The Four Phases of Koshu

In 2002,  Shikegazu Misawa planted a revolutionary Koshu vineyard in Akeno. Instead of growing the variety on pergolas, the proprietor of Grace Wine trained the vines by VSP or Vertical Shoot Positioning. The motivation is quality, over volume. Cuvée Akeno, the resultant wine, is concentrated and intense. It is Koshu’s first First Growth.

Yamanashi Koshu can be usefully considered from four phases.

The first is that it is made from grapes strung on pergolas without any oak influence. Today, most such wines are usually also aged on lees for some time. Some producers have also started skin contact before fermentation to draw out more flavours. All these wines are worthy representations of Koshu. Encouragingly, many also use screw cap to seal the fruit and freshness. The perception that Japanese consumers are only interested  in wine sealed with a cork is a misconception. We tend to forget that the Japanese are very progressive. They even produce robotic dogs.

The second phase involves fermenting or/and ageing Koshu in oak. The reasons include trying to add complexity to the wine or/and toning down the acidity to deliver a rounder, more textured Koshu. Almost all oak influenced Koshu are a waste of hard-earned fruit. A handful of examples retains some semblance of Koshu but the vast, overwhelming majority blankets, cancels out, and neutralises whatever Koshu DNA there was in an already very delicate variety. It wouldn’t make any difference if such wines were made from Koshu, Melon de Bourgogne or Pinot Blanc.

You may also want to read … The Story of Koshu

The third phase is a fascinating development for Kohsu. Instead of letting the vine runs in every conceivable direction – north, south, east and west – splayed over a pergola, Koshu is now being trained a la VSP or Vertical Shoot Positioning. The motivation is quality, over volume. The leading light here, as with so many aspects concerning Koshu, is father and daughter team Shikegazu and Ayana Misawa of Grace Wine, proprietor of 14 hectares of vineyards with another 10 hectares of fruit under contract. Although their entry level Gris de Kohsu (a reference to the light pink grey skin of the variety) is made from purchased fruit grown on pergolas, Grace Winery other Koshus are from owned VSP vineyards. These wines, including single-vineyard and Cuvée Akeno, are also special for the added fact that Bordeaux trained Ayana Misawa shuns lees contact in order to draw out delicate, tingling, silky, pristine pure “unplugged” Kohsu. The first VSP trained Koshu vines were planted in Akeno in 2002 by Shigekaza Misawa (his younger son makes a very good Chitose Winery Pinot Noir in Hokkaido).

The final phase to the Koshu narrative took place on 16 July 2013. On that sunny Tuesday, the winegrowers of Yamanashi made grape history by creating Japan’s first GI or Geographical Indication. The decree was signed into law by the Director-General of Japan’s Tax Agency and requires that any wine carrying GI Yamanashi be made only from grapes grown within the boundaries of the prefecture and that the wine must also be made and bottled in Yamanashi. GI Yamanashi extends beyond Koshu and includes seven other varieties, all of which are vinifera.

The Akeno vineyard is 700 metres above sea level and has the longest sunshine hours in Japan. Apart from Koshu, Grace Wine also grows Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

There may be a fifth phase to Koshu in the making.

Some – particularly younger – winegrowers are advocating creating sub-regions to highlight the different terroirs of Yamanashi.

The palate profile of Koshu includes white flowers, grapefruit, limes, lemons, Nashi Pear, apples, fossilised or chalk minerality, and zesty freshness. A Kohsu can remind of Muscadet, Hunter Valley Semillon, Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, Sancerre but never a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Musically, Kohsu is Debussy’s Clair de Lune rather than  Led Zeppelin . If we migrate to painting, Koshu is more water colour – possibly acrylic – rather than oil on canvas. If Koshu were movement, it would be ballet.

Let the wine dance on your lips.

CH’NG Poh Tiong has been Regional Chair of Asia for Decanter World Wine Awards since its inception in 2004. He is also a Vice-Chair of  Decanter Asia Wine Awards. Ch’ng is also responsible for China, Japan and India for Hugh Johnson Pocket Wine Guide. He is Chairman of KEC or Koshu Expert Committee of Japan.

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