Koshu Masterclass 2014

31st Jan 2014

I have been fortunate to have been able to attend London based Koshu tastings since its inaugural event in 2010. As I joined the master class this year, it was refreshing to see such a significant turn out, very different from the first class years, where about 20 of us sat around a long oval table at the Imagination gallery. This year, we were invited to the Westbury Hotel, London, so things were obviously looking up. It was a jammed packed day for me that day, so with some regret, I was unable to stay beyond the master class to talk again to any of the wine makers but the class re-affirmed that there were some wineries still leaps and bounds above others in quality and wine making skill.

Koshu is an extraordinarily light wine in both colour and flavour. The Koshu grape is the most important native grape in Japan. It is believed have its origins from grapes that travelled the Silk Road across Central Asia from the Caucasus to China and on to Japan at a period estimated to be about a thousand years ago. The grapes are grown primarily in Yamanashi Prefecture, at the foot of

Mt Fuji, surrounded by mountains up to 3000 metres high, about an hour and a half train journey from Tokyo.  This area suffers climatic extremes of both hot and cold with long days of summer sunlight and harsh bitter snow fuelled winters. But its well drained volcanic soil does lend it self to cultivating grapes.


History records that winemaking in Japan started in 1874 in Kofu City. The first full scale winery was established in 1879 in Iwaimura, now Koshu City's Katsunuma-cho. The Dainipppon Wine Co. Ltd founded in 1877 had sent two young men to France to learn the about viticulture and vinification and applied their new found knowledge to making quality Koshu wine. There was a significant lull during World War II but since then wine production has increased dramatically and now there are 80 wineries in the Yamanashi Perfecture.

Pictures of wineries in Yamanashi always look so beautiful as at the beginning of the season the unmistakable light pink hue of cherry blossoms embraces the entire area. This area has been growing and harvesting cherries and peaches longer than wine and today, all three crops live in harmony.

The tasting on this occasion was to take the form of matching food with the Koshu to try and encourage Sommeliers to think about the versatility of the grape in their restaurants. Hosting the event was Lynne Sheriff MW who has lead the campaign since it was lanched in 2010 and Gerard Basset MW, MS. We were given four flights of wines, 2 in each flight. We were encouraged to try the wines and the food together and the class become a rather interactive discussion, both on the merits of Koshu as a grape on its own, its place in the Restaurant wine world of London and how it stood up to more European dishes.

Flight 1 was two sparkling wines, Lumiere Petillant 2010 and the Aruga Branca Brilhante 2008 matched with Smoked eel with beetroot and horseradish chutney. Both wines whilst delicate had a  pronouced acidity but the Lumiere with its watermelon aromas and a soft apple and fig leaf character and very fresh lime acidity with spritely but tiny bubbles was well balanced with fish and beetroot although a more creamy and less intense fish like mackerel would have been a better match. The Aurga Branca was less gutsy and whilst delightful with a rose water palate and fresh lime flesh acidity, its coarsy bubbles brought out the heat of the horseradish and subsequently overpowered this elegant wine. Both 2008 and 2010 were not great years for production in general or sparkling wine in particular. With 2008 a wash with rain ad 2010 plagued with monsoons and typhoons but the Lumiere in particular, always make very good quality wines and with an additional 12 months on lees, allows any imperfection in the grapes to mellow.

Flight 2 was Kurambon Sol Lucet Koshu, 2013 and the Grace Koshu VSP 2013. Both from the 2013 vintage which was considered good, but not great. An average growing season in warmth, some wineries were hindered particularly by the large amounts of summer rainfall, a trait in this area of Japan which can have an almost tropical climate in the summer. The wines were matched with Quinoa with chickpeas, roasted red peppers and tahini dressing. The wines were very different in style with the Kurambon offering nicely balanced and complex flavours of lemon thyme on the nose and some almond nut with lemon on the palate whilst the Grace showed creamy lemon textures with jasmine notes. Both wines tried hard with this dish and on the whole, did a good job but the Sesame oil did absolutely nothing for either the dish or the wines, stripping the Kurambon down to bare alcohol and the Grace just became dull.

Flight 3 were three wines,  the Haramo Vintage Koshu, 2012, Rubaiyat Koshu and the Soryu Koshu all from the 2012 vintage matched with Panko crusted prawn with wasabi mayonnaise.  2012 is considered a better vintage with much less rainfall than is usual throughout the season right through to the Autumn when harvesting starts. But the lack of a cooling influence from the rain throughout the Summer meant that many of the wines show a distinct lack of the crisp acidity that is a trademark for Koshu. I was worried about the Wasabi in this dish but ultimately it was the salt on the Panko crumb that had a stronger influence on the wines. Wines were very simliar in style, all showing delicate lemon zest characters and some floral notes, the Haramo appears on first taste to have the best acidity and doesnt alter on trying with the food. The Rubaiyat was more complex as a wine with defined jasmine and almond aromas and what it lacked in acidity it made up for in a richness of the palate that showed some lees aging.

Flight 4, again, three wines in this flight to match with Venison and quince hotpot with potato puree. The first wine, Mercian Koshu 2011 was light and lime zest aromas with a defined lemon curd concentration on the palate which was able to hold its own with this dish. Both the L'Orient Koshu 2011 and the Suntory Tomi no Oka Koshu 2012 were very similar in style to each other and  more savoury in flavour than the first wine. Blackcurrant leaves balanced against lime flesh showed on the Suntory whilst some barrel fermentation added some depth of character to the Suntory and some gentle hints of tropical fruits. The venison dish was in this case, well matched with the wines and possibly the most successful of the flights.

Ultimately, these wines are delicate and matched best with Sushi, sashimi and other lightly aromatic fish dishes. Whilst the exercise in general was useful to try and show how more European style dishes can work with Koshu, I think this needs to be a more structured approach. These wines are beautiful in their restraint and very light floral notes needs to be considered when looking at food pairings. Personally, a lighter touch overall is needed if these wines can be successfully matched with English dishes, concentrating on light fish dishes and some delicate meats such as chicken, quail and so on. The natural high acidity in Koshu allows their wines to stand up to some creamy style foods, but salt and "hot" flavours such as Wasabi, horseradish seem to overpower these sensitive wines. 


Further reading