The most widely planted grape in Japan: Koshu

It’s not every day I have the excuse to start a blog post with a haiku, but I do today, so here goes:


It’s quite expensive,
But displays a unique style;
Not unlike sake.


Andrew Jefford would be proud…


In Japan they grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and a handful of other lesser known grapes such as Muscat Bailey A, but the most widely planted is the indigenous Koshu. It is a pretty pink-skinned grape variety that is grown almost exclusively in Yamanashi Prefecture (in the middle of Japan, west of Tokyo) where there are 80 wineries.

It used to be commonly made in a sweet style, but more recently producers have been concentrating on making dry versions. As these have been increasingly promoted by Japanese sommeliers at home and abroad, it has started to become more popular.

I tried 17 different Koshus last week, and though all were slightly different, it is an easily identifiable grape. It seems to have a reasonably tight flavour profile, giving similar expressions each time, rather than loads of different styles like, say, Chardonnay. In terms of colour it tends to be a very, very pale yellow/green. It often displays a lightly aromatic fruitiness, with aromas of melon, green apple and peach, sometimes with a faintly yeasty/leesy undertone, a whiff of jasmine or oyster shells. Though it tends to be medium to full-bodied, it doesn’t have an intense concentration of flavour. Alcohol levels are low (10 – 12% ABV) and acidity levels are medium, neither low nor particularly crisp. The same words cropped up repeatedly in my notes: fresh, clean, pure and delicate.

Much of the above can also be said of sake, to which I feel it has a distinct kinship. Of course, just because they are both made in Japan doesn’t mean there should be any similarity at all: different raw material, different production process, different alcoholic strength, etc. The only thing that links them together is that they are both produced with Japanese food in mind. When I asked Masaki Minai, winemaker at Marquis Winery about this, he explained that Koshu should play a supporting part in the dining experience, whereas sake typically plays more of a leading role.

Though Koshu has an easily identifiable taste profile, there were stylistic differences between each producer: some emphasised fruit, some were more floral; there were varying degrees of leesy and yeasty aromas; though most were unoaked, some had spent some time in barrel; and there was a clear difference between the fuller 2010s on show and the crisper 2011s from a cooler, wetter vintage. Yamato Wine even purposefully increases the mineral content of their wines to dramatic effect by adding sea shells to the soil!

So should you run out and buy a bottle? Well, it’s a unique, albeit very light, style of wine that would be particularly useful for matching with light, delicate dishes, or simply enjoyed on its own. But it does tend to be pretty expensive for what you get. A typical bottle will set you back somewhere between £16 and £22 in the UK. You could buy a Muscadet that would be just as good in sheer quality/enjoyment terms and similar in style for around £12 to £15. The high price is frequently attributed to the cost of production – agricultural land in this small, overcrowded country is very expensive, and growing grapes successfully in the wet climate is a challenge. But I do wonder if the price is partly down to the wines being promoted as a ‘premium product’ rather down to the genuine costs involved. As more and more bottles find their way over here, perhaps we’ll see this price gradually decrease. But if you’re in a Japanese restaurant and see one available by the glass (particularly one of the bottles below), do give it a go – it certainly has its own unique character and it’s well worth a taste.


Some highlights


Soryu, Koshu, 2010
100% Koshu grapes from Yamanashi, Japan
£17.88 available from Amathus Wines

Low intervention style – no lees, no skin contact, no malolactic fermentation. Very pale greeny yellow. Oyster shell, yeast and cooked rice on the nose. Full bodied, relatively intense in flavour; melon, green apple. Medium length. 91 points, fair value.

Lumière, Koshu Hikari, 2010
100% Koshu grapes from Yamanashi, Japan
£18.90 available from Amathus Wines

Sweet melon fruitiness on the nose with a hint of white bread. Oyster shell, yeast and cooked rice on the nose. Fresh and delicate, with melon and red apple. Medium length. 90 points, just about fair value

Grace, Koshu Private Reserve, 2010
100% Koshu grapes from Yamanashi, Japan
£18.99 available from Corking Wines

Very pale yellow, almost white. Touch of citrus (grapefruit). Medium to full-bodied mouthfeel. Bright and fresh, with the purity of spring water. 91 points, fair value.