Take the vinous train to Yeongdong chateauSitting at a table in a softly lit train, passengers are sipping glasses of wine. Classical music is playing and the travelers are savoring their drinks while they listen to a sommelier’s descriptions of the different types of grapes. Wine is poured the moment anyone has an empty glass.
▶ Inside the wine cellar cave in Yeongdong, Chungcheong province. Hundreds of barrels and thousands of bottles are used for aging wine.
This “wine train” is quite new to Korea. It only entered service in December 2006. It has become so popular that all the seats are booked until the end of January.
Four types of wines are served on the train: “dry,” “sweet,” “nouveau” and “wild berry” (bokbunja). There are also appetizers such as fruit, bread, cheese and crackers.
From time to time, passengers can listen to a live saxophone performance and participate in a simple card game organized by a tour guide. With the wine and relaxing atmosphere on the train, the nearly three-hour journey feels like it is over in an instant.
“Calls about the train have been pouring in,” said Yoon Hyo-joong, the general manager of the wine train who is also the tour guide.
The trains are charter trains operated by Wine Korea, which produces Chateau Mani brand wines. Wine Korea is one of the few local wineries in Korea and it launched the Chateau Mani brand in 2000. The wine train was devised to promote the wine.
The wine train has two carriages with 50 seats each and they are connected to a regular train. Wine Korea offers three round trips to its winery in Yeongdong county, North Chungcheong province: between Seoul and Yeongdong on Tuesday and Saturday and between Busan and Yeongdong on Thursday. Since the two chartered carriages are connected to regular trains that run between Seoul and Yeongdong or Busan and Yeongdong, they stop at all scheduled stations on the regular route.
According to Mr. Yoon, the passengers are mostly in their 40s and 50s on Tuesday and Thursday while young couples occupy most of the seats on Saturday. Depending on the age group of the travelers, what they require is somewhat different.
▶ Wine Korea’s special wine train leaving Seoul station for Chateau Mani
“On Tuesday and Thursday, the passengers are mostly businessmen and their wives and they ask for karaoke or other group activities in the train, but on Saturday young couples like quiet time together,” Mr. Yoon said.
The vehicles were originally restaurant cars for the Saemaeul-grade train, which were modified to fit the trip. Interiors were upgraded to have an elegant feel with images of grape vines painted on the ceiling. On the outside surfaces of the train there are images of grape vines, a wine cellar cave and the winery.
After two hours and 40 minutes, the train arrives at Yeongdong county. The county accounts for 8.5 percent of the grapes produced in Korea, mostly Muscat Bailey A, Cambell and Delaware, according to the county office. Grapes are grown on 3,000 hectares. Muscat Valley A is used to produce dry red wine, Cambell yields sweet red and nouveau (young) wines and Delaware is used to make white wine. Muscat Bailey A and Cambell grapes are best for eating and there are few wineries in the world that use these types for wine making. Dry wines made with these grapes taste less sharp than other dry wines, while the “sweet” wines using Muscat Bailey and Cambell are sweeter than average
After getting off the train, the passengers switch to buses for a journey that takes about 10 minutes. Those who anticipate a grand chateau at the winery, like something they might see in Bordeaux, may be a little disappointed to see a mock castle similar to tacky-looking wedding halls in metropolitan cities. The winery building used to be an abandoned elementary school and was later renovated to look like a Western-style castle.
▶ Wine lovers on the Tuesday train tend to be in their 40s and 50s, younger couples take the Saturday train from Seoul
Visitors can also purchase wine at a discount, to take home. The dry red wine costs 170,000 won ($17), sweet red wine is 10,000 won, white wine is priced at 15,000 won, nouveau wine is sold at 14,000 won, and wild berry wine is 5,000 won.
After lunch, the guests are guided to a private cellar where individuals can store their wine collections. There is also a wine bottling factory and warehouses with enormous stainless-steel storage tanks for fermentation.
During the grape harvest, between August and November, visitors are invited to put on special boots so they can tread grapes in a large container, the traditional way of making wine from centuries past.
After that, buses take the visitors to wine storage caves around the area. The caves were built in the early 20th century for storing ammunition, when Korea was a Japanese colony. The Japanese forced the residents to dig more than 100 caves and many people died in the process, according to Mr. Yoon.
The caves are perhaps the highlight of the trip. Inside the dark caves are hundreds of oak-made barrels and thousands of bottles containing wine. The bottles are covered with dust from the passage of time.
Entering from outside, it feels quite warm. Inside, the caves are very humid and the air carries the deep scent of ripening wine. With no artificial temperature control, the temperature in the caves remains between 12 and 14 degrees Celsius, the optimal level for aging wine.
▶ The remodelled elementary school that has now become Chateau Mani
In the caves and the wine storage tanks in the factory, dry red wines are stored for aging for four years and sweet red wines are stored for two years. The wines need 20 days to 30 days of fermentation before aging. Nouveau wines need only 45 days for aging and fermentation.
After the cave tour, the visitors are taken to the Nankye Korean Traditional Music Museum, a memorial dedicated to a traditional music master, Park Yeon. Here they can see 60 types of Koran traditional musical instruments on display. There are also some traditional instruments available for visitors to try.
After the museum visitors are taken back to the Yeongdong station to take the wine train home. More wine is available for tasting on the return journey.
Despite the surge of tourists, the wine train is running at a loss. The price for the Seoul-Yeongdong trip is 59,000 won ($60), and the fare for the Busan-Yeongdong journey is 61,000 won. The price may seem steep to some, but it includes lunch, wine tastings and the train fare, which normally costs 30,000 won for a round trip between Seoul and Yeongdong county.
Mr. Yoon said the wine train tour helped raise public recognition of the wine brand. The exotic train ride seems to have fascinated many Koreans, and this is good news for the winery.
“No matter how much we tried to promote our wine, nobody seemed to know us,” Mr. Yoon said. He said Chateaux Mani wines are sold in discount stores.
Beginning next year, Wine Korea intends to increase the number of vehicles for the tour to four and also add a Sunday tour.
Because of the increased temperature in the summer and the rising number of visitors, the winery intends to limit entrance to the existing wine caves and build additional caves near the winery for tourists.
The best season for the wine train tour is during the Yeongdong Grape Festival at the end of August (http://grape.yd21.go.kr). During the festival, visitors can pick grapes, visit the winery and go inside the caves.
Wine Korea was founded by grape farmers in 1996 because the farmers wanted to use their leftover grapes and raise their income. Now it is owned by the farmers and the county. It was originally founded near Mount Mani, after which the brand was named.
The wine train departs at 9:20 a.m. from Seoul and arrives at Yeongdong at 12 p.m. It departs from Yeongdong at 4:15 p.m. and returns to Seoul at 7 p.m. From Busan, it departs at 9:05 a.m. and arrives at 12 p.m., and it departs from Yeongdong at 4:56 p.m. and is back in Busan at 7:49 p.m.
Reservations can be made on the Web site, www.winekr.co.kr.
Visiting the winery without taking the wine train is also possible. Take a Saemaeul or Mugunghwa train to Yeongdong and take a taxi to the winery or take a KTX train to Daejeon and transfer to a Saemaeul or Mugunghwa trains to Yeongdong. Early reservation is necessary because trains to Yeongdong are usually full.
For reservations, visit www.ko-rail.go.kr.