Wine Explorers: South Korea
Despite not having any contacts in this country, one thing was certain – there is wine production in South Korea. Not to worry, the world of wine is (very) small and friends are always there to help and to share their network.
Mission n°1 : making appointments with winegrowers
We just landed in Seoul. Now we simply needed to wait patiently. We took this opportunity to visit the capital. Some neighbourhoods only, because the city is immense. With 25 million people, Seoul is the third most populated metropolis in the world after Tokyo and Mexico City. The architecture is sometimes very surprising, as for example at the corner of a shopping street in Myeong-Dong’s neighbourhood where a big surprise awaited us. Placed in the middle of a square, surrounded by buildings, one more modern than the other was the Cathedral of Myeong-Dong.
What wonder to come face to face with this beautiful cathedral, built between 1892 and 1898, a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church’s presence in South Korea where in Seoul there are over 1.2 million Christians. But let’s get back to our vineyards. Because by now we had the contact details of four Korean wineries ! However… there was a slight “technical problem” which we had to overcome, none of these contacts spoke any English. Oops… By chance, and especially with the help of a school friend, we were in contact with Ah-Reum Kim, a journalist for the Wine Review, a Korean magazine dedicated to food and wine. A few phone calls later our appointments were made. Thank you Ah-Reum !
Body language and winery visits
Rental car in hand, let’s go to the countryside, 300 km South of Seoul, to visit DuraeAn winery.
Nearing the vineyard it seemed that the GPS was also a bit lost. We asked for directions by showing the address written in Korean on a piece of paper. A man took his car and beckoned us to follow him. He lead us to the domain. Once on site a real challenge awaited us: presenting ourselves, being understood, gathering information… and doing all this without speaking the language and only communicating with signs! In the end we understood that DuraeAn winery produces mainly grape spirits, thanks to a double distillation alembic. Mr Kwon, the owner of the winery, tried to explain to us with gestures that his wine is not sold and that he produces very little. We concluded that it must be made as a hobby and that the production is shared with his friends. He was very proud to show us around the cellar which housed a hundred barrels from France and Portugal. And the icing on the cake, he wanted us to autograph one of his barrels. Mandatory photo session.
Junete and Grand Coteau, two very nice wine estates
Mission completed. We left the day after for Junete, the second winery of our trip. Ms Ha, the owner, was all smiles. She was waiting for us. And luckily she had wifi. Why was that important you might wonder? Because we could communicate with her via Google Translate. And it worked pretty well! The wine estate is very small: two hectares planted exclusively with Campbell Early*, a red hybrid grape variety – a cross between Belvidere and Muscat of Hamburg. It gives a light wine with aromas of black fruit (see tasting notes below). We ended our tour with a delicious outdoor lunch with Ms Ha and her husband. On the menu was dried fish, fermented cabbage, white rice and a cold soup made with blackberries and white radish.
Heading back northwest, close to the sea, we arrived at Grand Coteau. A vineyard of 2.5 hectares which produces rather atypical wines, like a red sparkling, an ice wine made from campbell early or a white wine 100% cheongsoo (a very aromatic local hybrid grape that tends towards notes of white fruit and citrus). Here – as in most of the vineyards we encountered during our Korean trip – the vines are covered with huge gutter-shaped plastic nets. This is because the climatic conditions in South Korea are not very favourable for viticulture due to summer rain, high humidity and poor soils, bearing some similarity to the Taiwanese climate.
Tasting of some Korean wines
Result, Korean white wines are generally very light and the red wines are starved of tannins. Some examples of wines that we tasted.
– “M5610 Elevation 2010“ from Grand Coteau
A 100% Campbell Early sparkling rosé wine. Nose and mouth of wild strawberry. A fresh and pretty sweet wine rather balanced but short finish. (10% alcohol). Cellar price : 39 000 KRW (about €28).
-“Gubong Red Wine“ from DuraeAn
A red wine made from Gubong (a local grape variety), non vintage, with a very light pink-orange color. A nose of red fruit and a sweet mouth. Slightly bitter finish. (12% alcohol).
-“Grape Wine Dry 2010“ from Junete
A purple-red wine 100% Campbell Early. Nose of Port wine with black fruit (blackberry) and strawberry finish. Very discreet mouth, a little hot. (12% alcohol). Cellar price : 15 000 KRW (about €11).
– “Icewine 2010“ from Grand Coteau
A very surprising ice wine made from campbell early. This is possible since the temperature in some mountainous regions of South Korea can drop to -15°C in winter. Orange brick-red colour. Nose of strawberry and blueberry. Flat mouth, the fruit is gone. (10% alcohol). Cellar price : 52 000 KRW (about €38).
Château Mani, the last (but not the least) winery of our Korean journey – is situated right in the middle of the country, in the region of Chungcheongbuk-do**. We met with Mr Kim Giduk, the winemaker, with whom we were able to exchange a few words in English. A nice exception ! The château is a large building in a classical style and features a courtyard where the tradition is to crush the grapes barefoot into square stone basins during the harvest.
Another tradition here, which is reminiscent of the story and custom of a famous Bordeaux château : each year the estate invites a different artist to design a new label for the wines. But before tasting the wines, let’s visit the storage cellar, a mystical place lost in the mountains, 15 minutes drive from Château Mani. Thousands of bottles are sleeping on shelves along major corridors carved into the rock. I never expected to see such a place in South Korea. We didn’t stay for long because it was very cold there (only 10°C).
Back at the château we tasted two wines, probably the two best Korean wines.
-“Château Mani Cult Wine 2009“
A red blend made from Muscat Bailey and Cabernet Sauvignon. A pretty nose of strawberry and blackcurrant. Lovely on the palate with crispy fruit. Some tannin which provided good structure. Surprising. Cellar price : 28 000 KRW (about €20).
-“Château Mani NOUVEAU 2013“
A second red wine, using campbell early and made like a Beaujolais Nouveau, with carbonic maceration. Aromas of strawberry. A fresh and light wine to drink as an aperitif. Cellar price : 21 000 KRW (about €15).
In Korean dishes : spices, garlic and chilli…
“Beware of Korean dishes, they are ultra spicy” ! We were warned several times and I must admit that I had not taken the matter seriously. Because after our African trip earlier this year I thought my body seems accustomed to any spicy food. How naive… The dishes arriving on the table were one more red than the other. There were spices, garlic and chilli everywhere – hard for an unaccustomed European stomach. So the trick is simple – eat white rice as an accompaniment to extinguish the flames. Rather effective. And besides, it didn’t stop us from enjoying the feast, quite the contrary.
The proof came with this excellent Korean barbecue. A classic and a must for lovers of grilled and juicy meat. Bon appétit!
*Campbell Early is produced in South Korea, United States, Japan and Taiwan and is known as a table grape with a taste of Muscat but not as interesting for the wine industry because it requires very hard work as a grape variety.
**For more information : Château Mani
Thank you to Sébastien Menut and Ah-Reum Kim for their invaluable assistance.