quite recently it has been vinified, at first as a sweet or semi-sweet wine, but now increasingly as a dry and rather lively (ie acid) wine with a relatively low alcohol level (between 10,5% and 12% in the case of the samples I tried). Some sources say that it travelled to Japan via China from the Caucasus region, following Marco Polo. Others say it is in fact a hybrid between vitis vinifera and some indigenous grape species. If anyone can enlighten me further, I would be grateful.

There are not a lot of wine grapes planted in Japan, although it is a considerable and sophisticated wine market. This is due essentially to fairly unsuitable climate conditions, with rainfall at the wrong time of year and risks from typhoons and so on. There are, I understand, about 500 hectares of koshu grapes planted and about 90% of these are in the region of Yamanashi, which lies around the lower slopes of Mount Fiji, about 100 kilometres west of Tokyo. Whilst the use of Koshu as a table grape has declined over recent years, experiments in altering traditional cultivation techniques to adapt it better to wine making have gone forward. The old way can be seen in the photograph below, using the pergola system where the vine ends up as thick as a tree and with very long stems. This is not the best way to control yields from the vine, so various vertical shoot systems, such as the Scott Henry trellising method, have been introduced. Several consultants, from Australiea New Zealand and even France have been helping the producers with some ideas recently.

The traditional pergola training system and the paper hats to protect young bunches

Koshu is a robust grape with thick skins, which helps it resist during the wet periods that can hit the vineyard. The dry wines I tasted were very pale in clour, mostly bone dry, with low alcohol and high acidity. The vast majority of them had been fermented in tanks and bottled young, from the latest 2011 vintage. The occasional one had received some barrel ageing and was thus rounder and softer. On the whole I preferred the tanks ones, but I would not say that these wines would be to everyone’s taste. An idea? Well, a kind of mix between a Trebbiano and a dry Riesling would be near the mark. In other words quite acidic, with delicate aromas, not a huge amount of character, but a lightness of touch that I found attractive.

The wines I liked best from this tasting were the following :

Alps Wine, Japanese style Koshu 2011
Seems a bit weightier than the announced 11,5% alcohol and I also felt there was a bit more residual sugar than the announced 1,1 grams. Still was fine and vibrant. Good and relatively intense for the series. 

Grace Wine, Koshu Kayagatake 2011
Delicat and floral, very lively. Pure and dynamic

Grace Wine, Koshu Private Reserve 2011
Just as perfumed as the previous wine, but more austere in its structure and with greater power

Yamanashi Wine, Sol Locet Koshu 2011
Fine, delicate and precise.

Yamanashi Wine, Sol Locet Koshu 2010
One of the few “older” wines available at this tasting, I thought it showed more complexity and length than the others.

Suntory Tomi No Oka Winery, Tomi No Oka Koshu 2010
This has been aged in oak and so was rounder and seemed riper than the others. It has much lower acidity than most and would probably be easier for international markets to appreciate. Very silky texture.


  1. Really cool article on an only just emerging wine region. Btw, all free run juice is clear, even red varietals, it's skins contact that gives colour, think of Gris/Grigio, Viognier with their berry colour and wines such as White Cabernet, Blanc de Noirs et al. Cheers mate, loving your work.

  2. Thanks Whitline. There are in fact some exceptions to the coloured skin/white juice general rule. The Poulsard grape from the Jura region has pink flesh as well as pink skin and thus it's juice is not white. Same goes for the Georgian Seperavi. There are also some black varieties with red flesh. Called "teinturier" in French (meaning "dyer"), these include Aramon, Teinturier, Petit Bouschet, Alicante Bouschet, Carignan Bouschet and Gamay de Bouze in France, some of which are still to be found and are vinified. In Germany the Dunkelfelder is still widely used. And there is the Californian Rubired and Salvador. Agreed, these are not exactly widely-known names.

    1. David, consider me well and truly 'learned' . . . very familiar with Saperavi, both a fairly decent South Aussie rendition and a couple I've seen from its native land, all have been dark, savoury and quite tannic, the Alicante is also grown in Oz and makes one of the country's better known rose, as for the others, have read of a couple but utterly unfamiliar with them as a raw berry experience or in their vinous final form. Cheers for the ejamakayshun, brilliant stuff.

  3. WhateverPsycho indeed .....
    More down to earth, David, I first thought you were in a state of extreme confusion, and already posted your April 1st contribution !
    But my friend Moshe hinted at the real market for this variety, hence its name: the Kosher food. Even better, if you could manage to produce a lot of wine around New Year, possibly starting from the Fujiyama’s melting snow, you may even create a “Cuvée Rock at Canaa” (ראש השנה ) and, later during the year, a six day skin contact rosé named “Young key pour” (ום הכיפורים ). I beg your pardon ...

    1. Luc,
      Pardon my confusion, but an explanation of 'WhateverPsycho indeed ..' if you would be so kind ?

    2. Luc,
      forgot to mention, I did have a giggle at the Yiddish word plays, particularly the Yom Kippur example, excuse any spelling mistakes.

  4. Whiteline, you are heading for deep water asking Luc to explain his sometimes eccentric, often creative, use of words. The man is a Belgian linguistic eel (and I expect a return on this from him).

