There’s no doubt in my mind that, as far as wine shopping in Korea goes, the best balance of variety and value for money is to be found at E-Mart. In the last two or three years the range and quality of bottles carried in your average E-Mart has improved no end, even if it’s not a patch on the selection on offer in comparable stores back home.
That’s not to say that E-Mart is a bargain-hunter’s paradise, far from it. It remains true that paying anything under 15,000 won for wine in Korea is a major gamble. But there are a few decent drops to be found even so, and as the tag heads north towards 30,000 won (which seems to be a very common price anchor for wine in E-Mart, for some reason) some delicious wines.
White wine in Korea is definitely still a developing market. Consumers here have traditionally preferred sweeter whites, but here again, things are on the move. I’d hardly describe E-Mart’s selection as great – they’re much stronger on red wines – but things are looking up.
As far as “bargains” go – that word really needs bigger inverted commas – some countries’ offerings are better bets than others. Perhaps the most reliable source of decent quality white wines in Korea is Chile. A number of labels crop up again and again: Cono Sur, Concha y Toro, Errazuriz, Montes. All of them offer good quality at reasonable prices, even if the bog-standard bottlings are rarely anything special. Chile has one of the longest-standing FTAs with Korea and the wines from here are generally good value by local standards. There are some nice Chardonnays if you’re willing to pay a little more.
New Zealand whites are world-famous, principally Sauvignon Blanc, and they are well represented at E-Mart, though never at the cheapest price points. Generally speaking, any NZ Sauvignon Blanc you see here will be worth picking up, but it’s not necessarily true that more expensive is better. The legendary Cloudy Bay, for example, does pop up at E-Mart from time to time before quickly being snapped up. Don’t get me wrong, it is gorgeous, but it sells here for about 60,000 won and you’re paying at least a third of that just for the name. If you’re a fan of grassy, gooseberry-and-lime Sauv Blanc – and I emphatically am – try the Palliser Estate or Staete Landt, both damn good wines and half the price of Cloudy Bay at 30,000 won. Or try Kim Crawford, below.
Australian wines are the most popular choice back home in the UK, but the range of Aussie whites in Korea is relatively poor. American wines are fairly good value in Korea, but again, the whites are conspicuous by their absence; most US wines here are Cabernets from California and the odd Pinot Noir from Oregon. Finally, there are some good white wines from France available, especially Chablis and some bone-dry Sancerre. If price is less of an issue, there are some nice wines to be had, but value is quite poor. One pleasing development, at least for me, is the sighting of some wines from Alsace, with their peppery, spicy notes a welcome change from the norm. Try the Hugel Riesling, which I’ve listed below; if you want something really different, and you’ve just been paid, splash out a little more for the slightly off-dry, floral Gewürztraminer (42,000 won).
Here are three nice white wines that you can pick up at non-insane prices. Bear in mind that wine prices in E-Mart, as everywhere else in Korea, can be volatile and random price cuts and special deals are quite common. Remember wines you have enjoyed and scout the shelves to see what’s on offer on any given day.
As Sauv Blanc goes, this is pretty damn good at the price, and E-Mart have had it on offer for under man won, which is miraculous. While Root:1 obviously doesn’t stand comparison with the very best expressions of this grape, if you are on any sort of a budget you should snap it up whenever you see it. Come June, when you’re sitting on top of your roof enjoying the sun, you’ll give thanks to whatever God you believe in that you have that bottle in the fridge door.
This wine has been popping up all over the place recently – they even have it in Family Mart (or whatever it’s called nowadays) for more or less the same price. The full price is 42,000 won but that would definitely be pushing it. However, it seems to be on perpetual offer in E-Mart and at this price it is definitely worth considering. Citrus, tropical fruits and plenty of acidity. Drink with seafood or on its own.
A bit more of a personal recommendation, this one. Alsace was the first place I ever got properly paralytic on wine, on a field trip in the last days of my school life, and it was Hugel Rieslings and Gewürztraminers that did it. That pretty much spoiled me for anything else after that, especially since Alsace wines are rarely cheap even in Britain. But everyone should try an Alsace Riesling at least once and the Hugel version is the most economical one available in Korea. (Actually, it’s pretty much the only one I’ve seen in Korea.) In Alsace they would normally drink this with choucroute garni – smoked pork with sauerkraut – so why not try this with samgyeopsal and kimchi? Yeah, you’re intrigued now, aren’t you? Try it. Do it. Do it today.
Korea is not fertile soil for a wine lover with shallow pockets. The double whammy of distance and taxes make even the cheapest of plonk into a relatively expensive proposition, and paying for decent quality will cost you.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that wine has historically been seen as a premium product here, and a large part of wine’s appeal to Korean consumers lies in its status as a luxury good, so there has been little incentive for retailers to cut prices in the way they do in the US or UK.
All that said, things are definitely changing. Korean supermarkets, in particular, are beginning to expand their ranges of wines (and beers) significantly compared to even a couple of years ago, and even the availability of decent white wines – which used to be utterly appalling, unless you enjoyed shitty Italian moscato with more sugar in it than alcohol – is improving in leaps and bounds.
It would be stretching things to say that there are bargains available; if you Google that bottle of Californian red you just bought in Homeplus, you may just cry when you see how much it costs back home. There are occasional surprises to be found, though. But, broadly speaking, if you were a wine drinker back home and you want to continue the habit in Korea, you have to choose; either you splash out twice as much for that weekly bottle of Cabernet than you would ever have done in your previous life, or – well, soju is nice and cheap, isn’t it?
I don’t have especially deep pockets, but one of my resolutions for 2014 was to stop buying crappy wine for 12,000 won a bottle and then bitching when it turned out to taste like grape juice that had been strained through a kangaroo’s arsehole. That sometime means paying 20,000 or 30,000 a pop, and it’s not much fun when you shell out that much for a wine which is disappointing.
So on this blog I plan to share some of the better glasses I’ve enjoyed, along with details of prices and locations, so that the next time you go into E-Mart you don’t come back with something that’s fit only for the cat. Not that I would give wine to a cat. Except maybe moscato.