South Korea, a country of winegrowers…and surprises

A few days before going to South Korea, we launched a bottle into the sea on our Facebook page : we still did not have any contacts in this country…
One thing was certain, there is wine production in South Korea. Not to worry, then, the world of wine is (very) small and friends are always there to help and to share their network.

Mission n°1 : making appointments with winegrowers

We just landed in Seoul. Now we simply needed to wait patiently. We took this opportunity to visit the capital. Some neighbourhoods only, because the city is immense. With 25 million people, Seoul is the third most populated metropolis in the world after Tokyo and Mexico City.
The architecture is sometimes very surprising, as for example at the corner of a shopping street in Myeong-Dong’s neighborhood, where a big surprise awaited us. Placed in the middle of a square, surrounded by buildings, one more modern than the other – in an ever changing town planning – the Cathedral of Myeong-Dong majestically throned.

Corée du Sud, vin coréen, Séoul, Junete, DuraeAn, Château Mani, Grand Coteau, Ah-Reum Kim, campbell early, muscat bailey A, Myeong-Dong, gubong, cheongsoo, Kim Giduk, Chungcheongbuk-do, macération carbonique, Jean-Baptiste Ancelot, Ludovic Pollet, Wine, Wine Explorers, Exploration, Asia
What wonder to come face to face with this beautiful cathedral, built between 1892 and 1898, a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church’s presence in South Korea – where in Seoul, there are over 1.2 million Christians.
But let’s get back to our vineyards. Because by now we had the contact details of four Korean wineries ! However… there was a slight “technical problem” which we had to overcome : none of these contacts spoke any English. Oops… By chance – and especially with the help of a school friend – we were in contact with Ah-Reum Kim, a journalist for the WINE REVIEW, a Korean magazine dedicated to food and wine. A few phone calls later our appointments were made. Thank you Ah-Reum !

Body language and winery visits

Rental car in hand, let’s go to the countryside, 300 km South of Seoul, to visit DuraeAn winery.

Nearing the vineyard it seemed that the GPS was also a bit lost. We asked for directions by showing the address written in Korean on a piece of paper. A man took his car and beckoned us to follow him. He lead us to the domain. Once on site a real challenge awaited us : presenting ourselves, being understood, gathering information… and doing all this without speaking the language and only communicating with signs ! In the end we understood that DuraeAn winery produces mainly grape spirits, thanks to a double distillation alembic. Mr. Kwon, the owner of the winery, tried to explain to us with gestures that his wine is not sold and that he produces very little. We concluded that it must be made as a hobby and that the production is shared with his friends. He was very proud to show us around the cellar which housed a hundred barrels from France and Portugal. And the icing on the cake, he wanted us to autograph one of his barrels. Mandatory photo session.

Junete and Grand Coteau, two very nice wine estates

Mission completed. We left the day after for Junete, the second winery of our trip.
Ms. Ha, the owner, was all smiles. She was waiting for us. And luckily she had wifi. Why was that important you might wonder ? Because we could communicate with her via Google Translate. And it worked pretty well ! The wine estate is very small : two hectares planted exclusively with campbell early*, a red hybrid grape variety – a cross between belvidere and Muscat of Hamburg. It gives a light wine with aromas of black fruit (see tasting notes below).
We ended our tour with a delicious outdoor lunch with Ms. Ha and her husband. On the menu was : dried fish, fermented cabbage, white rice and a cold soup made with blackberries and white radish.

Corée du Sud, vin coréen, Séoul, Junete, DuraeAn, Château Mani, Grand Coteau, Ah-Reum Kim, campbell early, muscat bailey A, Myeong-Dong, gubong, cheongsoo, Kim Giduk, Chungcheongbuk-do, macération carbonique, Jean-Baptiste Ancelot, Ludovic Pollet, Wine, Wine Explorers, Exploration, Asia
Heading back northwest, close to the sea, we arrived at Grand Coteau. A vineyard of 2.5 hectares which produces rather atypical wines, like a red sparkling, an ice wine made from campbell early or a white wine 100% cheongsoo (a very aromatic local hybrid grape that tends towards notes of white fruit and citrus). Here – as in most of the vineyards we encountered during our Korean trip – the vines are covered with huge gutter-shaped plastic nets. This is because the climatic conditions in South Korea are not very favourable for viticulture due to summer rain, high humidity and poor soils, bearing some similarity to the Taiwanese climate.

