Is your Koshu kosher, mate? Can it hold its head (or bunches) up high and go toe to toe with the vitis vinifera that are the Big Dog grapes of the winemaking world? Chardonnay and Pinot Noir et al? Or shall we scarf them like table grapes? Don’t ask me ‘guvnor, I ain’t ever tasted the stuff, despite ten years in the trade man and boy, as I stand before you ‘ere. ‘Ardest game in the world squire, the wine trade…
Koshu is the most important grape variety native to Japan, grown commercially for wine production since 1879, with a DNA evolving from grapes that travelled the Silk Road through Central Asia from the Caucasus to China, before making its home in Japan around a thousand years ago. Apart from being snuck away on a couple of particularly obsessive restaurant wine lists, Koshu is still a rarity in the UK and guaranteed to elicit the response “huh?” from most UK wine drinkers; even amongst the inquisitive and indigenous varietal hunting UK wine trade (turns us on, this kind of thing), always looking for the thrill of a new grape to revive jaded palates, Koshu is still something of a stranger peering in from the outside waiting for its chance. An interloper.
A food and wine matching event at The Westbury Hotel in Mayfair was the chance for a Koshu ingénue (me) to dip a first tentative toe into a different kind of juice: expectation teetered somewhere between intrigue and “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” — don’t we have enough damn wine in this town already?
Pretty aromatics tempted me to dab a little behind the ears and dub one of the wines Eau de Koshu, but that would have been silly. Or would it? “For Him. For Her. For Every Day…”
I sometimes get a violent reaction against food and wine matching shindigs. Despite having been part of the UK wine trade for ten years, selling wine to London restaurants, and contributing plenty of wine matches to industry magazine Caterer and Hotelkeeper, the danger of a communal disappearing into one’s own navels is an ever present danger. The potential for wine wank lurks around every corner at every wine tasting in the country. I got The Fear within moments. Dishes came out to match with three wines: smoked eel, horseradish and cucumber; octopus and potato skewer. A hush descended. We self-communed for ten minutes in silence: a morsel here, a sip there, chin stroking as we pondered the impact of horseradish on the wines. If only we could see ourselves.
The saving grace began when the erudite panel began to offer their own thoughts, a dream team of Fiona Beckett (matchingfoodandwine.com), wine writer and educator Charles Metcalfe, Patrick Schmitt of The Drinks Business magazine, and Japanese sommelier Yuka Ogasawara — slowly I started to be won over.
The most scintillating match was seen when the fish pie joined the party. Sol Lucet Koshu with its funky modern label, from the Yamanashi Winery, cartwheeled into this dish with real poise and was the tipping point for my conversion to Koshu as a serious varietal: delicately fragrant, aromas flitting between white peach, honeysuckle and red apple, beautifully balanced and exhibiting a subtle salty umami character — it was the most complex of the wines I tasted, cutting through creamy mash and salmon in the pie with ease. Better still: the sparkling Lumière Pétillant, its creamy fizz sparking off wonderfully against buttery potato.
The vagaries of food and wine matching are something of a dark art, a foxy mix of smoke and mirrors, an illusionists act, and a series of bluffs and counter bluffs to cover all the bases
Early sparring between wines and food spawned a couple of winning combinations: that smoked eel and horseradish was dealt with admirably by a citrus charged Soryu Winery Koshu, a delicate lemon/lime character scything through smoky, oily eel, and brushing off the tricky horseradish with aplomb. A lusher, fleshier Koshu from Chateau Mercian coped best with a tricky assemblage of octopus with a pomegranate and chill dressing.
One of the leaner, tauter wines belonged to the Yamato Winery and their “Mineral” Koshu, a limey character slicing successfully through a rich marinated salmon dish with honey, soy and Tuscan spices. A L’Orient Koshu from the Shirayuri Winery displayed the funk and oxidative character of a prematurely knackered “natural wine”, a term that’s the subject of much debate and chin scratching in the wine trade, and I was assured this was a stylistic decision of the winemaker — it was a bit stinky. A final flourish came from the Grace Winery “Kayagatake” Koshu, a pretty and finely boned little number that was beautifully dry at 11.5% abv and a fine match for a duck and hoisin pancake wrap.
How to sum up a first encounter with the Koshu grape? Delicately aromatic with nuances and reminders at times of Gewürztraminer, at others almost like a delicate Loire Chenin Blanc or Muscadet, then it skips away and haunts with a memory of the lacy fragility of a Mosel Riesling. Pretty aromatics tempted me to dab a little behind the ears and dub one of the wines Eau de Koshu, but that would have been silly. Or would it? “For Him. For Her. For Every Day…” A zen like purity seemed to be present in the ephemeral, delicate liquid in the glasses. The wines are a sommelier’s playground, with a naturally modest alcohol of 11.5-12% making them supremely versatile for subtle wine pairings.
The vagaries of food and wine matching are something of a dark art, a foxy mix of smoke and mirrors, an illusionists act, and a series of bluffs and counter bluffs to cover all the bases; as Charles Metcalfe pointed out, you can often justify your matches through opposing stances, different schools, “one way is by contrast and another way is by similarity” — flavour and texture interplay between food and wine is often too subjective for absolutes to reign unchallenged. However, one thought seemed to ring unequivocally true, when Fiona Beckett was asked which foods does the Koshu grape seem to be particularly well suited to? “Uncooked foods, such as oysters, ceviche, peas, asparagus — it can deal with tomato too”.
Job done. Game over. Convert in the house. Koshu has the Moves Like Jagger necessary to be treated on an equal footing with the rest of the Big Dog varietals. I feel strangely calm after the tasting, not jaded by a palate battering. Calm is shattered when I hear someone airing their memories of the “best Koshu” they’d ever had, back in 1998, and then I feel like a little boy again and wine insecurities come raging to the surface — we’re a fragile bunch in the wine trade, there’s always someone who knows so much more, pricking the bubble of newly gained confidence. Stroll on, mate. C
Zeren Wilson is the founder of Bitten & Written: “Raw reviews straight from the plate”.