Sake is the most obvious drink that comes to mind when thinking of alcoholic drinks from Japan. However, the country's wine industry is currently undergoing a radical transformation, with a major project focusing on the local koshu grape, and New Zealander Glen Creasy is one of its key consultants.
Established in the mid-2000s by the Japan-based wine importer, Ernest Singer of Millesimes, the "Koshu Project" was an attempt to revitalise the Japanese agricultural industry. This was in a state of near crisis due to a lack of new young blood entering farming, explains Creasy, viticulturist for Sabrosia Winegrowing Services. Creasy - who also works for Lincoln University - has been providing viticultural expertise from near the start of the venture, along with other high-profile consultants such as the University of Bordeaux's Denis Dubourdieu.
"Singer decided to try to counter the stodgy image of agriculture by taking an ancient Japanese table grape variety, koshu, and making a high-quality wine out of it, which was particularly well-suited to Japanese cuisine," Creasy says. "Japanese-style cuisine has been growing in popularity, so there's a natural opportunity to make a wine that suits it from a variety with over a thousand year-history in the country, while also providing a potential market for those currently growing the grape and interest a younger generation in grape cultivation and wine-making."
Given Japan's extreme climate, with its freezing winters and ill-timed typhoons, it's not the most obvious place for growing grapes. However, the country has been cultivating the vine since the 8th century, with a modern industry dating from the 1870s when the government sent researchers to Europe to investigate winemaking and bring back vines.
"Japanese wineries have been around a long time, but those dedicated to quality wine production are few and far between," notes Creasy. "The industry is unregulated, with anything goes as far as what's in the bottle. But there are wineries growing their own vinifera grapes and making wine from them, and there have been a few making wine from koshu."
Vinifera is the species of vine which boasts the world's classic grape varieties; it is in the minority in Japan which has traditionally favoured the hardier "American" vines and hybrids, despite these making wines which are something of an acquired taste. It was recently found that koshu is closely related to vinifera, boosting its credibility as the country's great white hope.
"It is a pink-skinned variety, which can now be considered as a brother to varieties such as gewurztraminer and pinot gris," says Creasy, who explains that this delicately flavoured grape with its naturally low sugar and consequently modest alcohol levels is made in a variety of styles.
"The winemaking style that Dubourdieu has led the Koshu Project to is a more elegant, lower-alcohol style, which suits the natural tendencies of the grape and also complements most types of Japanese cuisine," says Creasy. "The wines tend towards minerality, with fresh Bartlett pear and a pleasing and well balanced acidity - perfect to accompany sushi."
Promising as the wines may be, grape-growing in Japan has plenty of challenges. One is simply finding suitable land for grapes, while in existing vineyards Creasy has had to deal with interference disease exacerbated by warm humid summers, as well as "beetles, grubs, deer, birds and monkeys".
Despite this, he is confident that there's "tremendous potential for viticulture and winemaking in Japan" to provide both quality wines and "a bright spot for agriculture in Japan".
"The industry is very young, only now exploring new terroirs, and reaching out to other countries for information as to how to match viticultural and winemaking practice to local conditions," he concludes, "but I'm sure we will see more from this industry in the future."
WINES FOR MUM
Ti Point Matriarch Matakana Coast Syrah 2010 $44.99
From a label run by two generations of women, comes this excellent syrah with its powerful but elegant dark fruit and notes of leather lifted by bright peppery aromatics. (From Glengarry and other fine wine retailers.)
Osawa Flying Sheep Hawkes Bay Gewurztraminer 2010 $23
Established by Japanese wine lover, Taizo Osawa, Osawa Wine's exotically scented gewurztraminer with its notes of ginger and rose over opulently textured stonefruit with a fresh citrus zest edge, could prove an appropriate alternative to a present of perfume. (From Fine Wine Delivery Company, Advintage and fine wine stores.)
Ata Rangi Crimson Martinborough Pinot Noir 2010 $35-$37
With its beautiful bottle and equally comely contents, this fragrant pinot from this Martinborough pioneer with its silky fresh berry fruits infused with notes of spice and rose, would make a great gift for Mum. (From Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Liquor King, Merchant of Tirau, New World Victoria Park, Scenic Cellars.)