Posted by: jmbwineblog | March 16, 2012

The Wines of Katsunuma, Japan (Koshu)

Some of you may have been expected more Burgundy reviews… Don’t be alarmed, they will arrive. However, I have been busy of late with other wine regions and felt that Burgundy being Burgundy it won’t be going anywhere, and well, with 2010 being the type of vintage that it is, most of the people who read this will find it hard to purchase on release and more likely to buy on the secondary market. So, I thought I would look at another under the radar wine region that I believe needs some serious attention.

Koshu (Japan’s noble white grape). 

The majority of wine lovers, will never have heard of the Koshu grape, and that isn’t really surprising in the least. In fact, I’d be rather taken aback if you weren’t often visiting Japan, from Japan, called Jancis Robinson or working in Japan and you had ever heard or tasted anything made from the grape (unless of course you come drinking with me on the odd occasion). As a bit of background, you can find a lot of useful information and insight into this grape and many other wines that are produced in Katsunuma, Japan at the following place:  http://www.wine-pages.com/ubb/ultimatebb.php?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=022860;p=1 and before you wander why I am not going into details, it is all there, and with a bit of history and debate about the wines. I have been following Japanese wines for the last three years or so, so do give it a go.

Why now?

Well, in the UK, there is an organisation called Koshu of Japan (http://www.koshuofjapan.com ) that was originally set up by the Katsunuma Wineries Club (the quasi-AOC run by the local producers) to promote the wines outside of JApan, and generally in the UK. For the last two years or so, they have been running tastings yearly to showcase the wines made from Koshu. Last year, I was actually in Japan, and so unable to attend, but this year, I was in the UK and biting my fingers in anticipation. Before I start, I would like to state that I think that one must understand what Koshu is and should taste like, before making judgements about the wines. Whislt it is vitis vinifera in the majority and the remaining 10% is possibly also a different vitis grape (probably extinct) or a different family (fanta grapes), it doesn’t give off much obvious fruit. The flavours tend to be more smoky, mineral and flinty, with a Burgundian lack of fruit. I have heard some call it light, and it is a light white wine, but there is in the best wines a vibrancy and intensity. Branding it on its weight is doing the grape a disservice. For me, it is different and deserves its place on its own. Granted, it isn’t the most amazing grape one can find, but quality is improving year on year, and there is certainly a typicity and sense of place.

The Wines at the Koshu of Japan tasting. 

Please note that I am moving to a new scoring system. As a rough example, anything above 30/100 is drinkable, above 50/100 shows typicity and I would seek out, above 60/100 is very very good, above 70/100 is mind-boggling (almost like the UK university scored, you got a first, above 60 is 2:2, above 65 is 2:1, above 55 is 3rd, above 50 is a pass, below… go back and re-do your A-Levels…

ALPS WINE (Fuefuki City, Yamanashi Japan)

Alps Wine is a name that I had heard of but had never tasted prior to this event. Started in 1962, this small winery tries to make high quality wines, and from 2004 onwards has been experimenting with European grape varieties to explore their potential in Japan. They currently have no UK representation. They have 5 ha of grapes under contract, comprising, Koshu, Chardonnay, Muscat B-A, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

2010 Koshu [11.5% alc, 1.1g/l of residual sugar, 6.5g/l of acidity (tartaric acid), a pH of 3.2, spending 11 months in bottle before release] ;classic, smoky nose, lemon, burnt match, sea breeze, salt, clay, flint and hints of minerality. 56/100

GRACE WINE (Katsunuma, Koshu City, Yamanashi)

Grace are arguably, the creme de la creme of winemaking in this part of the world (although some of the producers would beg to differ). Started in 1923, the fifth generation (Ayana Misawa) currently makes the wine, with her father (Shigekazu) having taken over in 1982, and made great strides in looking at the individual terroirs of the region. Whilst, I always wander why they market certain wines more than others, they are all wonderfully specific.

2011 Kayagatake Vineyard Koshu; [11.6% alc, 7.7g/l of Tartaric Acid, pH 3.1, tank sample]; round, slightly fat, clay, butter, nice freshness, but lacking in zip, sweet, powerful, with hints of sherbet. 62+/100

2010 Kayagatake Vineyard Koshu; [no fiche technique available]; lemon, poise, smoke, flint, limes, minerals, slate, perfumed with classic chalk/clay notes, sherbet and a good length: 66/100

2011 Hishiyama Vineyard, Koshu Private Reserve; [11.7% alc, 8.0g/l of tartaric acid, pH3.1, tank sample]; closed nose, smoke, rich but still restrained, with good balancing freshness, bonfire, smoke, clay, minerals, lime. 67+/100

2010 Hishiyama Vineayrd, Koshu Private Reserve; [11.9% alc, 6.3g/l tartaric acid, pH3.1, spending 5 months on the less]; smoky, classic, poised, yeasty, restrained with hints of fur, complex and zippy, mineral but smooth, very classy, wonderful length and hints of raw fish. 71/100

