Issue 11.4: August/September 2008

Wine of the Rising Sun

story by Deborah Boehm


It’s a breezy, plumeria-nosed, lychee-scented morning in Honolulu, and the self-styled “wine geeks” are already hitting the bottle. They aren’t swallowing, though; they just sniff, sip, savor and then expectorate with flawless aim.

“Articulates elegance and finesse,” says Lyle Fujioka, of Fujioka’s Wine Merchants, holding a pear-shaped glass of golden liquid up to the light. His colleagues chime in: “Totally gulpable.” “Very bright.” “Smells like chenin blanc.” “Would work with poke.”

The bottle in question is a Shizen 2006, Cuvée Denis Dubourdieu, made in Japan from Koshu grapes—a shogun-worthy table fruit in Japan for nearly 1,300 years. As a wine grape (Vitis vinifera), Koshu belongs to the same European varietal that yields sauvignon blanc, and a few years ago, the Koshu Project, an ambitious, eco-conscious international consortium, set out to make Japan the first Asian country to produce a world-class wine. (French-style vintages have been brewed in Japan since 1885, but never, before this, from 100 percent Koshu grapes.) And why not Japanese wine? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the idea of California chardonnay or Australian Shiraz seemed laughably incongruous.

Happily, the first white Koshu wine, designed by Bordeaux-based oenologist Denis Dubourdieu, debuted to praise in 2006. “Very aromatic, even exotic,” wrote the Wine Advocate’s Robert M. Parker, Jr., giving the new release a solid B+. “Perhaps the Japanese have finally found their great white hope.”

Honolulu’s eloquent master sommelier, Chuck Furuya—who periodically pours Koshu wines at Hiroshi Eurasian Tapas—concurs. “It’s an incredibly food-friendly wine,” he enthuses. “It has purity, serenity, delicacy, finesse.” The same could be said of chef Hiroshi Fukui’s inventive cuisine, the perfect foil for Koshu’s gossamer “gulpability.” The wine, which harmonizes with Pacific Rim cuisine, has also been embraced by Sushi Sasabune and Orchids at Halekulani. Koshu is sold online and is even being exported to England, where sushi is immensely popular and wine geeks abound. So kanpai—and cheers! HH

Shizen Koshu