Grapes of wrath: Korean wine gets top marksA first impression ― whether good or bad ― can go a long way. In case of Majuang, Korea’s first native-brand wine, the reputation as affordable and readily available has stuck since it was first introduced in 1977. At that time, Koreans were used to much stronger, rice-based spirits, and they felt that Majuang’s were bland, perhaps due to a lack of understanding of wine.
But Majuang has stood the test of time. Koreans relished the idea that Catholic priests used Majuang for their masses and that high-ranking statesmen, such as former-U.S President Jimmy Carter, praised the Korean wine during a visit here in 1979.
According to the maker of Majuang, Doosan Business Group, the brand used to hold more than 90 percent of the domestic market share until 1987 when Korea allowed the importation of wines from around the world.
The public embraced wine, and its consumption became associated with sophisticated, high-end culture. But Majuang’s reputation remained unchanged, and its market share now accounts for less than 15 percent.
The brand, however, has launched new types of wine. Although Korea is not known as one of the world’s fine wine producers, how might Majuang hold up against more storied competitors? The showdown at an impromptu and informal blind-tasting at a trendy bar in southern Seoul recently showed Korean wines aren’t out of the fight.
Casa del Vino, a wine bar in Cheongdam-dong district in southern Seoul, boasts more than 600 imported wines, from France’s classic Bordeaux Grand Cru to California’s Napa Valley Cult wine to rare Hungarian and Uruguayan wines. The bar is frequented by the capital’s wine connoisseurs who taste their favorites from a lengthy list recommended by owner Eun Kwang-pyo.
Mr. Eun is a wine drinker as well as importer, distributor and critic. He operates a Web site, www.bestwine.co.kr, that has more than 50,000 members in Korea. Whether the result of prejudice or neglect, Majuang wines have never been considered for Mr. Eun’s wine list.
The wines put to test were Majuang’s 2003 Special Riesling and 2003 Red Cabernet Sauvignon. They faced various other import wines, including a red 1999 Chateau Maucaillou from France (80,000 won), a red 1999 La Spinona (60,000 won) from Italy, a white 2002 Catena Chardonnay (40,000 won) from Argentina, and a red 1996 Berberana Grand Reserva (50,000 won) from Spain.
The labels of the six bottles were completely covered.
The reds were tasted first. “This is fun and challenging actually,” Mr. Eun said, smiling. But he soon got serious. When opening each bottle, he looked away, passing along the cork so as not to cheat on the test. Upon tasting the red Majuang, he noted immediately, “Very young, not full-bodied. Clean, floral. It doesn’t have a strong character.”
He rolled the wine inside the glass and examined the color against the light. “Definitely not a New World wine. The alcohol content is concentrated in a New World wine, thus creating a deep garnet-like color. This wine’s alcohol content is not high, and the color is not so intense.”
He paused and tasted a little more. “Its acidity makes it a very weak Italian-style wine, but strange, I can’t tell the nationality. In extreme rare cases, a wine like this could possibly be a top-of-the-line Bordeaux, but because such a wine is just too expensive, it’s never the case.”
Mr. Eun liked it. “It’s a good wine. I can be casually drunk. I’d say it matches well with light meat dishes and fish served with heavy sauce, like Chinese-style sweet-and-sour pork dishes.”
About a dozen casually joined the tasting during a full-house crowd at Casa del Vino on Friday night.
The 2003 Majuang Red Cabernet Sauvignon was reviewed as a young, fruity wine that is acidic from tannin but easy to drink. Most customers were experienced drinkers who preferred mature, full-bodied red wines.
Majuang’s unusual depth made it a shadowy, hard-to-place young wine: All tasters were puzzled by its origin. Because of the light to medium bitterness from tannin, most agreed that the wine would go well with light meat dishes and, maybe not so surprisingly, Korean food.
Taster Choi Im-shik showed a keen interest in the new wine. “This wine is growing on me,” he said. “The more I drink, the fragrance seems to come alive, and I like it very much. If this wine has a good price, then, who knows, this is the kind of wine that every wine drinker is looking for.”