HARUMO WINE (Katsunuma, Koshu City, Yamanashi)

Another winery that I knew of, but hadn’t tried up to now. Started in 1924 as a cooperative, they hold 1.5hectares themselves, but have 25 hectares under contract. They are thus veritably large…

2010 Koshu; [11.5% alc, 1.1g/l residual sugar, 6.5g/l of tartaric acid, pH3.3]; smoke, fresh, lifted, lime zest, clay, slate, flint, nice poise with hints of cream, well made with decent length, hints of butter, but a touch subdued. 59/100

2011 Koshu; [11% alc, 0.9g/l residual sugar, 8.6g/l of tartaric acid, pH3.2]; fresh, mineral, clay, limes, lemons, more fruit but with less classic smoky-ness, more interest, length and depth to this wine. 61+/100

L’ORIENT WINE (Katsunuma, Koshu City, Yamanashi)

An old staple here, albeit with a new label design, founded in 1938, Takao Uchida is the third generation winemaker who studied oenology and viticulture in the South of France, thus changing the winery’s name to L’Orient to state that the wines are in no way inferior to those of the West! They own 2hectares of vines, and sub-contract a further 5.

2011 Koshu; [11.2% alcohol, 6.4g/l of tartaric acid, pH3.2, tank sample]; sound, mineral, clay, smoky, unbelievaly classic, clasy, lime, beautifully balanced with a nice length and persistance. 67/100

LUMIERE (Fuefuki City, Yamanashi)

An old and highly regarded winery, who produce modern wines that speak of high production and being good at being themselves. They have in recent times been producing some good sparkling wines made from the Koshu grape as well. Founded in 1885, they own 2.5 hectares of vines and sub-contract 16.

2010 Koshu Hikari; [11.1% alc, 1.1g/l residual sugar, 6.6g/l tartaric acid, pH3.7, 6 months on the lees]; sweet smelling, lemon, strawberry, nice poise and with a smoky mineral charactar, classic, simple, drinkable but somehow unexciting. 52/100

2011 Koshu Hikari; [10.9% alc, 7.7g/l tartaric acid, pH3.4, tank sample]; pink, lees, strawberry, sherbet, nice freshness, with a touch more oomph and intrigue and better length. 55/100

2010 Petillant; [10.6% alc, 1g/l residual sugar, 4.7g/l tartaric acid, pH3.7, sparkling pressure, 5.0]; crisp, fresh, lemon, lime, easy, well made and caressing. 58/100

2009 Petillant; [no fiche technique available]; more concentration, berried, nutty, smoky, soft and with a nice persistant length. 62/100

MARQUIS WINERY (Katsunuma, Koshu City, Japan)

MArquis is Japan’s oldest functioning winery. In 1877, the JApanese sent two men to France to study oenology, and on of them set up this winery (as oppose to company like the others) in 1891. They hold in their cellars, some wonderfully old and mature bottlings, of which they are hoping to market as well. They produce some excellent aged sweet wines as well.

2011 Koshu Jien Blanc; [11.3% alc, 2.5g/l residual sugar, 7.5g/l tartaric acid, pH3.1, tank sample which will spend four months on the lees]; smoke, rocks, pebble stones, lime, lemon, clay, wonderfully mineral, nice freshness and lift, flint, smoke, bonfire, nice weight and zip with superb length, subtle and complex. 63+/100

CHATEAU MERCIAN (Katsunuma, Koshu City, Yamanashi)

At the forefront of winemaking technology, this winery is perhaps more reknowned for their international varieties made from single vineyards, and where I cut my teeth on Japanese wine. The company was set up in 1877, but didn’t produce wine until the two young men returned. The present incarnation was set up in 1970, and it wasn’t long before they became more terroir orientated. They make some interesting whites, not least one with deliberate skin contact to produce a Rose type wine. They own 22 hectares of vines.

2011 Koshu; [11.2% alc, 2.1g/l residual sugar, 9g/l tartaric acid, pH3.3, tank sample]; very crisp and restrained but with soft acidity, lemon, gooseberry, fruit driven and appealing, much better than in the past. Modern (far from classic) but very well made and an accomplished wine. 65/100

RUBAIYAT WINE (Katsunuma, Koshu City, Japan)

Another one of the old guard, and terroir driven wineries. Whilst Grace make site specific wines, here they blend, but only from the best and most complimentary sites to produce a wine that they feel best expressed the essence of Koshu. Begun in 1890, they own 2.2hectares and contract 3.5.

