One of the highlights of the recent Acqua Panna Global Wine Experience was a session entitled The Wines of Wonderland. Chaired by wine writer and passion alternative variety advocate Max Allen, the other panel members were the acclaimed British wine critic Jancis Robinson OBE MW, Chalmers winemaker Kim Chalmers, and prominent Australian wine critics Jane Faulkner and Mike Bennie.
Of the 12 alternative varieties we sampled from wineries around the world, one of my favourites was the first wine on show, the Grace Koshu Hishiyama Vineyard 2009 from Japan. Robinson noted that three wineries in the world have ‘Grace’ in their name, the other two being the Grace Vineyard near Sacramento in California and the Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province China. (Ah, just realised she may not have been aware of Cape Grace Wines in the Margaret River?)
Unusually, women have senior roles at both the Grace Vineyard in Shanxi and Grace Winery in Japan. China’s Grace Vineyard is run by Judy Leissner, who took over in 2002 from the winery’s founder, her father CK Chan. Ayana Misawa is the winemaker at Grace Winery and daughter of Shigekazu Misawa, one of the pioneering proponents of the Koshu grape in Japan.
At 31 years of age Ayana already has an impressive resume. After studying at the Institute of Oenology and Viticulture in Yamanishi, she completed further studies at the University of Bordeaux and South Africa’s Stellenbosch University. Ayana also spent time working at prestigious wineries in South Africa, Argentina, Chile and Australia, including a stint at the Mountford Estate in Waipara, New Zealand with the highly regarded Taiwanese-born winemaker CP. (Coincidentally we enjoyed a bottle of the 2009 Mountfound Estate Pinot Noir with friends at dinner this week.)
Recently Grace’s wines have been winning recognition both in Japan and abroad. The four year old example we sampled was elegant, finely tuned, minerally and remarkably fresh. Several of the panel members remarked that the subtle fruit flavours were reminiscent of Chablis, and the wine’s modesty and simplicity was almost Zen-like in character! A perfect accompaniment to the light and delicate flavours of Japanese cusine.
The wine hails from a single vineyard, Hishiyama in Katsunuma, located in the Yamanashi prefecture at the foothills of Mt Fuji. Here the high elevation concentrates the grape flavours, and the use of the recently introduced, densely spaced Vertical Shoot Position (VSP) training method insures the grapes ripen evenly by encouraging airflow through the vines and better sun exposure. Robinson mentioned that sometimes rain hats are affixed to each bunch to protect the grapes from rot!
Koshu is a thick skinned grape and purplish-pink in colour. Research confirms that it is over 90% vitis vinifera, meaning the grape is European in origin and suitable for winemaking. It likely arrived in Japan with Buddhism about 1,000 years ago via the Silk Road through China. Winemaking first started in Japan in the 1870s, with Katsunuma as its birthplace and still the most important area for wine-making in Japan.
Ayana is the fifth generation of Masawa family to make wine for Grace Winery (Cho Budoshu in Japanese), which was established by her family in 1923.
Photo Credit: Portrait of a Young Winemaker: Ayana Misawa of Japan’s Grace Wines by Don Winkler, International Wine Review Blog, 3 December 2012