Looking for a good wine? It’s all a matter of balance
A recent survey published by the JoongAng Ilbo revealed that one third of Korean businessmen find choosing the wine at a business dinner makes them more nervous than any other aspect of the encounter.
Hardly any of the participants in the survey said they felt comfortable when asked to chose a wine and the majority selected what they regarded as well-known “brands” like Chateau Talbot, rather than being more adventurous.
These anxieties are misplaced. It’s relatively easy to become knowledgeable about wine.
Thanks to an enormous increase in the demand for wine, there are more grapes grown worldwide than any other fruit.
Twenty million acres of land are devoted to growing grapes, with production taking place on every continent. More than two-thirds of these grapes are used to make wine. Since 1970, wine production has increased five-fold and countries such as Chile have developed major new export industries.
The French writer Jean-Paul Kaufmann credits wine with saving his life and his sanity. Between May 1985 and May 1988 he was held in a Bierut basement by Shiite fundamentalists, often chained to a chair.
As he later told a biographer, “I tried to conjure up the aroma of Chateau Margaux. Occasionally a small miracle would occur, and the scent of black currants and plum would permeate the dusty heat of Lebanon.”
Despite its powerful charms, wine has been a relatively recent arrival in Korea and it is only in the last five years that sales have begun to reach the growth seen in other advanced nations.
One of the reasons for this delayed breakthrough, apart from the passion for soju, may be the insecurities many Koreans feel when confronted with a bottle of French wine. The label, which often has some kind of ornate decoration, contains phrases like “appellation controllee” which appear to be important, but also seem inaccessible. It’s not necessary to be confused. A good guide helps.
Lee Je-chun is the proprietor of Jell Wine in Itaewon-dong ― (02) 797-6846. His wine shop has all the attributes of a cave, the stone cellars where many French viticulturists offer tastings to passing customers. The walls are lined with bottles from the major wine regions and he has an inner sanctum where he houses his special vintages, especially those from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
“The most important attribute of a good wine is it’s balance,” says Lee. “The exact combination of acidity, alcohol and tannins.”
Acidity refers to the natural crispness of wine. Tartic and malic acid are the most important components. Alcohol is made during the fermentation process as the grape’s sugar is converted by interaction with yeast. Tannins are the astringent compounds found in the skins and seeds of grapes. They slow oxidation, which spoils more wine than anything else, and promote aging.
“If the grapes get too much sun they will have too much sugar and there will be too much alcohol,” says Lee. “Alcohol overpowers taste. But if the grapes get too much moisture there will be too much acidity.”
For Lee, wine means red wine. Like many connoisseurs he regards white wine as frivolous. When he talks about balance he’s referring to the subtlety found in vintages made with grape varietals like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Red wine gets its color from the juice being left in contact with the grape skins for a period of time. This creates greater depth of flavor. Lee suggests that novices begin their navigation of a wine list by discovering how much alcohol a vintage contains.
“It’s best to choose a wine that has 13.5 percent alcohol by volume,” he says. “Anything less than that and the wine will be too thin with no finish. And if there’s more, the wine’s taste will be overpowered.”
By this he means it will be too syrupy. Like other experts, Lee is critical of wines like Chateauneuf-du-Pape because their alcohol content hovers around 12.5 percent. His preference is for wines made with pinot noir grapes, which are mostly associated with the Burgundy region of France, especially areas like Gevrey-Chambertin.
“These are wonderful wines,” says Park Ki-chul, the sommelier at the Ninth Gate, the French restaurant at the Westin Chuson hotel. “I also recommend wines from Chile.”
Lee shares Park’s enthusiasm.
“Wines from Chile are like those from Bordeaux,” he says. “They are grown at high altitude which means they have a lot of sun during the day but get very cold at night. This ensures the fruit develop the right balance of acidity and alcohol.”
After the alcohol content, experts say novices should consider price. For example, a bottle of Chilean cabernet sauvignon that’s priced at 60,000 won ($66) is likely to be as good as a French Bordeaux that sells for 90,000 won. And avoid American wines.
“They cost so much because the land is the most expensive in the world,” says Lee. “With good American wines you are paying a lot for the soil and not so much for the grapes.”
Following price and alcohol content, the next step is to check where the wine was made. “For French wine the vineyard is far more important than the vintage,” says Lee.
Once the choice of wine has been made, the sommelier brings the wine to the table and pours a sample.
“Don’t taste it, just sniff at first, all you are doing is testing the scent, to see if it has gone bad.” says Lee. “Tasting a wine just after it has been opened is like eating a chicken with the feathers still on. The chicken needs to be cooked and the wine needs to breathe before either can taste of anything good.”
But the best way to learn about wine is to buy a corkscrew and start drinking. A good place to start is with the six wines displayed on this page. And remember the words of the great British economist John Maynard Keynes: “Wine is a living liquid. It’s life cycle comprises youth, maturity and death. When not treated with proper respect it will sicken and die.”
By Daniel Jeffreys Style and Culture Editor [Danielj@joongang.co.kr]