The Best and the GrandestFor Korea’s wine enthusiasts, events like the Gala Dinner with Bordeaux Grand Cru winery owners could give the butterflies in one’s stomach enough juice to fly to France.
Grand Cru is the elite of wine: the best of vineyards in southern France, which would make it the best of the best. The Bordeaux region has 120,000 acres of vineyards divided up between 6,000 chateaus, of which around 160 are considered first-rate. Yet no more than six percent of the product of even these elite vineyards is good enough to merit the Grand Cru label.
That label, by the way, is not just a sign of how proud a vineyard is of its wine: since 1973, it’s been a seal of approval by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, which was established to preserve the quality and promote the reputation of its namesake by holding wine-tasting events around the world (the word “union” doesn’t mean that it’s a trade union ― it’s not).
The Korean visit of the 65 organization’s members last week, organized by Bestwine, a wine distributor and Web portal (www.bestwine.co.kr), was part of the union’s annual Asian tour to Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Shanghai. More than 400 Korea-based guests, including Philippe Thiebaud, the new French Ambassador to Korea, showed up to share tables with the French vintners at the Grand Ballroom of the Millennium Seoul Hilton Hotel in central Seoul.
According to Eun Kwang-pyo, the president of Bestwine, more than 1,000 bottles were brought in and served during the seven-course meal, which was overseen by Bernhard Brender, general manager of the Hilton. “It’s simply a matter of prestige to be selected [by the union],” Mr. Brender said.
Each course ― be it tuna carpaccio served with tofu and dried tomato, mushroom and snail tart, seared scallops with creamed leek and saffron butter, persimmon sherbet, wagyu beef tenderloin with sweet bread fricassees and potato puree or truffle cream sauce ― was deliberately not too strong as not to overpower the delicate scent and complex layers of the top-grade wines, including 1998 Chateau Malartic-Lagraviere Pessac-Leognan, 1995 Chateau Grand-Mayne St. Emillion, 1998 Chateau Batailley Pauillac and 1996 Chateau Malle Sauternes. Next to countless bottles of mature wine from the best vintages of Bordeaux in the 1990s, an elite but relatively younger wine,the 2001 Chateau Lascombes Margaux, looked more like a youth fresh out of college.
“Bordeaux, along with Burgundy and the north of Italy, has the world’s most ideal climate and terroir (soil) for winemaking, which cannot possibly be compared even with Spain, Greece and America,” he said. “You may have a lot of sun, but not terroir. There you can only make young wine, not vintage wines older than 10 or 15 years. “[We can do it,] we call it savoir faire (know-how) in French.”
As the evening progressed, guests made lively appraisals, mostly in English and French, of the wines presented to the 29 tables.
Sipping the 1997 Chateau Doisy Daene, which appeared to some kind of luscious golden nectar, Steve Kim, the CEO of CB Richard Ellis Korea, foisted it on his tablemates, saying, “You cannot find this one in Korea. This is a ’97. You must drink it.”
Though French wines are sold and distributed through merchants who act as middlemen between vintners and markets, most vintners want to get to know their customers in person. Comte Stephan von Neipperg of Chateau Canon la Gaffeliere said he’s seen some changes in taste among Korean wine drinkers over the past few years.
“In the beginning, they would look for big names, like Talbot ― it’s a great wine but there are many other varieties. Now they are trying and enjoying wines they’ve never heard of before.”
When Michele Bonnie of Chateau Malartic-Lagraviere came to Korea a few years ago, she was surprised to find Koreans drinking spirits over their meals in restaurants.
“People are becoming more health-conscious here,” she said, “like everywhere else. Drinking two glasses of red wine can help maintain a good heart. More people, I’ve seen in Korea lately, are enjoying wine with food, which is what wine is for. And Korean food is a great match with French wine.”
Winery vocation stems from life-long passion
The IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with Patrick Maroteaux, the president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, about the quality of French wine and his involvement in winemaking.
How hard it is for a new winemaker to become listed with the Union?
A new member [must] ask us first. There are 28 people on the board to select newcomers or discuss new rules. The quality of wine is, of course, most important; the image of the winemaker is also important. Then we vote. More than 75 percent is needed to become a new member, and gaining 75-percent approval is not easy. We do not have written rules for the technical criteria, but look into the real content of the wine and its maker, and remain subjective. Even if the prestigious American magazine “Wine Spectator” may rate a wine to be a perfect 100, opinions may differ. We also limit the number of members to 135, maybe 140. There is virtually no opening. We travel around the world, and it is very difficult to travel and organize tasting events with too many people, that’s also another reason why we limit the number.
How did you become a winemaker yourself?
Wine has been my passion for all my life. I was a banker before working at a sugar company, so I thought, why not wine? While I was the chairman of Eurosucre, France’s biggest sugar company, I bought Chateau Branaire-Ducru. I spent five days at the company, and on weekends, I flew out one hour from Paris to spend one day at the chateau. It was a serious hobby and it was a big investment for my future. When I purchased the winery in 1993, the chateau made 300,000 bottles, but now it makes less, 260,000, because it’s more quality-controlled now. The recipe of success is the same everywhere: You can do something well in things you feel passionate about, and if you have a good team, then it works. I have 25 people working in my chateau. Wines in 1995, 1997, 1999 were good, but I can tell you that 2005 will be a blockbuster.
Why did you choose to make a Grand Cru rather than a more marketable wine?
Having been a CEO of a big company, I’m aware of a mass market where a product must have a good price, thus there can be problems for mass products, etc. But in high-end wine, you have a great soil, and it’s easy to produce a great wine. A fine wine at first tastes of its fruit, but after that is a complexity of flavors made from the character of the soil and climate. Drinking such wine is a pleasure made double or more with its complexity.
Will young consumers in Korea be able to appreciate the complexities of a fine wine?
Young consumers tend to prefer young wines, but if they get a chance to taste older wines, they will appreciate the second stage in tasting wine, which is to understand its complex flavors after fruit. In Japan, which is an advanced market in Asia, young people have learned a great deal about wine through tourism, as young people have visited Bordeaux. We also reach young consumers through various events like our dinner and tasting events. A new wine museum, which is due to open soon in Seoul, as well as young professionals, such as sommeliers and the press, will play important roles in the future.
by Ines Cho
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