VINTAGE performance

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am


Ayana Misawa, her hair in a ponytail and dressed in sporty clothes, comes across as a young person hanging out in Tokyo's trendy and hip Harajuku neighbourhood.

But there is more to her than meets the eye. She is the winemaker at Grace Winery in Yamanashi prefecture.

Misawa, 31, is a nonconformist and not one to take the easy way out. Growing up in the family-owned winery, her childhood memories are of picking grapes, helping with bottling and labelling wine. Misawa says of her youth: 'I was longing to be a winemaker. Winemaking is an influential job in my region. I have seen wineries contribute to the region's development, and it impressed me.'

She sees the job as 'more of a male job as it is physically tough for tiny Japanese female winemakers'. Even in modern Japanese society, Misawa says it is difficult as a woman to challenge men. 'Sometimes you need to fight them to achieve what you want to do,' she says.

Misawa feels a lot of pressure, trying to build on the success of her father, and she is the fifth generation at Grace winery, which was established in 1923. Her grandfather loved Greek mythology and named it after the Three Graces.

She describes her father's achievements reverently, saying: 'He is a pioneer of quality koshu wines. He never gave up and continues to make good Japanese wines. He always thinks not only about Grace wines but the future of Japanese wines. That's why I respect him a lot.'

As well as trying to meet family expectations, Misawa's main focus is on promoting the Japanese grape variety, koshu. Originating in the Caucasus, the white grape was introduced to Japan via the Silk Road trade route.

Yamanashi prefecture is two hours by train to the west of Tokyo and home to koshu. With 80 per cent of the region covered by snow-capped mountains, it is reminiscent of a European alpine country. Misawa says the area is considered one of the best grape regions in Japan due to its long hours of sunshine, which allow the grapes to ripen.

Viticulture is a challenging venture due to the onset of heavy rains during the summer. Misawa says the most stressful time is 'rain at harvest and typhoons. Strong winds break vines and wires, while heavy rain at the ripening period brings fungal disease. We lose a lot of the crop'.

Most koshu wines are sold domestically and competition is getting tough. Production costs are high and the retail price is double those of imported New World white wines. Koshu's biggest competitors are sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and the Loire Valley, and gruner veltliner from Austria.

Marketing koshu is not easy as it is does not have the intense, fruity style that is popular with new wine drinkers. Misawa describes koshu as 'unique, with aromas of white flowers, peaches, pears, and the Japanese citrus yuzu'. Koshu 'reflects Japanese culture with its delicate flavours and low alcohol. It goes well with sushi, tempura and Japanese cuisine using soup stocks.'

Misawa has recruited to her world young people who typically quaff beer and spirits. Through overseas travel and exchanges with other winemakers, she has introduced an entry-level range, Serena, whose wines have a fun, colourful, label and a fruity, approachable style.

In the past two years, Grace has made considerable progress with exports. Through the trade organisation Koshu of Japan, koshu wine producers have worked hard to educate international wine writers and the wine trade. Winning a silver medal in the Decanter World Wine awards with the Grace Koshu Kayagatake 2010 was a milestone.

Grace wines are now offered at the Galaxy in Macau, but have yet to reach Hong Kong. It is only a matter of time, however. Misawa believes koshu is a good match for Cantonese food, with its delicate flavours and emphasis on fresh ingredients.

Misawa still considers herself on a learning curve. She trained in Bordeaux and now travels the world learning different winemaking techniques. She hopes to have koshu recognised as an international wine grape variety, write a book about it, and continue to develop the Japanese winemaking industry.

'Our vines are getting better year by year,' she says. 'I look forward to the future.'