Grand Coteau

Grand Coteau

Tasting of some Korean wines

Result, Korean white wines are generally very light and the red wines are starved of tannins. Some examples of wines that we tasted.
– “M5610 Elevation 2010“ from Grand Coteau
A 100% campbell early sparkling rosé wine. Nose and mouth of wild strawberry. A fresh and pretty sweet wine rather balanced but short finish. (10% alcohol). Cellar price : 39 000 KRW (about 28€).
-“Gubong Red Wine“ from DuraeAn
A red wine made from gubong (a local grape variety), non vintage, with a very light pink-orange color. A nose of red fruit and a sweet mouth. Slightly bitter finish. (12% alcohol).

-“Grape Wine Dry 2010“ from Junete
A purple-red wine 100% campbell early. Nose of Port wine with black fruit (blackberry) and strawberry finish. Very discreet mouth, a little hot. (12% alcohol). Cellar price : 15 000 KRW (about 11€).
– “Icewine 2010“ from Grand Coteau
A very surprising ice wine made from campbell early. This is possible since the temperature in some mountainous regions of South Korea can drop to -15°C in winter. Orange brick-red colour. Nose of strawberry and blueberry. Flat mouth, the fruit is gone. (10% alcohol). Cellar price : 52 000 KRW (about 38€).

Château Mani

Château Mani, the last (but not the least) winery of ​​our Korean journey – is situated right in the middle of the country, in the region of Chungcheongbuk-do**. We met with Mr Kim Giduk, the winemaker, with whom we were able to exchange a few words in English. A nice exception ! The château is a large building in a classical style and features a courtyard where the tradition is to crush the grapes barefoot into square stone basins during the harvest.

Château Mani

Château Mani

Another tradition here, which is reminiscent of the story and custom of a famous Bordeaux château : each year the estate invites a different artist to design a new label for the wines. But before tasting the wines, let’s visit the storage cellar, a mystical place lost in the mountains, 15 minutes drive from Château Mani. Thousands of bottles are sleeping on shelves along major corridors carved into the rock. I never expected to see such a place in South Korea. We didn’t stay for long because it was very cold there (only 10°C).

Back at the château we tasted two wines ; probably the two best Korean wines.
-“Château Mani Cult Wine 2009
A red blend made from muscat bailey A and Cabernet Sauvignon. A pretty nose of strawberry and blackcurrant. Lovely on the palate with crispy fruit. Some tannin which provided good structure. Surprising. Cellar price : 28 000 KRW (about 20€).
-“Château Mani NOUVEAU 2013
A second red wine, using campbell early and made like a beaujolais nouveau, with carbonic maceration. Aromas of strawberry. A fresh and light wine to drink as an aperitif. Cellar price : 21 000 KRW (about 15€).
In Korean dishes : spices, garlic and chilli…

“Beware of Korean dishes, they are ultra spicy” ! We were warned several times and I must admit that I had not taken the matter seriously. Because after our African trip earlier this year I thought my body seems accustomed to any spicy food. How naive…
The dishes arriving on the table were one more red than the other. There were spices, garlic and chilli everywhere. Hard for an unaccustomed European stomach… So the trick is simple : eat white rice as an accompaniment to extinguish the flames. Rather effective. And besides, it didn’t stop us from enjoying the feast, quite the contrary.

The proof came with this excellent Korean barbecue. A classic and a must for lovers of grilled and juicy meat. Bon appétit ! 


*Campbell early is produced in South Korea, United States, Japan and Taiwan and is known as a table grape with a taste of muscat but not as interesting for the wine industry because it requires very hard work as a grape variety.
**For more information : Château Mani

 Thank you to Sébastien Menut and Ah-Reum Kim for their invaluable assistance.

Coco Farm & Winery – featuring the 2 Great Ladies of a beautiful project

“We venerate Tradition and always try Revolution“, IKEGAMI CHIEKO.

 In our article on Japanese wines we spoke about the Coco Farm & Winery estate, a great example of oenotourism and the integration of disabled workers (the students).

