It’s not the sweet wine we’re all familiar with, and it’s not even a white wine. I purchased a bottle of Muscat Bailey A (L’Escargot 2014) purely out of academic interest, despite the salesperson’s warning “it doesn’t taste very good.” Once home, I pulled the cork and flipped open my copy of Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson and while sipping the light ruby liquid.
History & growing Conditions
The Muscat Bailey A is an unique Japanese grape, a crossover between the Bailey (V. labruscana – i.e. American black grape varietal) and Muscat Hamburg (V. vinifera) black grapes. Niigata prefecture (see map below), where the Muscat Bailey A originates, is around 37°N in latitude, while similar to the 38°N of sunny Napa Valley in California, the climate is completely different. The area above Niigata experiences heavy snowfall and spring frosts which tend to kill typical European varietal buds before they even have a chance to emerge. Furthermore, the humid environment of the coasts of Japan means that grapes were particularly susceptible to the fungal diseases of powdery and downy mildew.
Enter Mr. Zenbei Kawakami (see slider above) who is also known as the “father of Japanese wine”, who in the 1920s was determined to create locally produced grapes in the climate of Japan. By experimenting ceaselessly, Zenbei created a resultant hybrid grape that is thick-skinned, which makes it resistant to fungal infections. It is also late budding which helps it avoid spring frosts and early ripening which helps it avoid autumn frosts. No wonder the Muscat Bailey A became Japan’s most planted grape vine (approximately 150 ha planted as of 2008).
wine style and taste
Muscat Bailey A wines tend to be sweet-fruited, and taste of cotton candy and strawberry. Acidity tends to range from low to moderate, with soft tannins. Recently producers have started to oak age the wines, resulting in better balance.
The bottle I had had medium intensity nose of strawberries, with a colour that looks like an aged Pinot Noir, light garnet tending towards tawny on the meniscus. It’s light bodied on the tongue, and tastes rather…well grapey. Flavours were not particularly complex beyond some red fruit flavours of strawberry and perhaps a hint of cranberry. It’s not an unpleasant drink especially considering the lack of confidence from the person selling me the wine.
producers, prices and ratings
Noted producers of this variety includes Suntory, Chateau Mercian and Takeda. Prices are remarkably low (less than S$30 (22 USD) a bottle), especially for a Japanese alcohol product. If the industry can conscientiously develop the wines, one day it may also take off spectacularly much like Japanese whiskies did from the 1990s.
The Muscat Bailey A is a very drinkable wine especially with foods like sushi and ramen, albeit with quality inconsistent between producers. It’s a wine that should be tried by any wine lover, even if its just to tickle your academic interest in the burgeoning wine industry of Japan.
Table of facts
|Where is it Grown?||Japan (Yamanashi, Yamagata, Osaka, Shimane prefectures)|
|Interational Variety Catalogue||https://www.vivc.de/index.php?r=passport%2Fview&id=8189|
|Wine Styles||Still Red, Rose|
|Typical Colour||Light Ruby|
|Typical Body||Light, Medium|
|Typical Acid||Light, Medium|
|Typical Flavours||Red Fruits, Strawberry|
- Why did Zenbei want to create a viable wine grape despite the odds?
- Why were Muscat Hamburg and Bailey chosen as the parent grapes despite both grapes coming from relatively warm climates?
- What blends are being made with the Muscat Bailey A?
References & Further reading
- Wine Grapes – Jancis Robinson
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