Natural wine has its moment in the sun

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Natural wine has its moment in the sun


Natural winemakers from Europe pose for a photo while holding glasses of wine and wine bottles at a cafe in Jeonju, North Jeolla. [ALEXANDRE BAIN, SUSTAINWORKS KIM JIN-HO]

JEONJU, North Jeolla - Many dream of not having a hangover after a long day of drinking alcohol. According to some, that is possible - as long as you change your drink of choice.

Fans of so-called natural wine are sharing testimonies of them having no hangover even after a night spent drinking one too many glasses of wine. Natural wine is a widely used term which refers to wines made with minimal human intervention, although there is no dictionary definition provided by any authority so far. Generally, ingredient grapes are grown without chemicals, additives or fancy and costly high-tech machines, and the earth that the grapes are grown in is plowed with horses instead of tractors. The concept is often confused with organic wines, but organic wines focus more on growing grapes without chemicals and may use additives during the winemaking.

The lack of chemicals is what wine trade agent Choi Young-seon firmly believes helps in avoiding a hangover after a day with drinking only natural wine. For curious minds here in Korea, she put together tasting events in Seoul and Jeonju, North Jeolla earlier this month. A total of 19 internationally popular natural winemakers, including some from Alexandre Bain, Gut Oggau, Le Coste, came to introduce their wines which just began being distributed locally.

This style of wine started gaining popularity over the past two to three years in Korea, and it first peaked the interest of international drinkers around 2009 when three-Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen and other restaurants in northern Europe started offering natural wines.


Natural winemaker Alexandre Bain, top, uses a horse to plow the land at his winery. A pansori, or traditional Korean musical storytelling, singer, center, welcomes visitors to a tasting event. Winemaker Anders Frederik Steen, above, explains his wine to visitor at Salon O, a natural wine tasting event in Seoul. [ALEXANDRE BAIN, SUSTAINWORKS KIM JIN-HO]

Since these winemakers don’t use chemicals or additives to filter wines, natural wines are often murky. They often show more oxidized aromas and tastes and have a higher acidity. It also has the feel of being deep in the forest, said Park Su-jin, chief instructor at WSA Wine Academy.

“Although there is not a big, memorable punch, the more you taste, the more you can experience diverse characteristics,” said Park. “For those who have thought any conventional wine widely available now is too heavy and thick, these natural wines are a good substitute.”

Some of the winemakers who visited Korea said the taste of natural wine is “honest and pure.”

“I know these words are vague, but I think since these wines try to be true to nature as much as possible, it can be a more honest, pure taste of [fermented] grapes than the wines made with chemicals,” said sommelier-turned-winemaker Anders Frederik Steen.

These winemakers keep their grapes as untouched as possible, and even when grape vines get infected by insects, they try to fix the situation with mixtures of naturally grown leaves or just pluck sick vines all together, risking less production for that year. Each and every year gives different challenge as weather conditions are never the same, which, since they don’t use irrigation, can greatly affect their crops. Therefore, the total production and the style can also be slightly different each year.

“We get about 40 attempts to make wine in our lifetime as a winemaker, and each year will never be the same,” said Alexandre Bain, whose wines are some of the better known natural wines in Korea. “These different challenges each year make it more fun for me to make wine as we learn something new and different every year.”

The yearly production is different depending on wineries, but most of them make around 50,000 bottles a year. These natural winemakers usually work alone or with just one partner, and have no plans to increase the number of bottles they make. Their idea of making the natural wine market bigger is to have more winemakers join their movement and change their vineyards so that the wine market in general can have more natural wine options.

Wine style becomes a lifestyle

Making natural wine goes beyond taste. Since the idea was to avoid using any non-natural items such as chemicals, winemakers and farmers were first attracted to the fact that they could protect their soil through the methods of natural winemaking. The interest in causing the least amount of harm to nature as possible has now spread to making an impact not only when it comes to winemaking but also their daily lives.

Some like winemaker Antonin Azzoni of Le Raisin et l’Anage stopped going to fast food burger joints and started to eat more organic food. Some others try to avoid riding in gasoline-fueled vehicles.

“It hurts to use cars to move grapes after harvest, and use electricity to get on computer,” said winemaker Antony Tortul of La Sorga. “So I don’t use Facebook or Instagram in [order] to use less electricity in my daily life.”

Winemaker Eduard Tscheppe of Gut Oggau didn’t know much about living an environmentally-friendly life, nor the concept of natural wine before he jumped into winemaking. During the process of learning about how to protect soil and nature in general, he started to change even his littlest habits that could be harmful in the long run.

“Sustainable development is much more than just getting the immediate economic success,” said Tscheppe. His wife, Stephanie, said that the wine here is simply a tool for a more sustainable future, and the idea of protecting nature should be applied more widely throughout different fields in the global community.

Learning how to respond to a different challenge each year without using high-end technology is a way to train for Pierre-Nicolas Massotte of Clos Massotte. To him, winemaking is more of a spiritual act to help him learn who he really is. Just like years of experience make a person adopt new traits and lose some, he learns what to add and subtract from his life from growing grapes and making wine.

These different ideas on wine and lifestyle are also shown on each bottle’s labels. Artwork is used to signify each winery and winemaker, and depending on the images, attracts customers based on what they see.


The local scene

The talk about natural wine started locally thanks to some industry leaders who learned about the concept overseas and jumped at the chance to import the wines to Korea. Although allocations to Korea are small compared to other countries with big wine consuming markets - as small as about a dozen bottles a year for some labels - winemakers have also welcomed the interest from Korea as they look to diversify their sales channels. There are six to seven local importers who prioritize distributing natural wines, and they are in talks to make an association so that they can hold informative events together in order to promote natural wines more effectively to the public. Vin. V, Dagyeong and My Wines are some of the leading natural wine importers, and they often hold portfolio tasting events both individually or together.

Many bars and restaurants in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, carry a variety of natural wines for customers to try. Jungsik Bar has a tasting menu of natural wines available for those who want to try different varieties at the same time. The tasting menu provides four different wines for 60,000 won ($55.91). Sommeliers will explain natural wine to customers upon request. Wine bars like Louis Cinq, La Cave de Cochon and Cucciolo Terrazza also carry a variety of natural wines for those looking to try something new.

Restaurants that serve course meals such as Mingles and Raffine in Gangnam District or Zero Complex in Seocho District, southern Seoul (the restaurant will be moving in mid-April to Jung District, central Seoul), are focused on serving natural wine. Mingles has some French natural wines that are available nowhere else in Korea.

More restaurants elsewhere in Seoul have started to take more natural wine selections for those curious eyes, including Orzo in Mapo District, western Seoul.

Even a bar specialized in serving whisky or cocktails offers a chance to taste the latest trend in wine. Soko Bar in Hannam-dong, Yongsan District, central Seoul, has four different types of natural wine to cater to those looking for other drink options.

“The idea that some of these natural wines can be enjoyed over time, even 10 days after the opening date can be something new and exciting,” said Son Suk-ho, the head bartender at Soko Bar, adding that the wine’s different character can be entertaining for those who believe that an opened bottle of wine needs to be consumed as soon as possible. Decanting in a large glass container by swirling hard can also attract the eyes of people who come to see a show when they visit a bar.

You can also download the mobile application Raisin, which has information about bars and restaurants where one can find natural wine. Some Korean bars and restaurants are listed on the application as well.


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