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Friday read: Ten years of Koshu

Published:  14 February, 2020

Koshu was virtually unknown in the UK a decade ago when the Koshu of Japan promotion began. Jo Gilbert looks at the rise of a distinctively eastern wine in a western market

For many years Japanese wines were unknown in the UK. But that has slowly been changing thanks largely to Koshu of Japan (KOJ), the producer-led organisation that was set up a decade ago to bring the country’s flagship grape to British drinkers.

Ten years on, the group has shown its members are capable of producing top wines, with front-runners Grace Wines – brought in by Hallgarten & Novum Wines – and Amathus-distributed Lumière leading the charge.

Koshu exporters are facing a different landscape in the UK today than they were 10 years ago. In 2010 – the same year KOJ got started – the OIV greenlit the term “Koshu” to be used on labels, opening up opportunities in the previously untapped west.

Today, the UK fluctuates between being the fourth and seventh biggest export market for Koshu. Sales took something of a dip in 2018 due to Brexit uncertainty (see box). But KOJ’s Yuka Ogasawara insists that, outside of Asia, the UK “is the most important because wine markets in Asian countries are influenced a lot by the UK”.

The EU and Japan’s Economic Partnership Agreement, which came into force in February 2019, has also greased the wheels for this very distinctive grape which has recently found champions at the quality end of the UK market with the likes of Vagabond Wines, which has shown a number by the glass.


So what's so distinctive about Koshu? 

Once considered something of a curiosity, the grape is gradually proving its surefootedness across a range of styles, from still through to traditional method sparkling and even orange, with delicacy and a hint of tannin from its pink skins serving as its USPs.

Much of its distinctiveness also comes from the weather of the Yamanashi prefecture, where 96% of Koshu is grown.

“Comparisons have been made to Madeira and Hunter Valley as [places with] the most surprising success stories, because it’s just so unlikely,” says journalist Neil Beckett, who co-hosted the recent annual KOJ masterclass with Anthony Rose.

“You could say ‘here is a rather unpromising table grape with absurdly high yields in a climate that’s too warm and too wet’, yet it’s producing some really astonishing wine.”

Koshu is something of a new grape in its current form. Production took a leap in the 1870s and 1880s during the Eddo period of Japan. But dry styles, rather than the formerly sweet iterations, have only been around for the past 20-30 years.

“The leap in quality has been astonishing,” Beckett adds. “It’s mainly vitis vinifera, but it also has [a small proportion of] vitis davide in it, a Chinese bramble grape which gives it an indigenous wild twist and makes it genuinely distinctive, yet not so different that it isn’t relatable.”

Emerging dry styles have also garnered comparisons to Chablis Premier Cru, with the leaps forward in quality often being made by bigger producers.

“In 2002, Mercian had a Chateau Margaux consultant working for it, followed by white wine maestro Denis Dubourdieu,” says Beckett. “The lightness from the dissolved CO2 gives a gentle spritz which has this citrusy, Chablis-like appeal.”

One of Koshu’s biggest assets, however, is Shigekazu Misawa, owner of Grace and chairman of KOJ, which he founded a decade ago.

Grace was established back in 1923. But it was under fourth-generation current owner Misawa and his daughter, chief winemaker Ayana Misawa, that it helped to redefine Koshu as a fine wine.

“He saw that Koshu didn’t need to be a rather dull, flat sweetish oxidative wine like many were in the 1990s,” says Beckett.

Father and daughter have since set the bar with their single vineyard site, Akeno, which is at the higher end of Yamanashi altitudes, at 700m above sea level. It also has 1,600 sunshine hours – the most of anywhere in Japan.


The Tuscany-like vineyards of Yamanashi where 96% of Koshu is grown

More than anything else, its his pioneering work with vertical shoot positioning (VSP) that Misawa sees as crucial for the future of Koshu.

“Grape growers often seek bigger volumes so they use pergola trellising, which results in higher yields,” he tells Harpers. “VSP uses more energy, but it is better for quality.”

The battle to drive up quality across the region continues. One of the challenges is the number of Yamanashi growers, which are small and numerous.

“It’s a very traditional system like the Douro or Beaujolais, where wineries buy their grapes from growers who might have a half a hectare,” says Rose.

Then there is the weather. Yamanashi has a similar geographic profile to California, southern Spain and southern Italy, but it also experiences extreme weather from summer monsoons and biting Siberian winds in winter with little rainfall. As a result, production and labour costs are high.

“We have high production costs, land is limited and volumes are small,” says Misawa. “It’s very competitive.”

Another barrier to high quality exports is what Misawa describes as “high demand” locally. Yamanashi is just 100km from Tokyo, and his wines can fetch anything up to £200 in a restaurant in Tokyo – far above the price of even most top sakes.

Domestic demand places questions over the volume of quality Koshu reaching the UK. What is the incentive to export – and export the good stuff – when production is expensive and producers have a good market at home? But that doesn’t mean the best wines don’t impress, and couldn’t stand up on any good restaurant list.

And as Misawa Sr says, things are moving fast between the generations. Speaking through a translator, he said: “My daughter [Ayana, who is fluent in English], studied abroad in Bordeaux and Stellenbosch. The language is challenging to communicate with sommeliers and in restaurants. But her generation is the future.”



KOSHU AT A GLANCE

96% of Koshu is grown in Yamanashi, which has a similar geographic position to California, southern Spain and southern Italy

Extreme weather from summer monsoons to cold winters with little rainfall

Grapes were traditionally pergola-trained due to high humidity, allowing ventilation and protection against rot. In recent years, vertical shoot positioning has been credited with reducing yields and driving up quality

Aromatic variety with delicacy, refreshment, a medium body, little or no oak and a touch of tannin as its USPs

Grapes are notable for their deep pink skins, though the wines are often known for their water white colour

The UK was the seventh biggest export market for Koshu worldwide in 2018, having taken a dip in sales due to Brexit. There was some recovery in 2019, with values back to ¥10m (£70,000), making the UK the “fourth or fifth” export market globally, according to KOJ



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