IKEGAMI CHIEKO (à gauche) & MACHIKO OCHI (à droite)

IKEGAMI CHIEKO (à gauche) & MACHIKO OCHI (à droite)

In this article we will focus on this estate started by Noboru KAWATA in 1984 in Ashikaga (Tochigi prefecture) which is today in the good hands of his two daughters : Ikegami CHIEKO, responsible for the Winery, and Machiko OCHI, responsible for the Center.

WINE EXPLORERS : Can you tell us a bit about your background as an introduction ?

IKEGAMI CHIEKO : I was born on the 15th of October 1950. After graduating from Tokyo Women’s University I started working for SOSHISHA, a publishing company in 1972. One day I decided to take an oenology course at Tokyo Agriculture College and found it fascinating. So naturally I joined the Coco Farm & Winery in April 1984.
I have been the Vice Presidente of the Coco Farm & Winery since 1989, and in 2009 I was awarded the titel of executive officer by the Tokyo Agriculture University. I’m also the Chief Governor of COCOROMI GAKUEN (a facility of social welfare) and a member of the Union Japonaise des Œnologues.
MACHIKO OCHI : I’m the second daughter of Noboru KAWATA. I was born on the 23rd of January 1956. At the university I majored in social welfare. I immediatly started working for COCOROMI GAKUEN. And before I took over my father’s position (Chief Administrator of COCOROMI GAKUEN), I worked in vineyard as a grape grower.

WE : How was the Coco Farm & Winery’s vineyard born ?

IKEGAMI : When Noboru KAWATA (founder of COCOROMI-GAKUEN) was the teacher of a special class for mentally and intellectually challenged junior high school students, he found that his students always looked like they were feeling nervous at their school desks. However they acted very differently in the mountains.
Because their intellectual abilities were impaired, the families of these students thought they could not amount to much. Thus, their developmental needs were not a priority. However, Noboru had a different idea…
For these students, only hard work at the farm could possibly highlight their capabilities. He created the vineyard for the students in order for them to be able to experience the joy of harvesting and to end up in the vineyard at least once a year, to provide them with something that could give them a sense of selfworth.  He wanted them to be able to be proud of what they can accomplish and since there is such a strong link between what ones does and who one considers oneself to be, he wanted them to be able to link themselves in this manner to their occupation.
MACHIKO : Our father chose grapes from many other fruit because it could be turned into wine. He always enjoyed wine for the joy of sharing it.

WE : What are your students doing at Coco Farm & Winery ?

MACHIKO : Students perform a multitude of different tasks throughout the year which includes the following :
1. Putting paper umbrellas around all grape clusters
2. Cutting the grass in the vineyards
3. Pruning
4. Shedding vine leaves
5. Taking care of the young shoots
6. Harvesting the grapes
7. Collecting the pruned shoots
8. Spraying the vineyards with the required chemicals
9. Crushing and pressing grapes
10. Working on the bottling line
11. Assisting packaging for shipping
12. … and so much more !

WE : Are visitors sensitive to the fact that challenged people are working in the vineyards ?

MACHIKO : Half of the people don’t notice that fact nor do they care about it. The other half is very impressed that they are working in this way.
IKEGAMI : But in the end it is always an exciting thing to work in a vineyard with the aim of obtaining the highest possible quality of grapes, regardless of who tends to the vines.  

– – – – – –

This vineyard in the mountains, North of Ashikaga, is a physical challenge to work in: it has a steep slope of 38 degrees average of inclination ! We tested it, it’s really abrupt. Why did you choose to plant vines here ? “Because at the time it wasn’t possible to obtain agricultural land on flat ground, only on the steep slopes of the mountains“, said Machiko.
However, the southwest exposure offers very good conditions for the ripening of the grapes. And the steep slopes allow efficient drainage of rainwater between mid-June and mid-October. Rather important considering the average annual rainfall of between 1,100 and 1,200mm per year! And for the students this exercise of endurance is very beneficial: “they learn patience, it allows them to work with the seasons and sometimes lead them to improvisation working on sloping land, which is very stimulating“, Ikegami added.
Moreover these are excellent soils for growing vines: a mixture of graphics, basalt and Jurassic shale.

