Government and Industry Collaboration: The Case of Koshu Wine

Globally, one of the keys to gaining recognition for wine regions has been the promotion of signature varietal grapes associated with regions or even nations, such as Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand or Pinotage in

South Africa. In the case of Japan, this is the Koshu grape. In 2010, Koshu was officially registered on the OIV’s list of wine grapes. Since then, Koshu grape made wine has become the globally known Japanese wine. The establishment of Koshu wine as national taste is a top-down collaborative project by the Japanese government and the wine industry. In this section, I will show how the status of Koshu grapes transitioned from a second to a first class grape variety, the processes through which wine producers developed different Koshu wines, and finally how the government promoted them globally.

Prior to the Meiji period, Koshu was the name of present day Yamanashi prefecture. Koshu wine might be simply thought of as the wine produced in Yamanashi.[1] In fact, today Koshu wine refers to the variety of grapes used and not the geographical location of production. Two legends exist regarding the origin of the Koshu grape in Yamanashi. One explains that a priest received the grape from Buddha and later planted it as a medicine. The other one says it was discovered by a local man. However, science has proven that the Koshu grape is a hybrid variety of Vitis Vinifera and an East Asian wild grape. The National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB) together with an American research team conducted DNA testing on the Koshu grape by analysing single nucleotide polymorphism. As they demonstrated the hybrid character of the grape, it is conjectured that it came from the Caucasus via the Silk Road to Japan.[2] Although historically, the Koshu grape was commonly grown throughout Yamanashi,[3] for a long time, it was not considered Japan’s signature varietal grape. In the early Meiji period, the grape began to be used for winemaking. However, throughout most of the twentieth century, it had been planted by grape growers as a table grape instead of a wine grape. As a variety of table grapes, Koshu was not popular among growers, mainly because Koshu was usually harvested later than other table grapes beginning in the end of September and through all of October. By this point other table grapes, such as Delaware, had already entered the market during the more favourable period of early autumn. Since these grapes sold for a higher price, growers preferred them over Koshu even though growing the latter was highly suited to the Japanese climate and soil.[4] As a result, since the 1950s, the growing of Koshu grapes had declined.

Although Koshu were grown to be table grapes, winemaking companies needed them to produce base wines to blend sweet wine. However, because growers preferred other table grapes, there was an insufficient supply of Koshu for wine production. In order to encourage grape growers to plant more Koshu, the ‘Council for Stabilizing Grape Supply for Wine Making in Yamanashi Prefecture’ (Yamanashi-ken genryo budo juku antei kyogikai) was established in 1975 to protect the trading price of Koshu.[5] Since then, Koshu had been gradually recognized as a wine grape by more growers. However, when the council was dissolved in 1994, the protections dissolved and the price of Koshu grapes declined by market competition. By 2005, the output of Koshu (6,970 tons) was only half of the amount harvested in 1991 (15,700 tons).[6]

Today, wines made with Koshu grapes have different flavours. For a long time, Koshu wines were sweet tasting, which had been thought of as delicious by consumers. However, until the 1980s, the taste of dry wines made with Koshu grapes was regarded as ordinary, flat and lacking individuality.[7] The Mercian wine company played an important role in upgrading the quality of Koshu wines by conducting experiments with new technologies and openly sharing the newly discovered methods to local wineries. The Sur Lie winemaking method,[8] which is popularly used today, was first successfully applied to Koshu wine production by Mercian in 1983. Koshu wine’s quality was for the first time significantly upgraded through this method. Later in 2000, Mercian started the ‘Koshu wine project’, aiming to fully display the Koshu grape’s individuality. The company added the grape peel’s aroma into white Koshu wine, a technology invented by French oenologists. For example, Mercian produced Koshu Gris de Gris in 2002, introducing the aroma of wild rose, previously not found in Koshu wine.[9] Moreover, in 2003, Mercian attempted a new method, using only grapes from the upper part of a bunch in their early maturity when they tasted better and using the lower part in a yeast experiment. They found that the Koshu grape gave off a previously unknown aroma of fresh orange. Samples were sent to the University of Bordeaux in France for chemical analysis. It was discovered that Koshu had a grape fruit aroma, a finding which would prove significant for Japanese wine production. In September of the next year, they harvested Koshu grapes when the grapefruit aroma peaked and made Koshu Kiiroko 2004. This wine had a fresh taste and a citrus aroma marking new progress for Koshu wines.

