You have probably heard about Koshu wine made from the native Japanese grape variety of the same name. This light and crisp wine is increasingly winning the hearts of international wine critics (click here for a great article from The Drinks Business). That is a great development for Japanese wine. But, Japan has more “native” grapes to offer. One that deserves attention is Muscat Bailey A.
Muscat Bailey A is a pink-skinned hybrid of Bailey (V. labruscana) and Muscat Hamburg (V. vinifera). It was developed by Zenbei Kawakami (1868–1944) at the Iwanohara Winery in Niigata prefecture as a grape suited to Japan’s climate. Japan’s climate is generally wet and Kawakami’s Niigata prefecture in particular is prone to heavy snow and freezing conditions. Muscat Bailey A is uniquely adapted to this climate because it has thick skin which makes it resistant to fungal diseases. It is also late budding which helps it avoid spring frosts and early ripening which helps it avoid autumn frosts.
Muscat Bailey A also, thankfully, did not inherit the foxy flavor of its V. labruscana parent. Instead has a, well, grape-like fruity flavor. In recent years, Japanese winemakers have started to experiment with the grape and have produced wines that range from light roses to full-bodied, barrel-aged reds. They have also blended Muscat Bailey A with international varieties to produce full-bodied Bordeaux-style wines as well as softer Burgundy-style wines.
My first Muscat Bailey A was Izutsu Wine’s 2012 Muscat Bailey A which won the silver medal at the Japan Wine Competition in 2015. It was dry but fruity with a nice soft strawberry-like taste. I have seen some suggest pairing it with salted cod or tuna sashimi. Maybe… personally, I would like it with a light cream sauce pasta with a squeeze of lemon or a grilled salmon salad with vinaigrette.
With the attention that Koshu wine is bringing to Japanese wine, Muscat Bailey A should also get some time in the spotlight. But this is not to suggest that Koshu and Muscat Bailey A are the only “native” Japanese wine grapes. Kawakami also created the hybrid Black Queen which also makes a delicious wine. Japan also has a long history of growing table grapes and Japanese winemakers are experimenting with those grapes as well. So try Koshu, but know that Koshu is not the only native grape Japanese wine has to offer.
Sources: Wikipedia, “Japanese wine;” Yamada, Masahiko and Akihiko Sato, “Advances in table grape breeding in Japan,” Breed Sci. 2016 Jan; 66(1): 34-45.