Just back from a couple of nights in Korea, where I was invited to host a wine tasting and dinner for Hyundai's top 'Black', invitation-only credit card holders (an honour which, their ads assure the Korean public, is more rarefied than being struck by lightning), I offer a handful of observations on this growing market for wine. After all, there's nothing like a fleeting glimpse of a place for sharpening the perceptions, is there?
The first big surprise was how attractive Seoul was. Everyone warned me it was just another city full of skyscrapers. My visit admittedly coincided with some lovely bright winter weather but I was unprepared for how much nature, in the form of some particularly attractive mountains and a river that winds through the capital, makes its mark. And flying in you see just how many islands (and ships) there are off the Korean peninsula (just west of Japan, due south of Vladivostok and part of the same land mass as north-east China since you ask). Definitely more attractive than the unplanned hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
There are about 50 million Koreans and an increasing proportion of them would call themselves wine drinkers. The first ad I saw getting off the plane (Korean Air serves Krug and Ch Smith Haut Lafitte 2002 in first class) was for HSBC and showed healthy, and obviously wealthy, young Korean businessmen clutching large glasses of red wine. There's clearly a connection there, folks.
There are punitive import duties on wine, running at around 60% by value, even higher than in Hong Kong, but the total wine market is still growing at a double-digit rate every year. I left the Grand Hyatt for precisely three hours during my stay (shame on me) but saw more wine bars in Seoul than there are in London.
Despite the high import duties, there are apparently no fewer than 259 wine importers in Korea, and no Korean I met would admit to having any acquaintance with Korean wine. Fortunately, the ever knowledgeable Australian Denis Gastin, who keeps me abreast of developments in wine production in obscure corners of Asia, assures me that East of Eden wines are worth seeking out. I have appended his full overview of Korean wine below.
Koreans work hard and are very money-conscious so I was not at all surprised to hear of at least two Korean wine investment funds, although the wine is of course not held in Korea.
Wine prices looked a little but not punitively higher than in the UK and US and there seemed to be a pretty wide range of wine available even if a preponderance of less than starry vintages of the finest wines.
There are already two, highly competitive wine magazines in Korea and I was interviewed by a knowledgeable reporter from the leading newspaper, who seemed to know more about me than I knew myself. From the questions I was asked by both journalists and wine lovers, I got the distinct impression that the Korean wine market is at that relatively early stage where those who know a little about wine throw that knowledge around, terrorising the slightly less knowledgeable with their over-emphasis on wine etiquette: gargling when tasting, the absolute necessity of drinking white with fish and red with meat etc etc.
Korean food is extremely healthy. There is a general absence of fat and carbohydrate and very little sweet food except for the sweet, sour and spicy elements in the main and first courses. (The Yquem seemed to go down well with the Roquefort at the end of our special wine dinner.) They use thin metal chopsticks (a challenge with sweet local oysters) and there are lots of miso soups and congee-like porridges, as one might expect from the proximity to Japan and China. The one condiment they seem unaccountably attached to is kimchi, fermented long-leaved cabbage seasoned with red pepper which comes in all manner of strengths. My visit apparently coincided with new season's kimchi and at the end of a really delicious 10-course dinner at Yong Su San, served in less than two hours and including two thin pancakes surrounded by tiny mounds of nine different brightly-coloured, finely grated stuffings, the chef was brought in demonstrate the noble art of kimchi making. There is a local theory that kimchi contains an addictive ingredient but I think I escaped unharmed.
There was much talk about how to match wine with Korean food but all I can say is that the Dampt, Montmains 2005 Chablis went beautifully with the first seven courses but that the carefully decanted Ch Smith Haut Lafitte 2003 Pessac-Léognan tasted a little bit rusty nail-like with the steamed short ribs in soy sauce accompanied by lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice. The owner of Yong Su San gave me a taste of a rice wine that they make themselves that was very impressive – pale copper colour and not as refreshing perhaps as the finest colourless sake but very dry and well balanced.
French wines are important but not overwhelmingly so, and thanks to the free trade agreement with Chile much of the inexpensive wine comes from there. I have certainly been aware of a Korean contingent or three at the annual Bordeaux primeurs tastings. Only on Monday the UGC circus had been to town, although perhaps significantly showing off the 2004 rather than easy-to-sell 2005 vintage here. There were apparently about 60 proprietors in attendance at the afternoon tasting and then again at a big dinner.
One wine caught my eye in the Grand Hyatt's smart food and wine shop just next to the lobby. It came in a frosted, tomato red half-litre bottle and had the subtle name Woman Wine, a 9% 2002 German Spätlese retailing at around $12. I feel pretty sure it isn't bone dry.
A final note for visitors to Korea: you could not possibly over-estimate the number of business cards you will need, and they should be presented Japanese style with both thumbs on top and a slight bow.
Oh, and a side dish for all you soccer fans: Seated almost opposite me at the wine dinner and apparently soaking up all the wine and wine stuff was Korean football legend Hong Myung Bo, and very handsome he is too.
Denis Gastin writes about Korean wine:
The sceptics are right about Korean wine for the most part. Marjuang is the main local brand and is heavily reliant on imported bulk wine bottled
locally, though it does have a small local winemaking facility. Chateau
Mani is the biggest of several farmers' cooperatives making wine, but
quality is average at best. Kenneth Kim is a Korean who spent most of his life in the US and came back to make wine locally in his retirement and has done good things with Muscat varieties as the base local resource and is progressively developing capacity for classic varieties.
The one I have a great deal of respect for is East of Eden, set up by a
former senior government official over a decade ago and making a quality semi-sweet red wine (Banyuls style) from the local wild mountain grape that he has cleverly tamed into conventional viticulture. He taught himself winemaking and is a virtual recluse. But he has a very loyal customer base for his tiny annual production.