  5. What a « dare you » !
    I would love to be considered a cunning linguist alongside the eel aspect of your description.
    As of “whateverpsycho”, my explanation will needs be an intricated one. I sometimes – sometimes not – react quite swiftly, on an impulse and it would take a thorough analysis to explain each and every formula I come up with. As far as analysis is concerned, I submitted myself to one for over 6 long years ... and still miss some clues. But, to the point, if you so desire.
    First, the most straightforward one: I feel a strong dislike of pseudo’s, mostly serving no other purpose than allowing people without guts to write things they would not be able to substantiate. Mind you, I do NOT imply this is your case, but I will always “scratch” pseudo’s, as soon as I meet one.
    Second, our master, David himself, started his previous reaction by “amending” your pseudo as well. So, I followed the same path. You must admit it is weird, or at least “peculiar”.
    Three, and here it gets more complicated: anyone signing thus must have a secret intention, willy nilly, and maybe it is us/we who could ask for an explanation.
    Fourth, it takes some “whateverpsycho” to teach a seasoned wine enthousiast as D. Cobbold such a trivial lesson on the colour of grape juice, if you ask me. He took it lightly but might have got offended. And, you might not know this, but he’s an excellent marksman and recently watched Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” for the sixth time this week.
    So then, scared, frightened or whatever, Psycho?

  6. Replies
    1. Indeedly you did good sir, nonetheless, I felt compelled to react to the overwhelming desire to respond to Luc's comments . . . ooops . . . te he he. Cheers old bean, I await the impending wrath . . clearly scared and so very frightened. Really appreciate the info from yesterday, invaluable, hooroo.

  7. Luc,
    your response, as was your initial comment, is rude, pompous and condescending on all fronts. I don't give a rat's about your rationale on the use of "pseudo's" nor your perception of mine being "weird" or "peculiar", or your ridiculous conspiracy theories behind the use of same.
    The name all my closest friends and acquaintences address me by is "Dog", it's a nickname that has stuck for thirty five of my fifty years and is also printed on my business card as a trade representative for one of the New World's foremost producers of fine wine. If you choose to comment on my input to David's most excellent blog in future, cease ans desist from prostituting my moniker to suit your twisted perceptions on the subject. David's abbreviating my blog title is totally acceptable as he is not indulging in snooty ridicule by doing so.
    My comment to David regarding the colour of juice was in no way offensive or as you so deftly put it, trivial, it was proffered honestly and with both good grace and intent, similarly, his response was both enlightening and extremely educatative as much as it was a measure of a man well in command of his own ship.
    Which is more that can be said for your stupid statements pertaining to Mr Cobbold's marksmanship skills and Scorcese's "Taxi Driver" [there I was thinking it was a Lucas film], to be only outdone by your remarks about being "scared, frightened . . . " - Luc, by that stage you sound just like the "pseudo" brigade you claim to despise; dumb, idiotic stuff mate, how very "redneck" of you.
    Finally, just so we are on the same page, I'm no "amateur enthusiast", I studied agriculture for four at school, I hold both the W.S.E.T Advanced Certificate [distinction], as well as it's precursor, the Intermmediate. I have been a finalist in the nationally contended, fiercely competitive, "Working With Wine Fellowship" here in Australia, open to sommelliers, retail and wine industry professonals, that is one of seven out of four hundred who get through the rigorous written and sensory entrance exam. Not unlike David, but likely to a lesser extent, over the last dozen years I have tasted, spat, dined, stayed with, walked vineyerds with, laughed with, argued with, some of the greatest winemakers, palates and potentates on the planet, some of my close mates are amongst this country's greatest wine writers. I love "wine" across the board and am only to happy to continue learning more and more by the day, this fantastic site furthers that quest admirably, thankyou David Cobbold !!
    Luc, you come across as grovelling, intellectual sycophant, furthermore, I suspect your "knowledge" and passion about the "nature" of wine is based on bluff and verbiage and the old chestnut of precieved social standing, the comment you submitted a while back re Champagne vs Cremant de Alsace was a total giveaway. Your personal preference is one thing, but to denegrate wines you obviously not only don't understand but are also universally accepted as being without peer, based on your enjoyment of a soft, rounded, genteel style with no parallel to Champagne other than possesing bubbles, is the stuff of ignorance and arrogance.
    Instead of constantly playing the cunning linguist, at which you really aren't as cunning as you believe yourself to be, drop your ego baggage, lose the attitude, pay attention, take your head out of Mr Cobbold's arse and try to honestly get a grip on the greater glory of the the world of wine.
    P.S - apologies to you David, for my part in this "episode", should you wish me to discontinue following your wonderful work I completely understand. All the best for the future and wishing you very well deserved success in what you wish to achieve, "in vino veritas", Dog.

  8. Sorry for any grammatical errors, missed words and spelling mistakes.

  9. Oh dear, there we go! An illustration of how things can get out of hand on the internet and the difficulty of getting humour across this media.
    The funny is that I think the 2 of you might actually get on very well.
    Let's take a deep breath guys...
    And I am not about to "ban" either of you!

  10. @ David: this last comment is about YOUR last intervention. I don’t think it is necessary to prolong the exchange between the other contributor and myself. It will not make your blog any more interesting to third parties, neither will it reconcile us. What I want to say is I never thought you would ban me for politely expressing sincere views, not YOU !
    This does not mean I’m right in my perception, mind you. But I was requested to give an explanation, even encouraged by yourself, and I did, in earnest and without disguise. Many people don’t like me, and they are perfectly entitled to.
    I don’t need to take a breath (moreover, I have a bad breath for the moment, courtesy of some “mature” tome de brebis), except if that extra bit of air allows me to say hello to you ... now that my head has finally gotten out of .... you know where.
    One more thing, I really don’t resent your friend’s reaction. I swear it’s true. What can you expect from any champagne lover ? Hush.