Time for something completely different

It is ten years since Ronan Sayburn, head of wine at 67 Pall Mall visited Grace Wine in Japan to learn about Koshu. And in that time he says they’ve gone from obscurity to award-winning status.

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Koshu has been cultivated in Japan for over 1,300 years and is a distinctive grape with pinkish-grey skin. It is a white vitis vinifera, now indigenous to Japan and produces quality, still, white wines.

Ronan Sayburn MS, head of wine, 67 Pall Mall

Grace Wine has been at the forefront of Koshu from Japan earning international acclaim and becoming an award-winning wine. They are very proud to have won Japan’s first ever gold medal in an international wine competition and have gone on to win gold medals for five consecutive years at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Family owned since 1923 it is located 100km east of Tokyo in the prestigious Yamanashi prefecture in the Katsunuma village – an important village in the GI, renowned for its abundance of fruit trees.

Map locating Grace Wine in Japan.

Ayana Misawa is chief winemaker and fifth generation family member at Grace Wine, but being the owner’s daughter doesn’t come with any favours. Ayana took ten years to hone her skills and learn her craft working in the northern and southern hemisphere with an impressive selection of work placements and study periods including House of Arras in Tasmania (which shows in the Blanc de Blanc, see below).

The winery owns most of its own vineyard area, buying just a small amount of grapes from growers they have long established relationships with – essential, Ayana says, for their commitment to quality wine production.

Pergola system: Each bunch is protected by a small paper hat covered wax that allows water to run off and protects the grapes from heavy rainfall and subsequent damage in the typhoon season. Applied one by one, this meticulous work requires dedication and time to hand staple every single hat.

Japan has a difficulty in that vintage variation is huge with 160cm of snow falling in 2014 followed by typhoons in 2016, which was the most difficult year Ayana can remember. This makes winemaking more challenging than usual and another reason Ayana wanted to gain so much international experience before returning to the family estate.

Whilst Ayana describes the climate as continental, Sayburn was more confident in pointing out its sub-tropical micro-climate, with the whole region situated in a hot and humid geographical basin with clay soils where that the rain just runs off. Indeed, Ayana pointed to the similarity of heat during the growing season to the Hunter Valley in Australia – another region she spent time working harvest and learning her craft.

To find out more about Koshu and discover for ourselves the extraordinary range from one of Japan’s leading wineries we sat down with Ronan, and Ayana on Zoom, along with a group of fellow sommeliers to put his knowledge to the test. First we tasted the wines.

Tasting notes

2014 Grace Blanc de Blanc

A blanc de blanc grown on volcanic soil it displays minerality on the nose – a very saline wine. Whole bunch picked, as you’d expect, this wine was disgorged by hand in 2020. It had 60 months lees ageing and was described by Ayana as refreshing, bright and vibrant with brioche and nutty characteristics.

2020 Hishiyama Koshu

Koshu grapes – picked between the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon harvest – have thick skins, that protect from disease and botrytis, are a pinkish/grey colour. Notably for Koshu the grapes in this vineyard are grown on pergolas, with low yields and slow maturation. This wine has a flint noise, light aromas of yuzu, slightly lemon. Reminiscent of Albarino in flavour – without the high acidity. A fresh, delicate palate with phenolic character, despite no lees ageing. Will pair well with fish, sushi, rice.

2020 Misawa Vineyard Koshu

A single vineyard wine, not typical for Koshu, the Misawa vineyard, named after the family, is also VSP. Malolactic fermentation, 60% old/neutral oak, gives this wine a little more richness with delicate flavours of pear skin or agave on the palate and under ripe banana or mango. There is slightly more colour in this wine – which is understandable when you note the bunch size difference between pergola vs VSP. Battonage is kept to a minimum as it’s a delicate style of wine.

2016 Cuvée Misawa Koshu

The 2016 has an almost menthol aroma and juicer, bright tropical fruit characters of mango and papaya, with a clean palate. The development shown from age is positive – indeed, the 2017 won 98 points at Decanter World Wine Awards which gives further interest to the ageing potential of these wines.

