Although there exists plenty of material relating to the Katsunuma Wine Cave, most of the material lacks an in-depth evaluation of the wine itself. As a self-professed oenophile and trained sommelier, this article is purely personal opinion however I will attempt to provide as an objective explanation as possible.
The Katsunuma wine cave is approximately an hour and twenty minutes by an express train from Shinjuku station in Tokyo to Katsunuma in Yamanashi Prefecture. I suggest planning in advance to avoid long waits as the local train takes approximately two hours.
Upon arrival at the station, there is an hourly bus or an approximately 700 yen taxi ride to the cave itself. I suggest getting the phone number to call for pick up for the return.
The Surrounding Area
View from the observatory
Katsunuma, in general, is a rural area with no convenience stores. The actual wine cave and surrounding area is a weekend getaway for wine with a hotel, 4 restaurants, a wine museum, and plenty of small farmer kiosks selling the local specialties of peaches, plums, dried fruit, etc.
The cave is located underground to maintain the proper temperature for wine storage (although not made for long term wine storage (11 C) whereas the cave is approximately 15 C or so by my guess). The floor level is a gift shop, the level above that is a terrace with a 180 degree view of the surrounding area, and the next level above that is the restaurant.
The cost of the tasting is 1100 yen for the entire day and includes a tastevin to commemorate the tasting. Once purchased, one may leave and enter as pleased.
Menu at the 3rd Floor Restaurant - made from cork.
The cave itself is organized in two rows. One row is arranged from lighter to fuller flavored whites then to dessert wines. The other row is arranged with reds in no particular order to rosé wines at the end. Any wines enjoyed may be purchased at the end of the tasting.
I visited twice devoting with one day devoted to white, dessert, and rosé wines, and the other day for red wines only. I did so to avoid palate fatigue.
Prefacing my notes on the tasting, one of my largest criticisms was the requirement of using the tastevin. I was prevented from using my personal tasting glasses. The tastevin has two problems. Firstly, the tastevin cannot evaluate the wine’s physical appearance (i.e. color, density, sediments, tears/legs). Secondly, the lack of the bulbous shape in a wine glass prevents the accumulation of aromas and swirling of the wine glass. Although swirling was not required as most of the wines did not require any decanting. A poster showing the award winning wines is placed at the entrance of the cave and serves as a good start for one having difficulty choosing the wines.
The wines showed an almost uncanny uniformity throughout, hence I will not elaborate on each winery and wine I have tasted. However for good measure, I tasted approximately 20-30 red and white wines whereas I tasted less than ten wines for rosé and dessert wines.
The grape varieties I tasted include traditional styles of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, along with indigenous grapes such as Muscat Bailey A and Koshu Noir.
The vintages that I tasted were from 2010-2013. Although there was little discrepancy between all of them.
Tasting wines of the Emperor and Empress
The bouquet for most of the Merlot were muted to subtle baked maraschino cherries. Muscat Bailey A typically showed sweet almost jammy Concord grape notes. Once again, I caveat that the lack of a bulbous shape made any serious aroma evaluation to be impossible.
With respect to body and tannins, each of the reds perfectly reflected the traditional styles. As for flavors, the majority of the reds were either too sweet or many of the traditional flavors typically found in the respective grape varieties were significantly masked. That is, most of the flavors were muted and lacked any emphasis to make them actually fun to drink. However, I state once again, the body and tannins of each of these wines were perfect - no faults but at the same time nothing stellar.
The white wines are the main attraction of the cave - featuring one or two bottles of Chardonnay but the focus without any doubt on the Japanese indigenous grape, Koshu.
The appearance of the wines vary from well to lightly filtered depending on the maker. The bouquet of each wine show very little fruit intensity regardless of vintage. Mostly light notes of grapefruit pith.
As for the palate, most are light to medium bodied depending on the style of the winemaker, with little to no fruit intensity in flavor (once again mainly light grapefruit). The key characteristic to most of the wines is the high acidity.
Fountain in front of Wine Cave
Given the light flavors and high acidity, one easily sees how this wine pairs so well with light foods including some vegetables and Japan’s flagship cuisine, sushi. The light flavors do not interfere with any of the delicate flavors of simple Japanese cuisine (i.e. sushi) whereas the acidity prolongs and emphasizes such flavors. This same principle applies to natural vegetables with light and delicate flavors.
The makers have also tried a number of methods to change the wine. Oak aging merely adds light oak and vanilla notes on the nose and palate but does little to enhance the wine as a whole. As the acidity was still quite high, the oak did not go harmoniously with the light flavors of the white. Another method was sur lie aging, that is, aging on the yeast, however once again, this method left a barely perceivable (if not imagined) nutty flavor in the wine but little else. Moreover, I actually noticed the wine’s light flavors were further subdued.
Rosé & Dessert Wines
Although these are supposed to be two very distinct and different wine styles, I placed them together as apart from there nose and appearance, both flavor profiles were practically the same.
Rose Wines of Wine Cave
In terms of flavor, both wines were unnaturally sweet with little to no acidity. This is probably due to intense chaptalization (addition of sugar) of the wine for reasons that I cannot discern. The dessert wines did not show any variation in fermentation, mostly the eau de vie style of sweet wines or heavily chaptalized wines.
As for appearance, the rosé wines showed typical rose colors to brown. The dessert wines were based originally on white wines and as such typically showed the same.
The nose on most wines were mostly unnaturally sweet and of little else besides white granulated sugar.
Vintage Wine Case
Upon a final evaluation of the Katsunuma wine cave, I still recommend anyone looking for a natural escape for a weekend or so in the Japanese countryside. The Koshu grape although subdued in flavor still remains a great wine to learn about and pair with the local food.
I personally see a lot of potential with the reds, as I suspect the issue with the wines are not the grapes but some aspect of the wine-making technique. Provided this technique is refined and the full flavors of the grapes are shown, I believe Japanese domestic wine would at least become a competitive choice for most standard table wines.
As for the rosé & dessert, I still think there is much to be desired but for a non-wine drinker with a sweet tooth, it has its moments.