Natural wines are on display at Morcle, a natural wine bar in Hannam-dong, Seoul. (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald)
It was around three years ago in Japan that Moon Dong-sun stumbled upon natural wine. He was blown away by the unique taste and colors. Upon returning to Korea, he drew up a plan to open a natural wine bar, introducing the new experience of wine to Seoulites.
Early this year, Moon opened a natural wine bar in the trendy Hannam-dong in Seoul. Moon said that natural wine has rapidly become popular, and specialized bars have been emerging across the city.
“The natural wine market is growing at a fast pace. There were around 15 wine importers that we contacted when we opened the bar, but now there are more than 100 importers including small ones that we reach out to. There are many wine bar owners who also double as wine importers,” Moon said.
Visitors enjoy natural wine at Morcle, a natural wine bar in Hannam-dong, Seoul. (Park Yuna/The Korea Herald)
As the wine market has matured in the country, wine lovers and the younger generation who are sensitive to the latest trends are gravitating toward the fermented drink that does not contain additives.
Wine sellers and importers say some of the natural wines are so popular they cannot keep up with demand.
“Natural wines have been around since years ago, but the demand has increased rapidly over the past two or three years, particularly since the pandemic. We travel to local wineries to select and taste natural wines and communicate with the wine producers,” said an official from ORW, a natural wine importer based in Seoul. “Natural wines are not mass-produced, so we can’t keep up with the fast growing demand for some types of wines.”
Natural wine is produced with organically grown grapes that have not been sprayed with pesticides and usually involve as little technical intervention as possible. It is free of chemical additives that are typically used in the conventional brewing process and only a minute dose of sulfites -- less than 30 milligrams per liter -- are added before packaging. Conventional wine has around 300 milligrams per liter of sulfite, according to experts.
“While conventional wines go through fining and filtering, natural winemakers reject such processes and ferment wine with native yeast, which is why natural wine may look cloudy or less clear compared to conventional wine, sometimes with sediment in the bottle,” said Jeong Young-kyung, secretary-general of the Korea International Sommelier Association.
Natural wines lie outside the usual wine classification system such as AOC and DOC -- French and Italian certifications to denote products’ origins and quality -- thus allowing wine producers to come up with creative and eye-catching label designs. While conventional wines can be purchased starting from 20,000 won to 30,000 won ($17-$25) per a bottle at retail price, natural wine starts at around 50,000 won. Though many natural wines are not aged, some of them do go through an aging process, particularly for orange wine, according to wine importers.
“The spectrum of visitors to the wine bar has become wider this year, while it used to be enjoyed only by some people who were already familiar with the wine,” said Kim Sun-lyul who opened a natural wine bar last year in Samcheong-dong in Seoul. “It is definitely becoming a popular culture here.”
Natural wines are on display at Lyul, a natural wine bar in Samcheong-dong, Seoul. (Lyul)
What makes it popular?
Why has drinking natural wine suddenly become popular in Korea? A favorable perception about sustainable wine and unique labels that are highly Instagrammable are part of the charm, some experts said.
“Natural winemakers use creative labels to express their identity as they do not need label formats, unlike conventional wines. Among popular illustrations for natural wine are animals and nature that fit with the eco-friendly ethos,” said Lee Min-ji, who runs Natural Penguin, a natural wine shop in Seoul.
While natural wine is attractive to wine lovers seeking new wine experiences, it is also favored by those who find conventional wine drinking intimidating.
Gibson Ranch Grenache Gris is a natural wine produced by Broc Cellars in the US. (Natural Penguine)
Lim Veens, 29, who first encountered natural wine at a local bar two years ago, said he was attracted by the sense of “freedom” natural wine has over its conventional counterpart.
“It has been sort of burdensome drinking conventional wine because I feel like I need to have knowledge about wine to enjoy them. Compared to conventional wine, natural wine was easier to start,” Lim said. “I also found it interesting to choose a wine based on a creative design label that fits my mood of the day, which makes the wine taste even better.”
Natural wine has also appealed to younger generations who are increasingly conscious about environmental issues as the “sustainable wine” is produced organically, free from chemical fertilizers. Conventional wine, on the other hand, can involve up to 200 different chemical additives. Some believe such additive-free drinks also result in less of a hangover, according to Jeong.
But the lack of information on natural wines means consumers can only rely on the sellers and importers for guidance on the quality, taste and price, some wine experts have warned.
It serves as a double-edged sword as some consumers may find it interesting to explore wines themselves, but it also means they can be misled by wrong information.
“You may still find it difficult to find information on natural wine, including price tags for some types of natural wine on the internet,” said sommelier Lee Do-kyung, who has been in the field for 15 years. “Particularly for wine beginners, they are not sensitive about price tags.”
While there is no legal certification for natural wine, last year there was an official move in France, the largest natural wine market, to formally recognize the natural wine method, or “vin methode nature.”
By Park Yuna (firstname.lastname@example.org