In addition to this large winemaking company, private wineries are also playing an important role in upgrading the quality of Koshu wine. One of them is the Chuo Budoshu winery where Misawa Ayana is the chief winemaker. Her recent creation Cuvee Misawa Akeno Koshu 2013 won the gold medal in the international Decanter World Wine Awards in 2014. This was the first time that a Japanese wine won the gold medal. The 2013 vintage bottle marks a new page in Koshu wine’s history because it has completely changed the flavour of wines from oxidized and off-dry to fresh, fruity and dry. This new flavour of wine comes from Misawa’s persistent efforts stretching over a decade to find better ways of making good genuine Koshu wines.[10] For a long time, Koshu grapes had been regarded as ‘second class’[11] as they contained a low percentage of sugar and, therefore, could only make wines with less than 10 per cent of alcohol. These wines often had a flat taste in terms of aroma, acidity and sweetness. In order to increase the alcohol percentage and improve the aroma, acidity and sweetness, most winemakers used additives when making wines with the Koshu grape. According to Misawa, this winemaking technique conceals much of the original aroma and flavour that the Koshu grapes possess. In an interview she stated: ‘I want to make a Koshu wine with its own character and complex flavours without any additives’.[12] From 2005 to 2009, she studied winemaking in France and South Africa. In France, she learned that the quality of grapes is more essential than winemaking technology for producing wines. Returning to Japan, she concentrated on improving the quality of the Koshu grape. First, she increased the sugar percentage of Koshu grapes to over 20 per cent, which for a long time had been a difficult task for Japanese winemakers. Most Japanese grape growers in Japan have been using the horizontal planting method, by which, ‘vines consume much more energy to breathe. Also, upper layer leaves shade the lower layer leaves, which slows down photosynthesis. As a result, grapes contain a low percentage of sugar when they are harvested’.[13] In 2005, Misawa decided to try a vertical planting method she learned in France, which eventually increased the sugar percentage. However, in the first few years of harvest, Koshu grapes grown using this method did not show promising results. In 2009, she supplemented the vertical method with the ridge system, which she learned in graduate school in South Africa. Finally, the Koshu grape harvested in 2012 contained 20 per cent sugar. And in 2013, it reached 22 per cent, which made her 2013 vintage a ground-breaking bottle, gaining the spotlight in an international contest.[14]

Koshu wine is now being promoted globally and may soon join the ranks of beer and whisky as being part of the overseas Japanese culinary boom. Since the 2000s, Japanese food has been gaining popularity outside the country.[15] Koshu wines, like the government-sponsored ideal of washoku, are on their way to becoming representative of Japanese taste. The emergence of Koshu in the global wine world can be partly attributed to a government-initiated alcohol export project called: ‘Japan. “Kampai” to the world’, part of the larger national project ‘Cool Japan’. Cool Japan is a government and industry collaboration initiative. A report issued by the Cool Japan Strategy Promotion Council describes the goals of the project:

It aims to disseminate Japan’s attractiveness and allure to the world and to incorporate and harness global growth for domestic economic growth. More specifically, the expectations for Cool Japan are not limited to economic expansion contributions through the communication of Cool Japan information and the expansion of goods and services overseas; a multiplier effect is expected that will increase consumption in Japan through the growth of Japan enthusiasts overseas that, when linked to Visit Japan initiatives, will lead to greater numbers of overseas visitors to Japan.[16]