2015 Cuvée Misawa Koshu

2015 has a smokier, almost spicey, nose with beeswax, toasty and richer flavours. It keeps the salinity of Koshu and has good acidity and good length. Sayburn said this older Koshu wine reminds him of an aged Swiss Chasselas.

2009 Cuvée Misawa Cabernet Franc

With just 500 bottles produced this wine was universally enjoyed by the guests, with Sayburn calling it “a really classic cabernet franc” and others comparing it to cool climate wines from British Colombia. It had a herbaceous, earthy nose with soft and complex tannins. More savoury on the palate than fruity on the nose with lots of tertiary and gamey flavours. Whist koshu is the most important grape for Grace Wine it is Cabernet Franc that is Ayana’s favourite, and it shows with this wine.

Food pairing

To illustrate how versatile these wines are when pairing with food, and in particular not just Japanese cuisine, we were presented with a four course tasting menu, curated by Sayburn and the head chef Marcus Verberne at 67 Pall Mall.

To start, the Blanc de blancs 2014 was paired with Citrus cured salmon, clementine gel, tobiko. The citrus flavours and celery notes from the tobiko linked the wine beautifully with the salmon. It is these delicate touches that harmonised the dish and the wine.

Next, the Koshu Hishiyama Vineyard, 2020 & the Koshu Misawa Vineyard, 2020 wines were tried alongside a Crab and avocado tarte. The sweet richness of the dish was well balanced and finely sliced grape gave freshness, alongside micro herbs for a touch of bitterness that elevated the pairings.

Moving on to more complex dishes Sayburn presented Glazed veal sweet breads, peas and confit lemon puree, potato shard, chicken jus. The ageing on both Akeno Koshu 2016 & Akeno Koshu 2015 allowed these wines to stand up to these bolder flavours – in particular the lemon puree, fresh peas and chicken jus gave the food pairing the acidity, sweetness and umami needed.

To finish, Roast rump of lamb, sauteed courgette, slow cooked cherry tomato, black olive jus had all the right elements to work beautifully with the Cuvee Misawa Ridge System, Cabernet Franc, 2009. The provencal-style vegetables ensured the flavours come together.

And no dashi, sushi, sashimi or wasbi in sight!

Working at The Ritz – London I already had the opportunity to taste Grace Koshu wine – a very versatile style, but very interesting given the origin of the indigenous grape. A clear and brilliant lemon style, with aromas of white peach, pears and minerality, on the palate and vibrant acidity, perfect to combine with seafood. 

Giovanni Andriulo, sommelier, The Ritz
Giovanni Andriulo, sommelier, The Ritz

Tasting highlight

Whilst Koshu is the most important grape grown at Grace, Cabernet Franc is Ayana’s favourite red grape variety. And it shows in the small 500 bottle production of 2009 Cuvée Misawa Cabernet Franc that we tasted.

Andriulo told us he: “was very impressed by the cuvée Misawa the Cabernet Franc 2009, intense, complex with herbaceous notes (mint, lavander, fennel) and with tertiary aromas due to a good bootle aging (wet leaves, vegetal, forest floor). A Cabernet Franc that may recall some styles in the right bank of bordeaux. Excellent combinations can be with grilled foods, grilling adds a bitter component to the food and creates a great stage for cabernet’s tannins and of course with red meats such as lamb.”

Whilst Koshu, or wine for that matter, is not a part of Japanese drinking culture it has gained a reputation for premium quality wine, much to do with the winemaking philosophy that mirrors Japanese life including respect, precision, and artisan craftmanship.

Attention to detail is part of the Japanese way of life and it shows in these precise wines. Nothing is left to chance and everything is considered. Even down to the labels – which happen to be designed exclusively for Grace Wine by Mr. Kenya Hara, celebrated Japanese graphic designer and art director at the famous Japanese chain store MUJI.

#KoshuFoodMatch competition

If you have not yet tried these wines now is your opportunity. The Sommelier Collective has teamed up with Grace Wine to run a food pairing competition. For more details visit #KoshuFoodMatch.

Entries close 25 February, 2020.

Grace Wine is imported in the UK by Hallgarten & Novum Wines

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