And when they are not working in the vineyard, the students are involved in transporting the logs, from the farm to the edge of the forest. Because it is here first moistened, then stored in columns of sections aligned in nature – where it will later develop shiitake, the delicious Japanese mushroom that goes wonderfully with soups, meat and fish.

– – – – – –

WE : Oenotourism is highly developed on the Estate. Is it one of the key of Coco Farm & Winery’s success ?

IKEGAMI : From its origen wine has had a very strong connection with food. It must remain something fun for people coming from the vineyard and the cellar, to sit in the restaurant and to order wine. On the other hand, COCOROMI GAKUEN is a center of social well-being in which it is not common to have any fun. So it would be very nice if the many customers who visit COCOROMI GAKUEN do so not only for comfort, but also to enjoy the environment related to the wine.
And we must always keep in mind that a winery shouldn’t only be a cash machine; we must continue to improve wine quality and customer satisfaction above all. Wine tourism is an important point, but it is the general harmony reigning over the domain that is our strength.

WE : Are you having difficulties working with mentally and intellectually challenged people ?

MACHIKO : They tend to be very honesty, and very rigid. So we always have to behave in the right way. They are fantastic people.

WE : Why do you have such a great diversity of wines in the range ?

IKEGAMI : Coco Farm & Winery always try to listen to the « voice » of the grapes – telling us which wine they want to become.
Also we don’t use cultivated yeast. We ferment only with natural ones. We venerate what the grapes want to be. The number of wines in the range is decided naturally. And we have quite a few products in the range now, mostly made from Muscat Bailey A, Norton, Tana, Riesling Lion*, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Manseng.

WE : Which are your 2 most successful wines ?

IKEGAMI : Our sparkling wine NOVO, a pure Riesling Lion made in the traditional method champenoise.
And DAIICHI GAKUSHOU (“first movement”), a red Muscat Bailey A – which is one of typical Japanese grape varietals. We use natural yeast, no chemical treatment, just leaving the grapes to do what they want to do. No filtration and a long aging. This wine is the first trial and the first step to Japanese wine growing.

WE : Will you increase the number of students in the coming years ?

MACHIKO : We would like to, but I’m not sure that we will be able to. The current students are getting older and many of the new students have more severe problems. And it’s hard to find staff, many people don’t like this type of work which is rather hard and dirty.

WE : Any new wine coming soon in the range ?

IKEGAMI : I don’t know if we will add a new wine to our range in the near future, but it is possible. “We venerate Tradition and always try Revolution“.

Wine Explorers’cheers,


*Riesling Lion is a crossing between Japanese Koshu Sanjaku x Riesling. With the same parents of the variety Riesling Forte.

For more information :



Japan, a timeless country

 Welcome to the land of the Rising Sun.

Let yourself be guided by the energy and the unique atmosphere which surrounds you. Thank you for removing your shoes and leaving them at the entrance. At homes – as in many restaurants – it is customary to wear slippers (Geta Kiri) or socks, it is a sign of respect guided by tradition.

Tokyo, a unique megalopolis in the world

Japan is full of traditions, and of contrasts too! Tokyo is the ultimate example of this. Welcome to another world, another time, far away from all established codes, very much at odds with our daily Western lives.
Take a guided tour, visit neighborhood by neighborhood. During the day, enjoy the beauty of the imperial park at Kokyoo, walk around the Shinto shrines in Meiji Jingu Shinto, stop in front of the Sensoji temple in Asakusa, then get lost in the maze of streets of the traditional district of Jimbocho. You will feel a Zen atmosphere, calm, soothing, where tranquility reigns supreme.

When night falls, the scenery change. The curtain falls. The offices empty. The accumulated stress from work must be removed – because in Japan you spend your live at work and conversely work guides your life. So people tend to loosen their ties after hours and go to party with friends, drinking in the Japanese bars of the Golden Gai in Shinjuku, slum it in Roppongi’s bars, sharing a drink in good company in the maid café of Akihabara, « remaking » the world admiring the lights of Shibuya..

It is said here that if you’re not born Japanese, you’ll never be considered truly integrated in the Japanese culture – even after an expatriate life spent in the country, even when fluent in the language.  Because only a Japanese person can  really understand  Japan… from the inside.
I could write pages (and pages) here about the beauty of this country of contrasts. We have fallen deeply in love with Japan.

