JFOODO Japanese Wine Event with Sarah Abbott MW

Ben Franks with Sarah Abbott MW and the tasting highlight:Hokkaido Kitajima Vineyard Kerner

Before the event

I have been seriously discovering Japanese wines since I first wrote about Koshu in 2015. When I was a journalist back then, I met a wonderful winemaker called Ayana Misawa at a trade tasting. I tasted Koshu for the first time (Ayana’s Grace Koshu Kayagatake) and loved it – the delicacy, potential with food, the brand, and most importantly its story.

Not only was Ayana Misawa promoting a brand new wine to a market that had only ever associated Japan with sake and whisky, but she was a pioneering female winemaker, too.

While I went on to make sure I tasted every Koshu I came across, I didn’t discover the range of Japanese wines on offer or indeed the undiscovered world of sake until SITT in 2016. So despite being a fan, I was uneducated as far as my palate goes. Nevertheless, I have written about and promoted wines of Japan since that first time I tried Grace. Their Koshu Kayagatake was one of the first wines we added to the Novel Wines wine list, and it remains one of our best-selling whites.

Grace Koshu Kayagatake, one of my favourite Japanese wines.

So you can imagine my thrill at hearing about Sarah Abbott MW’s masterclass and Japanese wine tasting in Bristol on 20 February 2019. I was in.

Sarah Abbott MW’s Masterclass: What I learned about Japanese wine

The great thing about when a Masterclass is done properly is you experience some of the passion of the speaker. I find it only happens when someone has a genuine connection with what they are talking about.

Passion

Sarah Abbott MW loves her Japanese wine but she’s also been there and seen how the wine is made first hand. Sarah talks about the “crazy” winemakers in the Niigata prefecture and the “epic landscapes” in Yamagata. There’s the youngsters in the emerging, groovy withe market of Hokkido, and there’s the quick, hour-long bullet-train ride from Tokyo into the beautiful prefecture of Yamanashi.

This is the stuff that sells wine: the soul of the product. What’s the point of a new product entering into a saturated market if it doesn’t give you something new? Wine is an experience and the new, buzzing innovation happening since Japan deregulated its wine trade in 2007 has offered something new in bucket-loads.

It’s an exciting time to taste wines from Japan!

Essentials

It seems ridiculous to try and reduce Sarah’s Masterclass to a few words but here is a starting point for those interested and new to the field:

The main white grapes:

  • Koshu, which possibly originated in Georgia, but is now an adopted indigenous Japanese variety. I learned that it’s 3/4 V. Vinifera and 1/4 Asian wild grape vine, which is unusual. It’s still grafted onto American rootstocks as phylloxera is in Japan. Koshu is a cute-looking grape with pink skins and a grapefruity-character in its juice.
  • Niagra/Delaware, which are mainly used for late harvest sweet wine. Popular domestically but not so much export potential.
  • Kerner, in a similar cold-climate hybrid approach England has taken, Japan are planting grapes like this and creating some really exotic, exciting examples.
  • Chardonnay, Riesling, Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc, Fiano, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, etc… are planted as well with lots of experimenting and innovation happening.
Koshu on vine.

The main red grapes:

  • Muscat Bailey A, which is a wine everyone should try but almost certainly not everyone will like. It’s a hybrid of Muscat of Hamburg and Bailey A created sometime in Niigata in the late 1800s. Think Beaujolais-meets-toffee-meets-Chardonnay.
  • Zweigelt, the Austrian grape crossing of Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent, has found a home in Japan producing reds with some gorgeous plush red fruit notes.
  • Cabernet Franc, which buds later and ripens earlier, is a perfect choice for Japan and these are my favourite reds I tasted. Think Loire style with more fruit ripeness but delicacy on the body.

In terms of climate, the interesting balance is between the winter snows (especially on the west coast), altitude (averaging at 300m above sea level) and trying to reach ripeness. An England with more sunshine and more variety of topography.

37 of the 43 prefectures produce wines and winemaking has expanded greatly in the last 10 years thanks to deregulation. Before the market was dominated by massive brands.

Yamanashi, the main winemaking region, is actually one of the smallest. However it has cemented its place as Japanese wine’s heartland thanks to its history of viticulture and fruit-farming. Sarah describes Yamanashi’s views as “technicolour, hyper-real looking greenery across the mountains”.

The Masterclass wines

2016, Lumiere Sparkling Koshu (Yamanashi) – Popular with Japanese fusion restaurants in the UK and a sure-fire hit with oysters, this delicate sparkling wine has a tonic-like quinine note and a fairly savoury palate of bone-dry grapefruit, lemon peel and granny smith apple. It has had 12 months on lees and the fruit is picked from a sustainable vineyard. Made in the traditional method (second fermentation in bottle), it’s a lovely English-esque fizz. Lumiere, the winery, was founded in 1885 by Tokugi Furiya. Amathus’ Jeremy Lithgo MW bought it onto their wine list in the UK and it currently RRPs at circa £33. ★★★★☆

Lumiere Sparkling was one of the few Japanese wines already with UK representation.

