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Korean winemaker forges her own path: Claire Kyunghwa Nam has found that making wine is a form of artistic expression

Aug 02,2019
Korean winemaker Claire Kyunghwa Nam shows the grapes she uses to make her Bordeaux white wine, center, and checks the wine being stored in an oak barrel, right. At left is the first bottle of “Les Trois Mains,” which she made with grapes harvested in 2016. [CLAIRE KYUNGHWA NAM]
Claire Kyunghwa Nam, center, talks about her wine “Les Trois Mains” to local sommeliers and wine experts during her visit to Korea last month. [PARK SANG-MOON]
People around the world have shown interest in learning how to make Korean beverages like soju and makgeolli (fermented rice drinks), or even working to become a Korean liquor sommelier. Similarly, some Koreans are trying their hands at making wine, a drink more commonly enjoyed in other cultures. Claire Kyunghwa Nam is a Korean taking on the challenge of making wine in France, one of the largest producers and consumers of wine in the world.

In 2015, a chance to make her dream of producing her own label “Les Trois Mains” came true for the wine connoisseur who has studied wine theory, tasting and business. She laid her eyes on France’s Bordeaux, specifically the Grave area, where she could test out the potential of her wine in a short time. She found a partner to work with so that she could source grapes for her own label. The first wine she made used grapes harvested in 2016.

“As long as I have lived, there’s always been a time when I need an extra hand, whether that is nature helping me or a friend or a family member,” said Nam, who came to Korea to introduce her newest wine to sommeliers and wine experts last month.

“I wanted to reiterate that extra hand is always necessary.”

For the most recent release, she made about 1,200 bottles. About 1,000 bottles are already sold with 400 bottles allocated to Korea. Stock at her Korean importer completely sold out the day she had her release event with local sommeliers and industry experts. The sommeliers raved about the quality of the wine and talked about how well-balanced the wine was with tastes of a variety of fruit in it. Nam lives in London but regularly goes to Bordeaux, France, to see how the grapes are growing and harvest her own fruits with other workers to get the best grapes for her wine. Her wine is white and made with a a mix of varieties called sauvignon blanc and semillon .

Her adventure outside of Korea started in 2004. She went to Australia to get her master’s degree in wine business, and that experience led her to work in Hong Kong, Burgundy (France) and London.

The wine, named after a song for piano, has a label that also resembles musical notes, although at a first glance they may resemble grass. The label is designed by a Korean artist who works in London. In the hopes of sharing her work with artists, she even gave her wine to world-renowned pianist Cho Sung-jin as a gift. She read that he enjoys wine and had even thought about taking a sommelier course. So when Cho performed in Bordeaux, she waited after the show to deliver her wine to him.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to make an event with musicians who could perform ‘Les Trois Mans’ in Bordeaux?” said Nam, adding that she hopes that her wine can work as a magnet to bring people together.

There are currently a few other Korean winemakers active in the wine industry, including Park Jae Hwa of “Lou Dumont” based in Burgundy, as well as Jae Chu of “Maison des Joncs.” Park still produces her own labels with her husband, while Chu made some of her own wines before joining other wineries as a winemaker.

Q. What made you want to make wine?

. I could have just made wine my hobby and drank only what’s said to be good when I had time. But I got into a field where wine, a commercial product, can be seen as art. I wanted to share what I know with other consumers. Wine is more than just a commercial product. It has emotions attached to it. Consumers may not know that, but I got to see a lot of other aspects put into wine as I became a winemaker. I think a lot about the stories of the wine and how to tell it so that customers get the story I want to tell from drinking the wine. I didn’t make this wine just to target Korean customers. But I do hope my attempt to make wines opens more opportunities in the wine business for many. One of the possible scenarios is that Korean retailers become more interested in making their own wine brands so that wine can be something that’s more easily accessible in terms of price and taste.

Who gives you feedback on the finished products?

Friends from all around the world. I met many of them while I was studying for my Master of Wine degree. We meet to participate in a seminar that happens once a year for those who need to take the theory test, and then I bring mine and others bring theirs. I may have come to the race’s starting line late and had to run faster to catch up with others, but as I was studying […] I gained confidence.

Are you still pursuing your Master of Wine degree?

Yes, I passed the tasting part of the exam and am now waiting to pass the next level. The results come out in September. All the time and effort invested into earning the degree is in me. The knowledge isn’t going anywhere. I appreciate what I have done in the process to help me reach the place where I make my own label. I’m thankful for everything.

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