But let’s talk wine ! Because even if the country is known worldwide for its Nihonshu (the real name of Japanese Sake), as well as for whiskey – Japan is the n°1 whiskey producer worldwide… yes, yes! – it’s for the wine that we are here, we are the Wine Explorers after all! And as far as that is concerned, it is all good, vines grow almost everywhere in Japan, from Hokkaido in the North – where you can find nice Pinot noir, to Kyoto and Kobe in the South.

Yamanashi, Japan’s main region of production

At the feet of Mount Fuji, less than two hours travel by train going southwest of Tokyo, in the Yamanashi Prefecture, you will find the main wine producing area of Japan. An initial improvised excursion allowed us to visit some wineries and to taste their wines : Château Katsunuma, Chânmoris, or Château Mercian.

We learned that the cultivars Koshu and Muscat Bailey A are respectively white and red traditional Japanese varietals. These two hybrids are more resistant than traditional varieties to moisture, rain and summer typhoons. Koshu is usually a very light white grape, with floral notes.  Muscat Bailey A is easily recognizable in a blind tasting: regardless of how the wine was made, it always has a delicate nose of crushed strawberries.
We also learned that in Japan most of the vines are planted using pergola trellissing: it expands the leaf surface height and thus increases plant density (number of vines per hectare) to protect the soil against erosion –  which can be extremely threatening on hillsides – as well as against vine diseases.

Pergola vines

Pergola vines

Then came the time of invitations: at Suntory Winery where they produce great wines, especially a delicious sweet white wine similar to a Sauternes (and where we had the chance to try young fried vine shoots during lunch time…delicious !). At Katsunuma Jozo Winery, where we tasted the most amazing and finest Koshu, and finally at Coco Farm & Winery, a unique place where the vineyard workers are people with disabilities. Japan is indeed a wine country !

Zoom on Coco Farm & Winery, a model of humanism

North of Tokyo, in the Ashikaga area, is the Coco Farm & Winery estate, a true example of oenotourism and the integration of disabled workers. 5 hectares of vines were planted in 1984 by Mr Noboru Kawata, the founder of the winery, on volcanic soils dating as far back as the Jurassic era. In total there are more than 15O disabled workers, divided between the vineyard and the farm, who live here in harmony, everyone moving at its own pace.

The winery offers twenty different wines for tasting and sale, including a delicious sparkling brut, 100% Riesling Lion (a hybrid of Riesling and Koshu St Jacques). Everything here is stamped with the colours of the winery : cutlery, tablecloths, napkins and aprons, wine accessories, wooden boxes, baskets…; carefully designed to satisfy the customer. Even the wine is pampered : the winery is lulled by Mozart. These sound waves seemed to have had beneficial effects on the wine !

The restaurant is full. The atmosphere is warm. Tourists flock from all over Japan and even far beyond. Life is good at the Coco Farm & Winery.

Some wines which we particularly enjoyed during our stay

The climatic conditions in Japan are challenging for viticulture. However… There are some very nice wines. Proof :

*Aruga Branca Pipa Koshu 2010 from Katsunuma Jozo Winery
What delicacy to be found in this 100% Koshu white wine! A pure delight. Aged for 7 months in French oak barrels, the wine developed notes of honey, apricot and acacia. A delicate mouthfeel, lively and very long. A beautiful bold finish. This is Koshu.
*Tsuki o matsu 2012 (“Here comes the moon“) from Coco Farm & Winery
A surprising white wine, 100% Kerner, with a nose of rhubarb and kiwi. Lively and fresh on the palate. Very nice tension. Perfect to start a dinner with friends; or in good company.
Cellar price: 3,000 ¥ (around 21.5 euros)
*Kaze no rouge 2011 from Coco Farm & Winery
A red wine with 75% of Zweigelt (one of my favorite Austrian grape varieties) and 25% Merlot. Notes of spices (white pepper) and black fruit on the nose. Fresh mouth with crispy fruit.
Cellar price : 2,700 ¥ (around 20 euros)
*Japan Premium Shiojiri Muscat Bailey A 2011 from Suntory Winery
100% Muscat Bailey A. Fermentation in stainless steel tanks was followed by  barrel aging for a year. Here they have chosen to leave some stalks during the fermentation. Nose of crushed strawberry, raspberry (more discreet). Mouth with a touch of caramel and red fruits (strawberry). Slightly sweet.
Cellar price : 2,600 ¥ (around 19 euros)
*Tomi Noble d’Or 1997 from Suntory Winery
A surprise: a botrytis wine in Japan, 100% Riesling, aged 5 years in tank, with flavours similar to Sauternes. Nose of candied fruit, gingerbread and honey. The balance in mouth is beautiful, with candied dried fruit (apricot, citrus). Fresh final with a nice sugar/acidity balance that gives complexity. Small production : less than 1,000 bottles.
Cellar price : 57,000 ¥ (around 392 euros…still)

