Au naturel: oriental style

(by peter)

Death and taxes, in the famous words of Benjamin Franklin, are two of life’s few certainties. He may as well have added ‘change’.

The wine world is constantly changing, and much of this powerful dynamic is coming from the east.

Just take the recent prediction by Vinexpo that Chinese wine production could outstrip that of Australia within the next three years. Hong Kong, the gateway to China, is already overhauling London and New York as the global power centre of wine auctions and fine wine sales. Bordeaux superstar château Lafite is developing a vineyard in the Shandong province together with a local partner; many other global producers are pursuing similar strategies, captivated by the huge potential of this burgeoning market.

But it’s not all about China. Its proud neighbour Japan is also pushing hard on the gastronomic front. Its food has long been celebrated around the world – and now its home-grown wine is attempting to achieve recognition in similar manner.

Growing and selling wine in Japan is not easy. It can be bitterly cold in the winter and the islands are regularly bullied by fierce winds and rain storms in the spring and summer. Grapes suffer from rot, low crop levels and under-ripeness. And then there are the earthquakes, ever-growing mega-cities devouring arable land and the national preference for drinks like sake, beer and whisky over wine.

Wine has been made in Japan for centuries, but it’s only recently that a concerted effort has been launched to sell its modern vinous identity to the world.

This has come in the form of a campaign named KOJ – or Koshu of Japan (Koshu being a native grape variety used to make a delicate white wine).

This organisation was established in 2009 by 15 local producers in the Yamanashi prefecture, one of the most important Japanese wine growing areas and also one of its most scenic, lying as it does close to the iconic Mount Fuji.

Their aim is to ‘improve the quality of the distinctively Japanese Koshu grapes and wines and to increase the awareness of these wines on global markets’.

Their strategy to date has been to focus on promoting the wines as natural accompaniments to fine Japanese cuisine. It’s a wise approach, not only because the best Japanese restaurants already enjoy excellent reputations and market penetration in most key wine markets, but also because the natural style of Koshu tends to the restrained, herbal, vegetal end of the white wine spectrum. This makes it well suited to food, in particular the delicate savoury tones of much Japanese food, sushi and sashimi especially.

The tasting and lunch I attended took place at the brand new Yashin restaurant, just off High Street Kensington. It was recently set up by Shinya Ikeda, former head chef at Yumi, and Yasuhiro Mineno, ex-head chef at Ubon in Canary Wharf.

The concept at Yashin is to make perfectly seasoned and balanced dishes that obviate the need for that ubiquitous Japanese condiment, soy sauce. Just in case you forget this fact, there’s a slogan that beams in blue neon above the chef’s work bench which reads: ‘Without soy sauce’. (Though the marketers have added a small-type ‘but if you want to…’ to the written version.)

This is an approach I heartily endorse.

I’ll confess I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic fan of Japanese cuisine (just ask Susie…) having over-dosed on the stuff while living in Chile. And what I often find most galling – even in top restaurants such as Nobu New York – is the over-use of soy sauce, which can render dishes simplistic and heavy-handed.

Yashin’s approach means there’s little room to hide in flavour terms: no short-cuts that can be remedied by a quick splash of soy sauce. But, having tasted through a total of 17 individual creations, I can safely say that there is no need for obfuscation here – the food is quite simply exceptional.

And who needs soy sauce when you have something as potent, as flavoursome, and as utterly ravishing as Yashin’s jelly of Tosazu (Tosazu-vinegar and dried bonito dashi)?

A few of my favourite creations on the day included:

  • Nanohana Brassicaceae, marinated Tomato and Seedless grape with Tosazu jelly
  • Scallop with Jalapeno salsa and Yuzu juice
  • Grilled Yellow Tail with Chestnut miso and Chrysanthemum
  • Sea Bass with Konbu Kelp and Kinome (though this didn’t work with the wine at all)
  • Wagyu beef with apple and Yuzu salsa
  • Botan shrimp with foie gras
  • White turnip marinated with vinegar and plum paste

And what of the wines?

We tasted through 14 wines, poured and re-poured in breathless fashion, with beaming winery principles glad-handing the crowds and being photographed all the while.

The better wines were subtle and food-friendly, showing an elegant restraint and some delicate succulence to match the lighter savoury dishes. I found it useful to think of the wines in the context of light Italian whites, or lighter styles of the Austrian grape Gruner Veltliner.

Where the wines didn’t work was when they were oaked (Suntory’s Tomi no Oka Winery Koshu 2009 Special Cuvée Barrel fermented was a pleasantly oaky white wine, but lost all of Koshu’s delicate typicity in the process). Equally, some were just too pithy and flat to be of real interest, and all struggled with the more flavoursome dishes. But these were in the minority.

For those interested in the details, the 2009 vintage was a riper style than the 2010, which tends to be more citric and fresh. Given my predilection for all things refreshing, I naturally tended to prefer the 2010s (but many of which were only tank samples not yet bottled).

I see the future for Koshu as providing an interesting point of difference in Japanese restaurants around the world, to offer alongside the likes of sake, beer and other wines. It lacks the character an inherent nobility to make wines of the top order, but on the basis of these wines, it can make very food-friendly, elegantly restrained wines of lowish alcohol (typically 11.5-12.5%) that sit very well alongside Japanese cuisine.

Unsurprisingly for a nascent category, availability for these wines is currently extremely limited in the UK.

One of the few that is, or shortly will be, available in the UK is the Grace Koshu Private Reserve 2010 (see tasting note, below), stocked by Novum (buyer Steve Daniel up to his old tricks of searching out the bright new things of the wine world). Fellow taster Gerard Basset MS MW, who owns the excellent TerraVina hotel down the road from us, mentioned that he was minded to list this in the near future.

According to event organiser Lynne Sherriff MW, several other UK importers are currently looking at importing Koshu wines, Enotria included.

Watch this space.


Grace Koshu Private Reserve 2010 (tank sample) – One of the best wines at the tasting. Smells like warm vegetable broth, with notes of pears and cabbage, quite Gruner Veltliner-esque. Perfumed, if not the most sophisticated. On the palate, it’s clean, crisp, with some decent body. Pleasant persistence. 5.5/10

Haramo Wine Vintage Koshu 2010 (tank sample) – neutral pear aromas, with a pleasantly crisp palate. Succulent, creamy texture, impressive and food-friendly. 5.5/10

Marquis Winery Jien Blanc 2010, 11.5% (tank sample) – smoky, sake-esque nose with notes of earthy rice and fresh herbs. Interesting, different. It’s crisp and fresh with an elegantly savoury edge. 5.5/10

Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery Koshu 2009 Special Cuvee Barrel fermented, 12% – this wine apparently sells for 3,200 yen (roughly €23). That’s a lot to ask for what is essentially a pleasantly creamy, oaky wine – but the technical sheet also says that total production was 369 bottles, roughly equivalent to one large barrel, so that might explain it. One senses it would have a stronger proposition in Japan than in a market like the UK, where there are better oaky whites at half the price. But it’s perfectly pleasant. 5/10