BUSAN, South Korea – I have had the good fortune to spend ten years of my life selling, teaching, studying, and, on occasion, making wine. This good fortune has carried me to acclaimed vineyard realms ranging from California’s Santa Barbara to Peloponnesian Greece to the Rhineland in Germany.
In short, wine is one of the great joys of my life. Were you to recite Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that “Good wine is a necessity of life for me,” that ‘Me’ would be me.
When people I’ve met during my time here in Korea find out that I know a thing or two about wine, two questions inevitably arise: “What’s the best wine?” and “What do you think about wine drinking in Korea?” Regarding the former, that’s a bit too subjective to definitively answer, and since the “best” wines carry astronomical price tags, they aren't quite worth it for most of us anyway.
Of course, when seeking to define a “good” wine, often times the elucidation is quite simple: if you’re with great friends or family in the right spot at the right time, the best wine is simply the one that’s right in front of you. Therefore, when tackling the question, I prefer to think about those more objective qualities that make a wine “good.”
Good wine is, foremost, expressive and balanced. This means that its fruit, acid, flavors, and/or tannins (the astringent components in reds that contribute greatly to its texture, structure, and ability to age) are distinct, yet create a harmonious synergy. Also, good wine is reflective of its provenance and the trueness to its grape variety. (The snozzberries should taste like snozzberries!)
Since most store shelves and wine lists in Korea are organized by country, the following represents some tips on a few good wines based on a reasonable price (10,000-45,000 won retail) and availability in Korea, broken down by country.
Most wine lovers when pressed to choose the best wine are in one of two camps: red Burgundy (Bourgogne in French, made from Pinot Noir) or red Bordeaux (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc). Unless you have 60,000 to spend on a bottle of Burgundy, I wouldn’t recommend the ones imported into Korea since most are too lean and insipid.
Bordeaux, on the other hand, especially those labeled Medoc or Bordeaux Superieur, tend to offer generous black fruits with a fuller body and smooth texture at a reasonable price. However, the wines from the Southern Rhone valley represent the best value, particularly those labeled Cotes du Rhone. These reds are made chiefly with Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre and are usually medium-bodied, cherry and are plum-accented with herbal notes.
As for what to eat with them, they work well with meatier fish like salmon and tuna but are perfect with chicken, duck, pork, and savory beef dishes like gamjatang and galbi. If you’re a fan of light to medium-bodied crisp, dry, lemony whites, try the Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre or the Chardonnay from Chablis. Both are known for their minerality (think of river rocks or wet stones) and are awesome with shellfish.
There’s a reason why most of us associate Italian wine with those cheap, basket-clad bottles of Chianti; it’s a perfect match for the acidity of tomato sauce. Nowadays, the baskets are disappearing and the quality is improving. Chianti is from Tuscany and is made primarily with Sangiovese; a grape whose name derives from the Latin sanguis Jovis or "the blood of Jove".
This wine is often sour cherry inflected with high acidity that can be a touch austere on its own but when quaffed with spaghetti, lasagna, or the like, creates a rich more pronounced texture that is hard to beat. For whites, Soave makes a nice alternative to Sauvignon Blanc, or try Pinot Grigio for something on the fruitier side.
Good Spanish whites are hard to come by in Korea. For reds, however, options abound. Most are very dry and are not too heavy which makes them great on their own or served with food.
Rioja is the most prominent region which makes blends of Tempranillo and Grenache. These wines tend to have more strawberry and spice flavors which allow them to pair well with spicier Korean meat dishes. Riojas labeled “Crianza” mean they’ve been aged at least two years before being released. They’ll cost a bit more, but are generally worth the price bump.
Chile and Argentina
In the wine world, Chile is the new California. Practically any grape can be grown there and the prices are the most affordable. Especially here in Korea, Chile offers the best quality-to-price ratio. If you’re just getting into wine, Chile is a great place to start.
Grab any variety, it will most likely cost you 7,000 for a decent bottle or 15,000 for a good one. As for Argentina, they have one grape that they do like no one else; Malbec. Argentinean Malbecs are typically full-bodied loaded with plush blue and black fruits. Recommended for those that like a riper, fruitier style red.
New Zealand and Australia
New Zealand’s South Island is an excellent producer of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. While the heft of the Sauvignon Blanc can vary, this white usually exhibits refreshing grapefruit and grassy notes. Kiwi Pinot Noir, though, generally shows ripe red fruits with a soft texture.
Australia, on the other hand, is mostly about their Rhone blends; however, they are done in a darker, heavier style than their cousins in Southern France. Penfolds, d’Arenberg, andKilikanoon are noteworthy brands.
Some of the best wine in the world comes from the States, but unfortunately, this area can be summed in two words: don’t bother. Whether it’s high import tariffs or ridiculous retail mark-up, I’m not sure. On average, most American wine is three to four times the price paid back home and rarely worth it.
Finally, regarding the often asked question about drinking wine in Korea. On the plus side, one can go into any big box store and find plenty of enjoyable wines at a fair price. While finding respectable wines here has grown easier over the years, as Korean's develop a taste for it, one area where some improvement is needed is the wine venue. Most wine bars aren’t accommodating to the more informal oenophile, as they cater mainly to businessmen entertaining guests on an expense account and none that I’ve visited offer wine by the glass. Therefore, when I really just want a glass of wine in a relaxed, friendly environment, Fully Booked and Starface fill the bill nicely.
In my next column, I’ll give you a run down of some good wine bars around town.