Delving Beyond Rice & The Future of Korean Wine
While we are total rice alcohol fans at The Sool Company, we are also forever open-minded when it comes to good booze and especially Korean wine. If it tastes good, is of good quality and integrity, it goes in our fridge!
For me personally as an Australian, having access to good wine at affordable prices was something I always took for granted. However, when I moved to Korea over ten years ago, there really wasn’t much of an accessible wine industry to speak of. To say that I missed wine would be a gross understatement, but paying an exorbitant price for a bottle of Yellowtail was just not something I had in me. Thankfully, now, due in large parts to wine programs at big supermarkets like Emart and Homeplus, indulging in a few bottles won’t force you to eat kimbap for the next month.
But it wasn’t always that way.
When it came to Korean produced wine varietals, in the past I gave it a try. In the same way that access to good quality makgeolli back then was limited, knowing anything about Korean wines was also a challenge, to say the least. What wines I was able to get my hands on left me unsatiated for their simplicity and their pronounced sweetness. As a die-hard Shiraz lover, this was not what I was looking for. So for many years I simply took Korean wine off my radar, convinced that nothing would be quite what I wanted.
Fast forward to a week ago, and I had a chance to open the Korean wine fridge door again, or at least crack a window. At a meeting of like-minded professionals seeking new ways to promote Korean cuisine culture in a more authentic way beyond the usual ‘bibimbap and bulgogi’ methods, we were treated to an extensive tasting. Korean wine sommelier Choi Jeongwook gave us a run-down of nine different wines and brandies all produced in Korea. At first, I was quite skeptical, as yet still not convinced that there really is a Korean wine out there for me. I’m happy to say that I have been proven wrong.
As expected, some of the wines were just too sweet or too simple to really raise an eyebrow. But to my surprise, there were two wines and a brandy that not only had me raise an eyebrow but also call for a second pour.
1. Godori Rose (고도리 로제)
I haven’t always been a rose fan but in hot weather or when looking for something light, it’s not a bad option. My fear for Godori Rose was the sweetness factor, just on eyeing the albeit pretty bottle, I thought I would be hit with syrup. The surprising element of Godori is the unique flavour of the grapes used which is the larger varietal of Korean grapes. The aroma had a soft peach and slightly dusky bouquet that lingered long after the glass was drained. It has a mild acidity and an overall balance which makes it remarkably smooth and easy to drink. Pleasantly surprised, I asked if the winery is considering a sparkling version and the answer was yes! I had visions of lazy brunches and warm rooftop sunsets with this wine.
2. Gamgrin Persimmon Wine (감그린)
As with the rose, when I heard we would taste persimmon wine, I immediately braced myself for a sweetness level akin to toffee apples but my surprising journey continued. Gamgrin was a punchy, strongly flavoured wine that packed enough acidity to counteract what could easily have been the overpowering persimmon. In contrast to the rose, the body was heavy and smooth with a richer complexity that left many at the tasting table wanting more. For me, however, I could certainly drink a glass or two (I usually don’t need a whole lot of convincing), but that is as far as I would go. Not because it wasn’t delicious but because the impact was so strong that I could sense long-term drinkability would be a struggle. In terms of food pairing, however, this wine has a place a the table as a part of course lineup.
3. Grand Coteau Brandy
Many people are often surprised to hear that Korea’s distilling culture is alive and well beyond that ever-present green bottle of soju. And while we focus on promoting the top end sojus of Korea, it’s always nice to see different products on the market. Distilling brandy has always been a method for wine producers to increase shelf-life and repurpose unsold stock. As my specialty for some time now has been makgeolli and rice-based alcohols, my experience with brandy tasting has not been extensive (something I am not adverse to remedying of course). However, my impressions of this brandy were positive. I can’t say I was blown away but the aroma had pleasant grassy oak notes despite not being aged in oak barrels. The flavour was light and bright and with a slight bitterness on the finish.
After tasting so many wines over the course of four hours and talking their positives and negatives with professionals of varying backgrounds and perspectives, we all came to agree on one important point. Due to the nature of the grapes and agricultural landscape, Korean wines do not fall into the same kind of category as the world’s whites and reds. Some of the best Korean wines use native Korean ingredients such as omija, persimmon, and Korean wild grapes. So when it comes to comparing Korean wines with chardonnays and cabernets of the world, they simply won’t be able to compete.
Just as so many other elements of Korean cuisine and sool are trying to find their place in a global context, so too does Korean wine need to embrace its differences as its strengths. It was difficult for me to see all the bottles and labels trying to mimic European or Western wine styles, some with labels exclusively in English and with multiple spelling errors. The products themselves have plenty of potential and their producers deserve respect for their skills, but what is desperately needed is a re-evaluation of marketing and identity to reflect their uniquely Korean nature.
Overall I was grateful for the opportunity to expand my experience with Korean produced wines and equally grateful to find some light in the dark world of sweet, cheap wine.
Julia is an Australian specialist in Korean Traditional Alcohol and has been involved in the makgeolli industry for over 6 years. She has been an activist for the promotion of Korean sool both locally and internationally after training at a number of institutes including Grand Master Park Rok Dam.