2011 Koshu; [12% alc, 1.2 g/l residual sugar, 5.3g/l tartaric acid, pH 3.4, this wine spends 8 months on the lees before release]; lifted, mineral nose, smoke, purity, hints of clay, subtle, expressive, balanced, warm, lemons, lime, raw fish. Quintessential. 63+/100

SADOYA (Kofu city, Yamanashi)

The Sadoya family were Edo period (pre-modern era) oil merchants and started wine production in 1917, their staple is a brand called Chateau Brillant, where the red is Cabernet Sauvignon and the white Semillon. Although they produced Koshu until 1960, nothing was produced until 2010 to mark the start of Koshu of Japan. From experience, even their entry level wines are very nice for what you pay.

Zenkouji Kitahara Koshu; [single vineayrd site, 11.5% alc, 2.1 g/l residual sugar, 7.2g/l tartaric acid, tank sample]; clay, rocks, minerals, rich, bold and smoky on the nose, grassy, poised, round but classic, wet clay, earthen-ware pottery, a very different mineral charactar to Fuefuki city and KAtusnuma, lemon, limes, nice length and a fishy, liquorice, sherbet, mineral finish, which opens further in the glass. Give this one some age. 61+/100

SORYU WINERY (Katsunuma, Koshu City, Yamanashi)

Arguably my wine of the day! From Soryu!

Founded as a co-operative by relatives of the two young men who went to France in 1899, the business was taken over by one family in 1943 and took its present structure in 2000. They own 1.8 hectares and contract 8.

2010 Koshu; [10.8% alc, 5.3g/l tartaric acid, pH3.3]; spritzy nose, lemons, limes, hints of minerality, subtle length that really sneaks up on you, smoky, long, linear, subtle, sherbet, flint, burnt matches, linear, balanced. 68+/100 and potentially better than my favourite GRACE.

2011 Koshu; [10.5% alc, 8.1g/l tartaric acid, pH3.1]; more lifted, perfumed, zippy nose, more obviously rich as well, forward, subtle, lime, less mineral and classic, flint, but air opens this up nicely, lime, lemons, apples, mouth-puckeringly fresh. 66+/100

These wines need air or some bottle age, they are subtle, complex and very expressive when given the time to shine.

SUNTORY/TOMI NO OKA (Kai City, Yamanashi)

This is the Suntory hill that was bought and planted by Suntory in 1909. Here is where they were in 1975 the first Japanese winery to harvest grapes with Noble Rot, and where the fabled Tomi was first released from the 1986 vineyard. Their top reds have a similar style to Chateau Lagrange in St. Julien, Bordeaux (an estate that Suntory own).

2010 Tomi no Oka Koshu; [12% alc, 5.3g/l tartaric acid, pH3.3, malolactic fermentation occurs in barrel, and the wine is aged for 5 months afterwards in both tank and barrel]; smoke, butter, limes, grass, gooseberry, modern and with nice balance, some minerality but oak dominates, some nuts and almonds, nice length and poise, but it lacks a touch of excitement. 57+/100

YAMANASHI WINE (Katsunuma, Koshu City, Yamanashi)

Started in 1913 as a co-operative that grew to its largest in 1932, it became a family run business in 1962, and become a joint-stock (LLC) company in 2006. They own 2 hectares, and source a further 6.5.

2011 Sol Lucet Koshu; [12% alc, pH3.2]; spice, lemons, limes, very lifted and perfumed, clay, smoke, white pepper, fire, butter, sherbet, bold and fruit-driven, modern, a pleasant finish that somehow just lacks really good length to match the complexity. 56+/100

YAMATO WINE (Katsunuma, Koshu City, Yamanashi)

Yamato started in 1913, and have a winery in Nagano where they mainly produce Merlot. They have some of the oldest grape producing vines in the region, with some of their Koryu vines aged at 130 years old. They source a lot of grapes from high quality terroir driven sites, and continuously study how vines develop a “mineral” charactar.

2011 Mineral Koshu; [10.9% alc, 2.1g/l residual sugar, 7.6g/l tartaric acid, pH3.4, tank sample]; smoke, classic, clay, lack of fruit, lime, sherbet, subtle, mineral, subtle and long, flint, slate, broad, with hints of lemon and apple, showing good complexity, an impressive wine. 65+/100

2011 Mineral Koshu Sparkling; [10.9% alc, 2.1g/l residual sugar, 7.6g/l tartaric acid, pH3.6, tank sample]; creamy, flint, poised and mineral, mouth-puckering, lemons, green apples, hints of clay. Nice. 62/100

Whislt, these wines are different and idiosyncratic, I do think they have a place in the world of fine wine, and they who charactars that other wines do not. They are certainly wines that one should look out for and a highly reccommend. If you are in London, in February, it is well worth signing up to go to the Wines of Koshu event as the wines are certainly of a higher overall quality than when I wrote my report that you can find on Wine-Pages Forum. If you want to see further tasting notes, they can be found with a quick search of Japan on the search facility on that forum.

If you wish to know more information about purchasing these wines, would like to get in contact with any of the wineries or would like ideas for visiting either Yamanashi, or Japan in General, then please do not hesitate to email me on jmb_wine@yahoo.co.uk

Until next time,

Happy Drinking.

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