SEOUL, Nov. 25 (Yonhap) -- With wine becoming routine for an increasing number of Koreans, Italian wine producers are traveling to the country looking to entice -- and educate -- new consumers.
Spurred in part by the recent Korea-European Union free trade agreement that reduced tariffs on wine among other products, big names in the Italian wine business have come to Korea recently in an effort to differentiate themselves from other top wine-producing nations.
Winegrower associations from Puglia and Friuli visited Seoul this month, showcasing their wines and looking for import partners.
Italy's famous winemaker Angelo Gaja also came to promote his estate.
"For us, it's important to be there and be recognized," Gaja said. As one of the first producers to enter the Korean market more than 20 years ago, Gaja stressed the importance of regular visits in building a brand.
Although Italy trailed France and Chile in terms of market share in 2010, the country is quickly gaining ground in Korea. Imports of Italian wines to Korea were worth US$16.37 million in 2010 and have surpassed this figure in the first nine months of 2011, with $16.8 million in imports. Between January 2009 and September 2011, imports have increased 20.8 percent in value.
The popularity of Italian cuisine has helped boost people's image of the European country as a producer of fine wine. Seoul has over 600 Italian restaurants with many more cafes serving pasta and pizza, according to the 2009 Italian Restaurant Guide. The capital city is also home to two Italian professional cooking academies, including Il Cuoco Alma, which enrolls 1,000 students per year and has had a steady increase of 20 percent per year since it opened in 1999.
But most Koreans still have relatively little knowledge of types of wine and wine growing areas despite this rising popularity overall. Bang Moon-song, a wine educator and university lecturer based in Seoul, acknowledged there is a need for more education and added challenges include the wide array of regional wines from "an astonishing number of indigenous grape varieties" along with difficulty in pronouncing Italian words and names.
Gambero Rosso Top Italian Wines Roadshow held at Grand Hyatt in Seoul on Oct. 31, 2011 (Courtesy of Joshua Hall)
In hopes of raising Italian wines' profile in the local market, Gambero Rosso, an Italian media company, brought its Top Italian Wines Asia Roadshow to Seoul on Oct. 31, the first time the trade fair has stopped in Korea.
The company was motivated by numerous requests from wineries interested in the Korean market, said Marco Sabellico, editor-in-chief of the Vin d'Italia, a guide book on Italian wines that ranks wine on a three glass system, unlike point scale used in other countries.
"Gambero Rosso is the most important publication in Italy and of Italian wines, and we felt that to promote and to give more information and knowledge of Italian wines in other countries, that Gambero Rosso is the perfect partner for this," said Patricia Toth, a winemaker from Planeta winery in Sicily.
Established in 1987, Gambero Rosso publishes a monthly magazine in English and Italian, runs a 24-hour cooking channel and food and wine academies in Rome and Naples.
More than 350 sommeliers, restaurant owners and media attended the wine fair with many keen to increase their knowledge through the master classes led by Gambero Rosso's editor.
Marco Sabellico (R), editor-in-chief of the Vin d'Italia, with Matteo Romitelli, a consul at Italian embassy in Seoul
"People here really want to work. Korea's strong economy is very encouraging," Sabellico said. "One reason for coming here is to develop partnerships with Korean television and media companies."
Partnerships in Asia are becoming more common in the wine and food industry as wine consumption grows in the region. British wine magazine Decanter magazine launched a Chinese language Web site this year. Gambero Rosso also launched a Chinese version of their guide to Italian wines on Nov. 2 in Hong Kong. They hope to launch a Korean version in the next couple of years.
And Korean restaurant owners are eager to learn more, including Jeemi Nam, a 36-year-old restaurant and wine bar owner.
"A Korean version would be very helpful because Gambero Rosso also teaches people about varieties and how to age wines," Nam said.
Even though knowledge of specifics about Italian wine still needs to be developed, Italy's culture and image have captured many Koreans' imaginations.
"I always have some fantasy about European wine which I associate with the history and royalty of Europe," said Summer Park, 39, an office worker from northern Seoul who drinks wine two or three times a week said. "Italian wines are a great part of it."