An a bonus…*Aruga Branca Doce Icewine 2009 from Katsunuma Jozo Winery
The winery excels in the art of Koshu vinification and shows it here once again with this beautiful ice wine. Floral nose (rose, hibiscus). High acidity which refreshes the mouth. Final on apricots. A true dessert wine.

You might have noticed that the price of Japanese wines is high. There are two explanations for this: the production conditions are very difficult and in most cases yields are very low, below 5,000 bottles (or even less !).

Kyoto, Japan of yesteryear

We hoped to have the chance to have a short visit to Kyoto. And then something extraordinary happened, we were welcomed for 4 days in Kyoto by Romaric, a listener of Le Mouv’ (a French radio station), who had heard of Wine Explorers during one of their broadcasts : Allo la Planète !

Kyoto, in contrast to Tokyo, is a city of absolute zen. Better preserved during the various wars in the country, the city is home to many temples and traditional neighborhoods like Miyagawacho, Gion Higashi or Gion Kobu. And if you’re lucky – very lucky, like Ludo – you might see, in the corner of an alley, a geisha… It is rather rare to meet one on the street. Geishas are usually only to be found in prestigious ocha-ya (“tea houses”), where they sing, dance and play traditional instruments.

Do not hesitate to visit the City by bike: it is the best kind of transportation in Kyoto. In fact nothing could be easier than renting a bike in Kyoto: we were not even asked for any identification or for a security deposit… We simply paid when we returned the bikes. And it worked wonderfully! It makes one dreamy…

2 essential wine bars : JIP and Le Terroir

In Tokyo you will find the largest concentration of 3 Michelin stars restaurants (16 3-star restaurants, compared to the 10 in Paris). But you will also find amazing wine bars. Two essentials: JIP and Le Terroir.

JIP is a classic wine bar, sober and clean, where we enjoyed tapas in a relaxed atmosphere. It is also – and most importantly – the place where you will find the most comprehensive collection of Japanese wines: almost all Japanese wineries are presented here.  However, do not search for foreign wines : there are none here.

Le Terroir, our favourite, remains “the place” to go in Tokyo for any wine lover, people are linked to terroirs, especially those of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Be prepared: you will find more than 500 wines here… all served by the glass! What logistical and technical prowess ! “Our customers trust us, allowing us to open bottles and giving us the opportunity to present it to several people during the same evening”, said Yves Ringler, the man of the house. There is very little loss in this way.

No doubt because Yves is so passionate ! He is a wine lover, a man close to nature and passionated by Languedoc-Roussillon. When this epicurean decided to leave France a few years ago, it was to realize his dream to open his own wine bar. “I daily discover new amazing areas in this Languedoc-Roussillon. This is a real treasure in terms of diversity”. Here, only wines from small producers are sold, rare products from all prices ranges. Plus a superb collection of spirits and eaux-de-vie. And the icing on the cake, the food is creative. It is refined and dinner is a great experience. Go for it !

Japan gave us stars in our eyes. So before continuing our journey around the globe, lets end this part of our adventure with the inevitable, the Tsukiji market : the largest fish market in the world. Such a unique atmosphere and a place where you can attend the auction of red tuna.

And we touched the sky : a breakfast at 5:00am, enjoying a bowl of rice with freshly cut red tuna sashimi.
Do not pour more, our cup is full.


For more information,
– Chânmoris :
– Château Mercian :
– Suntory :
– Katsunuma Jozo :
– Coco Farm & Winery :

 *Arigatōgozaimashita to Romaric, Christelle and Yann for being our guides in Japan, and to Sumie Horikawa for your great support.