The wine guy...Eddie McDougall: Samurai winemakers

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Illustration by Elis Wilk

All I’ve ever really known about the Japanese is that they make Sony Walkmans, get drunk on sake, roll sushi day and night, build Toyota cars, fight with Samurai swords and draw animations like Dragon Ball Z and Hello Kitty. Call me naive but this is truly all I have ever really been exposed to in the past three-and-a-bit decades of my existence.

But, over the past few weeks, that’s all changed for me. I have been privileged enough to be enlightened with some proper Japanese history – the country’s winemaking history. No, not sake making but actual grape wines. Little did I know that the Japanese wine industry has been going for some centuries now and that its most-prized grape varietal, Koshu, was discovered more than 1,000 years ago. So I wonder – were the Samurais sipping and swirling wine while fighting battles to protect the Emperor of the Rising Sun?

My discovery of Koshu has been just the start of my fascination for Japanese winemaking and the people behind it. My first encounter – and certainly the most memorable – has been meeting up with Ayana Misawa, a third generation winemaker from Grace Wines, in the region of Yamanashi. Ayana, is overly polite at first and incredibly focused on being better than just ‘good’. She aspires to make great Japanese wines by championing the Koshu white wine all the way.

Koshu grapes are pink in colour, thick skinned and traditionally late ripening as the varietal thrives in cool, high-altitude vineyards. The varietal’s late ripening metabolism can struggle to obtain enough sugars for alcoholic fermentation and, more importantly, flavour development.

The wine, once fermented into alcohol, can be treated in oak barrels or less intrusively in stainless steel tanks. Flavours of this wine are very delicate. Compared to Semillon wines from the Hunter Valley Australia, it displays notes of citrus rind, seaside freshness and plenty of minerality. Misawa describes the wines made from across the region as overly technical and a little too refined. I translate this as: ‘we are just meticulous in Japan when it comes to food and drinks’.

If you’re looking for my opinion, then I think, yes, the Japanese can make great wines – and the futures of Koshu and winemakers from the Land of the Rising Sun are just about to really take off…

Check out these Japanese wines:
1. Grace Wines, Gris de Koshu, Yamanashi, Japan, 2011
Score: 17/20

2. Grace Wines, Koshu, Yamanashi, Japan, 2011
Score 16/20

3. Grace Wines, Chardonnay, Yamanashi, Japan, 2011
Score 18.5/20

Wines available at northeast.com.hk

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