Taking a stroll through Korea’s wine countryYEONGDONG, North Chung-cheong province ― A piece of advice for those heading for Korea’s wine country: Check the weather forecast first before you leave.
To some travelers, the experience of walking in a vineyard in pouring rain could be a memorable experience. But it’s a different story if the mud causes you to slide down a stretch of open field, made slippery after 51 millimeters (two inches) of rain, which is what Yeongdong County received last weekend.
But the rain aside, now is the peak season for wineries all over the world, in which the grapes ripen during the months of August through October.
The rustic town, about two hours by car south of Seoul, has an infamous past as the site of the No Gun Ri incident, in which many civilians were killed during the early days of the Korean War by U.S. armed forces.
Now, the area is known for its grapes, boasting the largest number of vineyards in the nation (6,000), which take up 3,500 hectares.
Among them, Chateau Mani, which is named after Mount Manisan nearby, is the only winery in the nation that produces completely local wines. Other Korean wine producers blend wine made from local grapes with imported wine and then bottle the product here.
The grapes in the area were only recently used for making wine. In 1995, when the winery was first started by a collective of farmers with substantial government funding, its prime mission was to increase the demand for the region’s grapes after the industry suffered a glut in production. The following year, more than 8,000 tons of grapes were fed to cows, with the rest thrown out.
The most popular variety of grapes in Yeongdong is Campbell Early, which is considered ideal for table grapes but not for wine. They have been grown mostly in the United States commercially, but they taste acidic and thin and are considered low quality by wine connoisseurs.
Eventually, Korean wineries planted different varieties with the hopes of creating a good local wine.
Chateau Mani sits along a highway with gentle slopes, which are ideal for growing wine grapes and are reminiscent of the great vineyards of southern France. The grapes at Chateau Mani are harvested by hand before they go into wooden barrels for gravitation.
The most interesting part is the storage area, which was once an ammunition cave during the Japanese occupation.
About 100 caves in the area were built during the colonial period but have been sealed by the regional authorities. The central government and winery signed a 50-year lease for the cave for just 50,000 won ($49).
The storage is a nostalgic trip into the classic caves of the 19th century European wineries. The moment you walk in, the fragrance of oak barrels mixed with acidic wines fills the air. In the late summer, it’s a nice way to evade the heat as the temperature inside remains steady, from 11 to 13 degrees Celsius (55.4 Fahrenheit).
For a winery that’s only been around for 10 years, the cellars are rather long, filling one side of the cave wall with a wide stack. Most of the wine bottles in the racks are four or five years old, but others, sporting moss, go back to eight years. The company sold two bottles at an in-house auction last year for 1.2 million won each.
A few meters away from the storage tank is the winery’s tasting room, which is in a closed down school. The displays are quite elaborate, with a table full of corked wines available for free sampling.
When Chateau Mani first started producing wine, the staff originally thought of making a “wine makkeoli” to cater to local residents, who were used to the sweet, cloying taste of rice wine. But the plan was abandoned after employees who were giving out samples saw elderly men spit out the drink after the first sip.
Chateau Mani now produces 10 different varieties of wine, but the tradition of sweetness lives on. Even for an ignorant taster like me, most of the red wines tended to be overly sweet.
The whites were a little more on the dry side, with some fruit, but the safest bet is to go for “Chateau Mani Nouveau,” which is released every year in the third week of November, a day before the annual worldwide release of Beaujolais Nouveau.
Yun Hyo-jung, head of marketing at Chateau Mani, says local wine still gets dismissed by Koreans who drink wine.
“It’s only been a few years since we started distributing our wine to wholesalers,” he says. “We still have a long way to go.”
While an increasing number of Korean wine consumers are open to new flavors and experiences, the majority rarely go beyond familiar territory.
The local wine market also has to overcome snobbery, as many Koreans believe that if it’s not foreign, it must be bad. At markets, French and Chilean offerings dominate the wine selections.
For teetotalers, the winery also sells boxes of grapes at 10,000 won for about five kilograms, not even half as much as it would cost in discount stores. Each bunch is about twice the size of your fist, and the sweetness is stunning, with soft skins filled with juice.
Web Tour (www.webtour.com) leads group tours to a winery in Yeongdong every weekend through October. The program costs 45,000 won for adults, 37,000 won for children. The fee includes lunch and trips to a few other destinations in the area.
The bus to the winery leaves Gwanghwamun in Seoul at 7 a.m., arriving back in Seoul at 8 p.m. Wine, fresh grapes and juice are available at the wineries at reasonable prices. For more information, call (043) 744-3211~5.
Lotte Tours also offers winery tours for 39,000 won, depending on dates. Call (02) 733-0201 or visit www.lottetours.com (Korean only).
by Park Soo-mee