Majuang’s white wine was not as popular as the red because of its immature sweetness.
“It tastes like semillon or sauvignon blanc, but that’s only a wild guess,” Mr. Eun said of the white wine. “For me to appraise it, the wine needs to be chilled at the right temperature. This is not cold enough.”
When the white paper covering the wines’ labels was ripped off and the Majuang name was revealed, the crowd showed a wave of reactions ranging from mild to strong. The myth had been shattered, and the home team had held its own. But it also showed that for wine drinkers, simply the taste is not enough to make a certain kind of wine appealing.
Not all liked what they saw. “I told you it wasn’t my favorite,” said taster Lucia Chung.
Ha Ho, an educational consultant, said, “I had a feeling that it would be this kind of wine. They should do something with the label. Look, the design is not attractive at all.”
Mr. Eun was particularly impressed with the quality and taste of the “Made in Korea” wine. “Wow, who could have known? Korean wine has taken a step forward. It can certainly be an international wine.”
Other customers said that covering the label made a big difference in avoiding prejudice associated with a cheap Korean wine.
Suddenly the conversation turned from culinary to geographic. A few suspected that such a great-tasting wine could be made in Gyeongsang province, as a wine’s taste can fluctuate depending upon the weather that year. “Does Gyeongsang province have enough sun?” Mr. Choi and Mr. Eun questioned.
A couple of other drinkers asked, “What was the summer like in 2003 in Gyeongsang province? Does anyone remember?”
Korea’s climate is not ideal for growing wine grapes, and Korea’s wine-making technique is not that advanced. “If a monsoon hits the region, the viticulture that year would be finished,” Mr. Ha added.
Everyone really wanted to know the cost of the Majuang wine. A bottle of red costs 8,500 won ($8.30) and white 7,900 won. Tasters murmured again. “That’s cheap,” Mr. Eun said. “Doosan should charge more, if they want to create value for Korean wine. For this quality, they can charge 20,000 won or even 40,000 won.”
Mr. Choi was ecstatic. “Yeah, I’m buying the wine by crates!” he said. “This is perfect for home parties.”
Casa del Vino was transformed into a jubilant soiree, celebrating the triumphant comeback of a lost hero named Majuang.
Amazed by Majuang’s product, Mr. Eun put the wine under careful scrutiny overnight. What is its secret? The next morning, Mr. Eun called with a new discovery.
“I’m not sure if this is good news or bad news,” he said in a voice tinged with disappointment. “The wine’s label on the back said it contains ‘import’ wine. This means Doosan imports wine from somewhere by the barrel and blends it with Korean wine. ‘Produced and bottled in Korea’ on the front label is misleading.”
Ah, the fine print. Contrary to popular belief that Majuang is 100 percent the product of Korean viticulture in Gyeongsan, Gyeongsang province, all wines bearing the Majuang brand have always been a blend of two or more imported European wines ― medoc, chablis, moselle, chardonnay, Bordeaux, etc. ― and Korean grape varieties.
The Gyeongsan Winery produces Seibel and Muscat Bailey A grapes. Muscat Bailey A grapes along with Campbell Early are odd hybrids but are popular to grow in Japan and Korea.
The blending ratio of the wines is a trade secret, said Shin Seung-joon, said the executive managing director of Doosan B&G.
But he disclosed that the 2003 Majuang Riesling mixes riesling imported from Germany and Korea’s Seibel grapes; the 2003 Majuang cabernet sauvignon is an oaked cabernet sauvignon imported from Chile with Korean-grown Muscat Bailey A grapes.
As for the blind-tasting session, he couldn’t be happier. “With the name that has 100 percent awareness in Korea, Majuang was proven to have quality,” he said.
He compared the event with a blind-tasting competition held between the Bordeaux and Californian vintners in the early 1980s. “Bordeaux vintners choose the California wine as superior, and that was a turning point for the California wine to gain the reputation it’s enjoying today. Even if the event was informal, I’d say, that was a breakthrough for Korean wine history.”
by Ines Cho