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[Weekender] Red, white and rose chase coronavirus blues away

Stay-at-home culture, cheaper choices leading more Koreans to pick wine over soju

Oct. 31, 2020 - 16:01 By Son Ji-hyoung
A customer chooses wine at a wine shopping event held in October at E-mart in Yongsan, Seoul. (Son Ji-hyoung/The Korea Herald)
In South Korea, wine has long been largely considered a drink for the well-off, with Korean distilled alcohol soju and beer being more popular choices for dinner.

But with the nationwide stay-at-home policies this year, combined with the coronavirus blues, more people are seeking the kind of excitement that the fruity alcoholic drinks can offer.

With the growing popularity of imported wine -- mostly affordable wines from ever-diversifying regions, including Eastern Europe -- a major shift in Koreans’ wine consumption pattern is underway. And the coronavirus-triggered stay-at-home culture is accelerating its arrival.

“Wine consumption in Korea has been picking up speed in light of the coronavirus,” Ko Jae-yoon, a professor of food and beverage management at Kyung Hee University, told The Korea Herald.

“People had to make their own dishes at home, while they get greater access to wines to pair them with homemade dishes as low-cost wines became all the rage in the market.”

Korean wine imports are expected to hit a new high this year. Wine imports came to $220.6 million for the first three quarters of 2020, up 15.3 percent on-year, according to data from the Korea International Trade Association. The figure amounts to more than 85 percent of all wine imports in 2019, which at $259.3 million holds the record so far.

By volume, Korea imported more than 37 million kilograms of bottled wine in the January-September period, up 13.7 percent on-year.

Even before the pandemic hit the world, prospects for the wine consumer market in Korea were rosy. According to ProWein, organizer of an international wine trade fair in Duesseldorf, Germany, in 2019, Korea was on its way to becoming the most attractive market for wine producers and exporters by 2022. It was followed by China, Hong Kong and Brazil.

Luxury no more

A myriad of choices -- in terms of the grape and soil differences as well as the regional and climatic varieties -- have often left aspiring wine buyers and learners frustrated. As each choice carried a hefty price tag, Korean consumers were inhibited from taking the first step.

But now, wine is at its most accessible since 1987, when the country opened its doors to wine imports. A bottle of wine can even be cheaper than a cup of coffee since new varieties began to hit the shelves of Korea’s supermarkets, warehouse shops and even convenience stores.

However, consumer awareness of wines did not happen overnight. 

Customers line up to buy wine bottles at a wine shopping event in October at the E-mart discount store in Yongsan, Seoul. (Son Ji-hyoung/The Korea Herald)
Domestic hypermarket giants like E-mart and Lotte Mart have over the past couple of years played a part in bringing wines to the mainstream, largely with cheaper imported brands.

For example, E-mart white-labeled Chilean wine products in August 2019 and rebranded them as “Dos Copas” targeting Korean consumers. From January to September, E-mart sold 1 million bottles of Dos Copas branded wines. Its total sales topped 2 million bottles in July.

The growing mass market appeal gives importers, including giant retailers, greater bargaining power since budget wines sell out fast in Korea.

“We made a decision to fix the sales price of each bottle of Dos Copas to lower than 5,000 won ($4.40) and mass-purchased wine bottles that are more than 10 times larger than usual to keep the consumer price as low as what we had initially thought,” Myung Yong-jin, E-mart’s wine buyer, told The Korea Herald.

The trend is also apparent for other cheap imported wines that retailers distribute. Lotte Mart estimated that sales of wines cheaper than 10,000 won a bottle during the January-September period rose 66.4 percent on-year.

Additionally, “Wine marketplace” events have taken place twice a year to encourage wine sales.

Witnessing the growth of the market, international players began to tap into the market by joining forces with Korean partners.

US vineyard operator and wine distributor E&J Gallo teamed up with Homeplus to help its budget products like Copper Ridge and Livingstone reach the Korean consumer base. Vivino, an online wine marketplace app, signed a joint venture with Lotte Mart to allow its discount stores to feature Vivino users’ top wines under a trademark license agreement,

“As Korea imports more affordable wines, the entry barrier of wine will go lower for Korean consumers, so that they will increasingly regard cheap wines as the alternative to popular alcohol items like soju in Korea,” said Wineking, a Korean YouTuber with some 190,000 subscribers.

Pairings with Korean food

The growing demand, on the other hand, leaves importers, consumers and wine experts with homework to do.

Experts say more effort is needed to explore Korean foods that can go with wines, as food pairing is regarded as a crucial element of wine culture.

For example, Korean restaurant patrons often get recommended heavier wines like Cabernet Sauvignon -- made from one of the most popular wine grapes in Korea. But such a full-bodied wine is less likely to go well with Korean gastronomy.

“Koreans tend to use herbs to make refreshing side dishes, while barbecue dishes often come in marinated sliced beef or pork, meaning the dishes are likely to carry light texture. Light wines in many cases are preferred when pairing with such Korean dishes. However, it is regretful that Korean restaurant owners have been paying little attention to the basic principles when recommending which wine should go for Korean dishes overall,” said Son Jin-ho, a professor of enology and sommellerie at Chung-Ang University.

Customers flock to wine bottles displayed at a wine shopping event in October at the E-mart discount store in Yongsan, Seoul. (Son Ji-hyoung/The Korea Herald)
Ko of Kyung Hee University stressed a need to shed light on homegrown wines to discover which ones go well with Korean dishes.

One of the newly emerging pairing principles is to look at the ingredients of a dish and their country of origin. The optimal accompaniment for Korean foods is a Korean wine, made from grapes grown in one of the country’s 140 or so vineyards, including ones on Incheon’s Daebudo and in Yeongcheon, North Gyeongsang Province, says another expert.

“The concept of ‘Shintoburi’ is increasingly taken into account when pairing wines with Korean dishes,” Ko said, referring to the idea that Korean produce is the most optimal choice for the Korean diet. “Normally in other countries, 7 out of 10 wines are imported, while the rest are homegrown.”

Meanwhile, soaring wine demand is posing a challenge to Korean importers, and some consumers are still fond of luxury wines.

A hasty decision by Korean importers in this setting leaves them exposed to counterfeit wines. Some media reports earlier in October suggested that a crime ring may have been involved in selling some 1,000 bottles of fake Italian Sassicaia to the Korean market.

While events like this may be inevitable in this transitional period for the wine consumption market here, consumers should be sensible wine drinkers and distance themselves from being “label drinkers.”

The best way to do that is not to cut corners, to try not to show off and to take a laid-back approach, by starting with affordable wines.

“If consumers realize that expensive wines is not a must to learn about wines, the consumers will be less likely to blindly go after high-end wines,” YouTuber Wineking said.

“The trial-and-error is a rite of passage for Korea to become a wine consumption powerhouse,” Son of Chung-Ang University said.

By Son Ji-hyoung (