Japan has been making wine since the second half of the 19th century. One of the most established and well respected wineries in the Yamanashi Prefecture is Grace Winery, founded by Chotaro Misawa in 1923. Now this family-owned winery is run by the fourth-generation Shigekazu Misawa whose daughter Ayana is in charge of winemaking. Ayana studied winemaking in France and worked at many international wineries such as Mountford, Errazuriz and Cape Point. Ayana is one of the few female winemakers in Japan and Grace wines reveal her skills. We are delighted to have the opportunity to talk with Ayana about her winery, her winemaking philosophy and the challenges in making wine with Koshu, Japan’s indigenous grape variety.
AP – Asian Palate AM – Ayana Misawa
AP: What is your philosophy in winemaking and how does compare with your father’s philosophy.
AM: I respect my father. I like what he has made and what he has done. Koshu has been the family’s passion from the beginning of our winemaking many years ago. Although my father and I have very similar winemaking philosophy and taste, we received very different training. My father studied at a university in Japan majoring in organic chemistry; worked for one of the most reputable trading companies for 10 years and came back to the winery to become the winemaker of Grace. My father said the tradition was the most important for him. I am the next and a new generation and am, I think, a little bit more innovative. I had opportunities to study oenology and viticulture not only in Japan, but also in France and South Africa, and have done a few vintages across the Southern Hemisphere. After I came back to Japan, I also started sparkling (traditional method) as well as rosé winemaking.
AP: Being 5th generation pioneer of Japan’s Koshu wine, what perspective does it offer you in refining and understanding this unique variety.
AM: Koshu’s subtleties and delicacies are definitely unique. Its moderate aromas of citrus, white peaches and white flowers match so well with fine Japanese cuisine and its style is still evolving. During my grandfather’s era, most Koshus were off-dry, oxidized and were made in a commercial style, drunk only in local markets. In my father’s time, the wine market has changed and became more competitive, and Koshu’s style has evolved and became crispier, drier and more fresh-fruity, as well as employing techniques such as sur-lie and barrel aging. Nowadays, its style is even more sophisticated. Despite the fact that most Koshus are light and easy-drinking, I take on the challenge to produce more serious Koshus which are more complex and have more potential for aging.
AP: How would you describe the current state of the market for Japanese wine locally and globally?
AM: The domestic market is gradually changing. Japanese wine drinkers used to drink imported wines such as French reds for status and brand, I think this is no longer the case. Wine lovers start to appreciate white wines, as well as wines from the New World. Especially in Washoku restaurants, Japanese wines are being appreciated as showing the best match with refined Japanese dishes.
Globally, I think Japanese wine is starting to get noticed thanks to the increasing popularity of Japanese cuisine. Authentic Japanese restaurants abroad realize the food-pairing potential of Koshu and are gradually introducing the wine into their menus. In addition, the admission of Japanese cuisine into the intangible cultural heritage of Unesco list jump started its popularity enormously, and to a certain extent Japanese wine as well. People in the past usually associate Sake with Japanese cuisine but this trend is gradually evolving too. It will take time of course, but the momentum is promising. As to the most important variety, I think Koshu has got a very solid start, and is being considered as natural and healthy. Grace winery is witnessing this trend and is now exporting to 9 countries, to as far as the UK, Sweden, Australia, and to Hong Kong and Singapore as well. It started well for example in Hong Kong too where the Peninsula is even offering Grace wines by the glass.
AP: Please share some of the challenges or difficulties that you have experienced as a female Japanese winemaker.
AM: Winemaking is a rare occupation in Japan and most people don’t know much about the job. It is also considered as a “guy’s” job. I am skinny and small as most other Asian girls. Whenever people ask me “Do you really make wines?”, I told them, semi-jokingly, “How can I put on weight while making wines non-stop for 26 hours a day?”. Indeed it is quite a tough job physically, for me at least, though I managed to do away with sleep during the vintage. Frankly, the most difficult experience when I started making wines was to express my opinions in a polite way among our male colleagues. It was much more difficult than doing the physical job itself.
AP: What do you hope to achieve with Grace winery? Can you tell us about your future plans?
AM: Grace winery has been pioneering Japanese fine-wine winemaking. I want to maintain the superior quality of its wines and its true-to-terroir style.
Viticulturally, Koshu has been trained to a Japan-originated trellis system called “Tanazukuri”, which shares many similarities with the pergola system in Europe. Grace is one of the first winery to adopt the the V.S.P system in order to obtain grapes with more concentrated flavors. It is still a long way to fully adapt Koshu to V.S.P due to its exceptional vigor, but I think this helps us produce more serious Koshu with aging potential, rather than its more casual and fruitier current counterpart. In addition, I hope we can advance clonal selection for Koshu. Only massale selection has been done so far. For reds, I am interested in producing a Cabernet Franc-one of our vineyards has an altitude of 700m with the longest growing season sunshine hours in Japan. The vineyard produces grapes with very unique characters. We are trying out organic viticulture as well, in gradual and cautious steps, because, as you may already be aware of, it rains a lot during the growing season in Yamanashi.
AP: What specific dishes do you feel your single vineyard Koshu wines pair best with?
AM: Japanese Kaiseki dishes. I think Koshu is the only white wine that matches well with the Japanese soup stock” Dashi”, an umami-based broth, which is the fundamental ingredient in all great Japanese dishes. Sushi or Sashimi especially flat fish and snapper, with lemon and salt, match very too. And squid as well. Tempura, especially vegetable and fish tempura with salt, are also good matches. Don’t you think a few Cantonese dishes such as dim sum and steam fish go very well with Koshu too?