Making wine with grace

Ayana and Shigekazu Misawa (Photo: Grace Wines)

Ayana Misawa is a mere slip of a girl, which goes to show you don’t have to be muscular and macho to be a winemaker. Or a bloke.

The Misawa family own one of Japan’s leading wineries, Grace Wine, which they founded in 1923. It’s located at Katsunuma in the Yamanashi prefecture, about 90 minutes’ train ride west of Tokyo. Grace now has 14 hectares of vineyards, as well as buying grapes from several growers. Ayana has been schooled and trained internationally, having worked in several countries including Australia.

The indigenous Japanese grape koshu is the specialty of Grace Wine. Grace makes six or seven different koshus each vintage, including three single vineyard wines. One wine is barrel-fermented. The top wines are estate grown, the cheaper wines use bought-in grapes.

Koshu is a very delicate wine, which seems to suit the Japanese sensibility. It could be argued the grape, which has large berries and large bunches, is in fact a table grape, not a wine grape at all, and that table grapes are normally not well-suited to making wine with much character or concentration. But the Misawa family have gone to great lengths to produce wines of depth and concentration, strictly limiting the normally high yields and controlling the vine’s natural vigour. Instead of the overhead pergola system of training, they use vertical shoot positioning (VSP), which is common in high-quality vineyards in many western countries including Australia.

I recently tasted the latest Grace releases with Ayana, including five 2015 koshus. They seem to get finer, more intense and purer, year after year. The barrel fermented wine is so subtly handled that the oak is almost invisible. This is quite a feat as delicate koshu is easily overwhelmed by wood.

The flagship koshu is the Cuvée Misawa Akeno Vineyard. Ayana says this vineyard is ‘very dry’ with ‘only’ 1000 millimetres (one metre) of rain a year!

“It has the longest sunshine hours of anywhere in Japan.”

In such a cool, wet country, this is a special place. Pictures of the vineyard show a luxuriant crop of Italian grasses between the vine rows, whose purpose is to drink up some of that moisture and help dry out the soil – a problem unknown to winemakers anywhere in Australia except in the wettest of seasons.

The hierarchy in order of price (and these are not cheap wines) is: Gris de Koshu (AUD $44), Grace Koshu and Kayagatake Blanc Koshu (both AUD $48), Toriibira Vineyard (AUD $56), Toriibira Vineyard Cuvée Misawa Private Reserve (AUD $65), Barrel Fermented Koshu (AUD $75), and Akeno Vineyard Cuvée Misawa (AUD $115). The latter has an intriguing struck-flint aroma, similar to some top chardonnays and white Burgundies. It comes from volcanic soil while the Toriibira vineyard has a slate soil. The difference in character is striking.

My favourites of the 2015s were the two Toriibira Vineyard wines, the regular wine being unwooded, the Cuvée Misawa Private Reserve being barrel fermented. These are supremely delicate, refined, subtle dry whites with hauntingly beautiful aromas and flavours. Just the shot for a sushi meal.

*Importer/wholesaler is QED.

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