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A visit to the home of Korea’s favorite wine : Chile’s unique climate makes it an ideal place for growing grapes

June 07,2018
The vineyards of Concha y Toro in Pirque, Chile, earlier this month. The leaves have turned colors as it is now late fall in the country. [LEE SUN-MIN]
Top: Some grapes hang after the harvest at the Concha y Toro vineyards in Pirque, Chile, for visitors who want to taste the grapes used for winemaking. Above: This underground cellar at the winery has been around since the 1880s, when it was rumored to be haunted to prevent workers from stealing the wine. [LEE SUN-MIN]
Devil’s Brut from Concha y Toro, above, is one of the popular items sold at Monkey Museum in Cheongdam, southern Seoul, while other white and red wines are popular at convenience stores in Korea. [AYOUNG FBC]
Valparaiso, a port city neighboring the Pacific Ocean, is known as “Little San Fransisco” for its hills and cool breeze. Left: The beaches in Valparaiso is where one can feel the cold Humboldt Current that keeps the country cool enough for grape growing to make wine. Middle: The city, designated as a Unesco heritage site, is filled with many paintings that add a unique vibe to the town for local and international travelers. Right: The port of Valparaiso, home to a bustling trade industry. [LEE SUN-MIN]
SANTIAGO, Chile - Who says that wine has to be served in long stem glasses with a fancy dinner? More and more, people are picking up bottles of wine from their neighborhood convenience store and drinking it from plastic cups with friends at picnic tables outside while enjoying a spring breeze.

Diversified wine channel

One of the top selling wines at local convenience stores is an entry-level wine from Concha y Toro, one of the largest wineries in Chile. Casillero del Diablo - meaning Devil’s Cellar - wines are easy to find in stores throughout Korea and are a popular choice for many. About two bottles of Diablo are sold around the world every second as 5.5 million cases - about 66 million bottles - of its wines were sold last year. Korea is one of the winery’s top five markets alongside the United States and China, with 1.6 million bottles sold last year. Local sales have multiplied about 22 times since 2011, when the wine was first introduced to Korean consumers through local beverage importer Ayoung FBC.

Leading convenience stores in Korea have seen the biggest wine sales increases. At GS25, wine sales grew by 30.2 percent in 2017 compared to the year before, and the number continues to rise. Wine sales from January to May showed a whopping 76.7 percent increase from the same time last year, and the situation is similar at other convenience store chains. Market leader CU saw a nearly 55.1 percent increase from January to May this year, after it saw a 19 percent yearly increase last year.

The affordable prices of Diablo wines - which range from 10,000 to 20,000 won ($9.37 to $18.74) a bottle - have played a key role in attracting young and new wine drinkers. Diablo sells sparkling wines with glow-in-the-dark labels that are popular at clubs and the company’s partnership with English Premier League team Manchester United has also attracted young customers to choose Diablo as their first wine to drink.

“The point is to have easy drinking wine,” said a winemaker Sebastian Rodriguez Lobo for Concha y Toro’s Casillero del Diablo, adding that they focus on making wine that blended with different varieties instead of trying to focus on showing characteristics of each grape. “Today we target young consumers, who don’t [care much for] complexity. They want wine that is easy to understand and easy to pair with food.”

For those looking for a more complex wine, the company offers different options under the Diablo label, as well as the more luxurious Don Melchor, named after the winery‘s founder. The company hopes to see at least 10 percent annual growth by offering a wider range of wines for different tastes around the world.

Tour leaves impression

To provide a unique experience to the next generation of wine drinkers, the winery offers a tour of its facilities to explain the name of the brand. Don Melchor, who started the winery in 1883, found that wine had been consistently stolen from his cellar. In order to stop it from happening, a rumor was spread that the devil lived in the cellar. Visitors to the winery can go into the same dark cellar today. There is even a small corridor in the cellar, at the end of which a shadow of the devil can be seen on the wall. The winery’s vineyards, facilities and the owner family’s former summer home is located in Pirque, about a 45-minute drive away from Santiago.

The winery tour does not take long, but visitors can fill about half a day at the winery by walking around the vineyards, tasting some of the grapes still hanging on the vines, enjoying some food and wine at the winery’s restaurant and shopping for some goodies to take back home.

The nature makes wine

While humans do most of the work once the grapes used to make wine are fully grown, there are some key natural elements that contribute greatly in making Chile one of the biggest wine making countries in the world. What you will notice from your way to vineyard from Santiago is the near-constant view of the Andes, whose peak is always covered with snow. The water from the mountain keeps the vines healthy, and the mountains create a cool environment during the country’s hot summer season.

Another factor that keeps winemaking possible is the cool Humboldt Current. The country’s geographical location along the southern Pacific Ocean not only gives visitors a chance to enjoy lots of beach time, but it keeps the temperature on the ground from going too high, and makes it ideal for grape growing.

Chile cultured

The Humboldt Current can best be felt in the port city of Valparaiso. Since the city faces the Pacific Ocean to the west, the sunsets make a great backdrop for a photo during a walk on the beach in early evenings.

The hustle and bustle port city is filled with buildings covered in colorful paintings, giving the college town a distinct look. Many homeowners either do their own paintings on the outside of their homes or hire professionals. The vibrant visual landscape has attracted local and international travelers looking for towns with a unique cultural flair.

The many old-school cable cars also give the town an antique look. The cars were originally built up to take people uphill before electricity was widely available. According to a local tour guide, a gigantic water tank used to power the pulley system that moved the cable cars up and down the hills. The town earned its nickname “The Jewel of the Pacific,” or “Little San Francisco,” for its proximity to the coast and many hills. It is also home to the first church with a high tower in Chile. The combination of distinct cultural elements helped the town become recognized as a historic district by Unesco in 2003.

After a day of walking around the town and drinking some wine, make sure to finish the day with Chile’s popular Pisco cocktails. Pisco, a fermented and then distilled grape juice, is often made with other syrups, but what’s most popular these days is Piscola, which is Pisco mixed with cola.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]