Pairings | Umu
Is Koshu the best match for Japanese food?
I suspect you’ll be hearing a lot about Koshu this year. No, it’s not some unfamiliar aspect of Japanese cuisine but a white wine made from a grape of the same name. A campaign to promote it in the UK was launched at a lunch in London yesterday by a VIP line-up of Japanese goverment officials from the Yamanashi prefecture where most of the winemakers are based.
So what’s it like? Well, I think it’s fair to say it wouldn’t stand out in a large consumer tasting. The wines - well, the unoaked ones at least - are fresh and clean with a fierce aciidity - not particularly to the current British - or American taste. For nearest comparison think Aligoté, Muscadet-sur-lie, bone dry Riesling. and young Chablis which the Japanese have always liked with food. The oak-aged examples are slightly fuller and rounder but nothing like as rich as a barrel-aged Chardonnay. Viura was the nearest comparison that came to mind.
Apart from a couple of wines which I’ll mention later there weren’t any stand-out examples or perhaps it was simply a question of adjusting ones palate to a new wine style. But it was with Umu's kaiseki menu*, with which we tasted them in flights of three, that their virtues really became apparent. The cooking at Umu, which has a Michelin star, is in the opinion of many, the best Japanese food in London. I’ve certainly not tasted better outside Kyoto and the chef Ichiro Kubota certainly excelled himself yesterday.
The meal started with the most spectacular array of Iwaizakana (above right) a special New Year selection of dishes which was as beautiful as it was delicious. - a riot of different colours and textural contrasts. With ten components in all, each intricate, each unfamiliar, it’s hard to recall let alone describe each element accurately, but it included a amazing dish of squid and sea cucumber, a prawn, a tiny poached mandarin and I think, stuffed kelp with herring and extraordinary black beans topped with poached carrot and gold leaf. (Each element had some relation to water whether it was the river, pond or ocean) No flavour was intrusive but it encompassed a complete range of tastes - salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami. And the koshu was as good an accompaniment as you could have chosen, refreshing the palate between each bite and allowing you to appreciate each new texture.
It also worked well with the next course of sashimi, especially some unctuously creamy pieces of squid - though not quite so well with the tuna toro which would, we felt, have probably been better with sake.
The next course was a rich seafood dumpling in a delicate white miso soup. Here the lighter wines showed better with the slightly glutinous casing of the dumpling and the fuller more rounded style of the Marquis Koshu (a 2009 tank sample) harmonised with the miso, showed off the rich seafood flavours of the filling and picked up with the umami-rich scattering of bonito flakes.
The wines struggled a little with the next dish, a savoury-sweet dish of sea bream ( I think) with pickles which again I think a sake would have taken better in its stride. The most successful pairing was again one of the fuller styles, the oak-aged Yamato 2009. It also created what I thought was the only discordant note of the meal - the combination with an intensely fruity almost Sauvignon-like wine (the Katsunuma Jyozo, I think) which was ironically the one that would have probably have paired best with a Western menu.
The savoury courses finished conventionally with a bowl of soup and rice but, needless to say, no ordinary soup, no ordinary rice: a fine dashi broth with some fine slivers of white fish and some delicately spiced rice topped with a steamed egg yolk, a tricky dish which defeated most of the wines except the 2007 Suntory barrique. (Actually it wasn’t dissimilar in texture to eggs benedict which also goes well with oaked whites.)
The meal ended with a red bean curd dessert with dumplings which the organisers wisely did not attempt to match with any of the wines.
So, the overall verdict? A meal of this sublime quality underlines that texture is as important as taste with Japanese food and the Koshu wines certainly respected that. Their crisp acidity worked particularly well with the raw and pickled dishes though there were some individual preparations I thought would have been better with sake - or vintage Champagne which I’ve found in the past goes really well with high-end Japanese cooking. The fuller-bodied, oaked Koshus came into their own with the richer dishes.
But there’s also an interesting cultural aspect at work here. I think a lot of people are going to be intrigued at the opportunity to drink Japanese wine in a Japanese restaurant and the fact that so many of the wines are modest in alcohol gives them an extra edge in these health-conscious times. (They would also go with lighter Western dishes). If the prices are reasonable I’m pretty sure they’ll take off.
* Kaiseke is the Japanese version of haute cuisine.
For more information about the wines check out the Koshu of Japan (KOJ) website
For Umu’s address, telephone number and menus visit their website (Prices for this level of cooking are actually very reasonable by Japanese standards)
For a good explanation of how kaiseki meals are structured read this piece on The Atlantic website
I attended the Umu lunch as a guest of Koshu of Japan.
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