Private companies in various industries are the major actors of Cool Japan, and national and local governments play supportive roles. Four areas are assigned as important projects, including design, content, cuisine and regional resource. Included under this strategy is ‘Japan. “Kampai” to the world’. Kampai is managed by Japan’s National Tax Agency to promote and facilitate the export of Japan-made alcohol.[17] The project aims to bring Japanese wines to international markets. Europe, regarded by the government as the home ofwine culture, was the first designated market. According to European Union rules, to export Japan’s wine to the European market, it is first necessary to register the grape variety name on the International List of Vine Varieties and Their Synonyms created by the OIV. Japan’s National Tax Agency decided to give the Koshu grape’s application priority as it is an indigenous variety. Starting in 2010, Koshu grape was included on OIV’s list. (Later in 2013, Muscat Bailey A, a grape variety for making red wine in Japan, became the second registered variety.) Since then, wine started to be exported to the European market with the Koshu label on the bottles. The exporting of Koshu wine is managed by an organization called ‘Koshu of Japan’ (KOJ), which was established in 2009 by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the Yamanashi prefectural government, the Koshu city government and 15 Koshu wine producers in Yamanashi.[18] KOJ is also a government and industry collaboration with the aim of bringing Koshu wine to the world. (Koshu of Japan n.d.) It received support from other national projects with similar goals to Cool Japan such as the ‘Japan Brand’ project (2009-2011) and the ‘Oishii, Japanese food quality’ project (2012-2013).[19]

KOJ has led efforts to make Koshu meet European Union wine regulations. London was selected to be the first European market destination of Koshu wine. The city is regarded by KOJ members as ideal because it has a wine drinking culture and a competitive market with a long history. Furthermore, there are many wine critics and journalists whose evaluations are essential for the success of a wine in the world market.[20] The success of Koshu wine in the London market was anticipated to be detrimental indicative of how it would fair in other markets.[21] Realizing this, KOJ invited Master of Wine, Lynne Sherriff, as a consultant to promote Koshu wine and world-famous wine journalists such as Jancis Robinson to give a seminar on Koshu wine. It also organized several Koshu wine tasting events at Japanese cuisine restaurants and other wine seminars at the headquarters of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London.[22] Through KOJ’s promotion in London, Koshu has gradually become known in the international wine world. It is being exported not only to European markets, but also to Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Shanghai.[20]

  • [1] Yamamoto, Yamanashi ken no wain, 34.
  • [2] National Research Institute of Brewing, ‘Koshu budo no rutsu’.
  • [3] Hozumi, ‘Yamanashiken wain seisan’, 555.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Asai, ‘Wain yo budo no genjo to mirai’, 339.
  • [6] Maeshima and Higawa, ‘Ni ryu kara’, 15.
  • [7] Kirin Holdings, ‘Daiikkai: Koshu wain’.
  • [8] Sur Lie is a French word, meaning on the lees. Sur Lie aging is a process to extract flavours byallowing an aged wine to continue to sit on the lees.
  • [9] Kirin Holdings, ‘Dainikkai: Haiiro’.
  • [10] Misawa, ‘Sai chosen’, 2.
  • [11] Maeshima and Higawa, ‘Ni ryu kara’, 1.
  • [12] Kawauchi, ‘Josei jozoka’.
  • [13] Misawa, ‘Sai chosen’, 2.
  • [14] Kawauchi, ‘Josei jozoka no gunshin’.
  • [15] See also Farrer’s contribution on Japanese cuisine in Shanghai in this volume.
  • [16] Cool Japan Strategy Promotion Council, ‘Cool Japan Strategy’.
  • [17] National Tax Agency, ‘Japan. ‘Kampai’’.
  • [18] Yamanashi Prefecture, ‘Koshu wain oshu’.
  • [19] Yamanashi Commerce and Industry Association, ‘Koshu wine EU export’.
  • [20] J-Net21, ‘Nihon wain ga sekai’.
  • [21] Maeshima and Higawa, ‘Ni ryu kara’, 15.
  • [22] Yamanashi Commerce and Industry Association, ‘Koshu wine EU export’.
  • [23] J-Net21, ‘Nihon wain ga sekai’.
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