2017, Katsunuma Jozo Arugabranca Clareza Koshu (Yamanashi) – A classic style Koshu, this is soft with hay grass aromas and a salty, lemon citrus flavour on the palate. Winemaker Hiro is Burgundy-trained and lees-ages his Koshu for added character. The winery was founded in 1937 in collaboration with Portuguese silk merchants. ★★★☆☆

2016, MGVs Winery K113 Koshu (Yamanashi) – I loved the branding of these wines. The boutique winery was the brainchild of Hiroshi Matsuzaka who converted it from his microchip factory in 2007. The wine has a barrel-fermented nose but is still light with hints of kernel, lemon and herbs. Again saline on the palate but very refreshing. ★★★★☆

2017, Hokkaido Wine Tazaki Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Hokkaido) – Wow, an amazing and refreshingly-different style of Sauv Blanc. The winery is a co-operative with 400 hectares set up in collaboration with the Germans in 1974. They showcase their fruit-growing heroes and in this case we get Mr Tazaki’s Sauvignon. It has a richly herby, passion fruit nose and sun-ripened gooseberries on the palate. Green mango, Solero ice-cream and apple were other tasting terms thrown around in the Masterclass. Very impressed! ★★★★★ Pick!

2017, Lumiere Prestige Orange Koshu (Yamanashi) – I am always sceptical about orange (or natural) wines. I just haven’t had great experiences nine times out of ten. However, this was very different. Familiar bitter blood orange aromas and some of Koshu’s grapefruit intensity on the nose but golly this orange wine is light and refreshing on the palate. Salted hints, 11% abv, 2 weeks of careful skin maturation, 4 months in used barrel for softness and low sulphur. A remarkable orange wine. Some apricot pith on the palate but very fresh. ★★★★☆

2015, Suntory Shiojiri Winery Muscat Bailey A (Nagano) – From the now-famous Japanese whisky-makers, this wine has been aged in Japanese oak. It has aromas of burnt toffee, red apple and currants. It’s sweet-sour on the palate, some plum and saline notes. I like it, but it’s very different. The winning idea was pairing it with tuna steak where I think it would be perfect. ★★☆☆☆

2016, Hokkaido Wine Yoichi Harvest Special Zweigelt – Having tasted a lot of Zweigelt recently I was expecting something very familiar. It had a Wagram-style about it but the fruit was much softer on the nose. Interestingly the Japanese style is far more floral in taste, with notes of rosewater quite intensely displaying on the palate. Creamy, a little hint of fruit sugar and exotic. Marvellous. ★★★★☆

2016, Fermier Cabernet Franc (Niigata) – One of those “crazy” winemakers making wine in Niigata’s cool, snowy climate, this young artisan winery (Est 2007) is near enough the coast to avoid any real problems. This “thoughtfully-natural”, as Sarah described it, Cabernet Franc has classic Loire-style red fruits on the nose but the palate is softly-textured, a mix of cranberry and blackberry fruit, and layered with creamy and grippy tannin. It finishes with that same Japanese floral notes I found on the Zweigelt but this time more violets, fennel and leafiness. ★★★★☆

Regions to watch

Finally, just to round-off the Masterclass “in short”, here are the regions to look out for with Japanese wines:

  • Hokkido (north island); the trendy youngsters and natural wine experimenters.
  • Iwate (north-east mainland Japan).
  • Yamagata (north-west mainland Japan); Zweigelt from here is good. There’s lots of high altitude and some epic landscapes. The climate is more continental so good for reds.
  • Niigata (west mainland Japan); coastal region Sarah describes as a “crazy” place to make wine but producing some interesting reds.
  • Nagano (central mainland Japan); more sheltered than Yamanashi and with lots of mountains, this is a good place to make Sauvignon Blanc or red wines. Merlot, Syrah and Muscat Bailey A are popular here.
  • Yamanashi (centre-south mainland Japan); located south-east of Nagano, Yamanashi is the heartland of Japanese wine and home to some of the country’s best Koshu wines.
  • Shimane and Osaka (south mainland Japan); two smaller wine regions.
  • Oita and Miyazaki (south island).

Walk-around Japanese wine tasting

I tasted around 36 Japanese wines, which I’ll upload to the Tasting Notes in due course. The stand-out wine I tasted was Hokkaido wine’s Kerner, which was delicious. Koshu was good, more saline than Grace’s style, and the Albarino wines were very interesting. In the reds the Cabernet Francs tasted the best but I did like the Zweigelts.

Branding problems

One of the main issues (which is not uncommon with wine regions) is the poor branding. As you might expect, wineries like Suntory, who have extensive export knowledge, faired much better. The main issue is the effort to look French, which is so disappointing given the style is so unique and different to France. Nevertheless, I’m sure we will see them adopt more of their own identities as they begin to export more widely. After all, some of the Japanese whisky branding is the most tasteful I’ve seen on shelves.

One of the better examples of branding; Chateau Mercian was also one of my favourite wineries from the walk-around tasting.

What’s next?

Anyway, it was a really exciting event and I can’t wait to learn even more about Japanese wines. If JFOODO and Sarah Abbott MW can keep up this buzz for the wines of Japan, I think we’ll start seeing them pop-up across wine bars in the UK. For now, start asking your local Japanese restaurants to start stocking some Japanese wines!

Here’s how you can learn more

Fired up to find out more about Japanese wines? Here’s a few select sources to delve deeper into this exciting new world:

One more thing

The event was held at Riverstation, Bristol. It was a great venue and the food was delicious. Going to have to go back…

Visit their website.

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