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Is K-wine the next big thing? This local sommelier thinks so.

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Jung Ha-bong is the general manager of food and beverage at Sofitel Ambassador Seoul Hotel and Serviced Residences in Songpa District, southern Seoul. [JOONGANG ILBO]
While Korea may not be the first country that one thinks of when it comes to wine production, the country’s takes on beverages like “cheongsu” and “chusa” have been seeing increasing popularity in recent years.

This is in part thanks to Korean wine experts like Jung Ha-bong.

The forty-six-year-old is currently the acting general manager of food and beverage at Sofitel Ambassador Seoul Hotel and Serviced Residences in Songpa District, southern Seoul. He is also the vice president of the Korea International Sommelier Association.

For this wine aficionado, February has proven to be an especially meaningful month because he attended the Best Sommelier of the World as a coach for Korean competitors on Saturday. Years ago, he competed in the event himself.

Best Sommelier of the World sees competitors from around the world test their taste, experience, and knowledge about wine. This year, the event was held in France, a country with centuries of rich winemaking history.

Jung is a veteran sommelier and one of the first people to study wine in Korea. But his passion for the drink started as a coincidence.

An international conference for luxury brands was held at the hotel where he was working his first real job in 2000, and among the foreign attendees, a complaint was raised that the hotel lacks the ability to recommend wine.

There just wasn’t much interest or knowledge about wine in Korea at the time. So the hotel began searching for a wine expert and found Jung.

“I was originally curious about the food and beverage culture and the world of wine especially appealed to me because of just how limitless it seemed,” he told the JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily. “I fell headfirst into that land which seemed so deep and vast.”

Wine is now a major drink in Korea [JOONGANG ILBO]
Craving to know more about wine, Jung traveled around the world and visited locations famous for wine such as  Piedmont, Italy and Bordeaux, France.

His passion for wine quickly paid off. Jung has been selected as the national sommelier of Korea every year since 2005, and has a record of outstanding results in numerous global wine and sommelier competitions. The French Champagne Association awarded him the title of Chevalier in 2017, and the Bordeaux Wine Association two years later awarded him the title of Commanderie.

To Jung, the current growth of the local wine market is surprising.

Korea today has an incredibly vibrant and expanding wine market. The Wine Intelligence, a global wine consumer research institute, evaluated Korea as a “top performer” in 2020, and the country ranked second in the Top 15 Most Attractive Markets for wine the same year. According to data from Korea Customs Service, wine imports have increased by 76 percent in 2017, marking a record high and making it the fastest growing Asian market for wine.

But what Jung is paying the most attention to these days are the wines that are made in Korea.

It may surprise some people to know that Korea makes its own wine. But among the younger generations who are in their 20s and 30s, these homegrown drinks are already very popular.

“[The locally-made wines] weren’t great at first,” said Jung. “In 2007 and 2008, there were cases where domestic wines added artificial fragrance in order to imitate the taste of foreign wines. So I wasn’t exactly proud of Korea’s wine, especially when I traveled abroad to judge in wine competitions.

“However, thanks to the efforts of many ardent local winemakers in the industry, I am confident that our country’s wines are now rising to a world-class level.”

Grand Coteau wine, made on Daebu Island in the city of Ansan, Gyeonggi, won a silver medal last year at the Asia Wine Trophy, an award ceremony recognized by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine.

Chusa, otherwise known as Korean apple wine, is a Korean-style cider wine. It is known for its distinct sweet yet deep flavor. The winery is inside an apple orchard in South Chungcheong province which is famous for its fall apples.

Cheongsu is a white wine made from a kind of white grape that the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences pioneered in 1993. It won the gold medal for three consecutive years from 2015 at the Asia Wine Trophy for its fresh and acidic flavor. It pairs especially well with seafood.

Jung is behind this massive progress of Korean wines. He consistently planned his banquets and events themed on Korean wine and invited producers to inform consumers about the existence of Korean wine. “Korea’s culture is not limited to music and movies,” he emphasized during the interview. “Now, Korea’s presence is becoming more clear in the field of gastronomy, and that’s why it is time to cultivate and promote Korean wine even further.”

He continued, “Wine is more than just a drink; it is a culture. Just as we do not stop at simply drinking red wine at a Piedmont winery and go on to discuss the culture and history of Italy, Korea has sufficient potential to produce its own wines with a story and taste.”

BY CHUN SU-JIN [kjdculture@joongang.co.kr]