|French farmer and winemaker Dominique Herque, left, and his farmer-novelist wife Shin Yi-hyun check grapevines in their vineyard in Chungju City, North Chungcheong Province, on Sep. 17. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
French farmer, his Korean wife use European-style organic farming to make pure, natural wines
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Chungju, North Chungcheong Province ― Last Thursday was another fulfilling yet busy day for French-born farmer and winemaker Dominique Herque and his Korean wife Shin Yi-hyun.
In the hot, humid weather, the farmer couple began their day in their newly created vineyard in Chungju's rustic area of Suanbo-myeon, about a 30-minute drive from their home in the city.
Nestling snugly at the foot of a hill, the vineyard is their nature lab. They have experimented with European-style organic farming ― called biodynamic agriculture ― to produce "100 percent, additive-free" natural wine.
The grapes will be harvested from next year and used for their wine project.
"By natural wine, I mean there's no sugar or other artificial additives in it," Shin says. "Just grape juice, without anything else, that's the only ingredient we use to make natural wine."
The couple pays as much attention to cultivating the soil as they do to the grapes.
Herque cuts the grass and weeds in the vineyard, which stretches over 6,611 square meters of land in the rural area surrounded by low mountains. Near him, Shin picks cucumber, zucchini and basil for cooking.
Checking carefully the vineyard, Herque finds a long, slender earthworm. Grabbing it, he beams and says it's a good sign for their vineyard. "Having earthworms means there's a lot of activity going on underneath the soil," he says through Shin, who translated his French into Korean.
The couple purchased the vineyard from a local farmer last year, three years after they settled in Chungju in October 2016 to run a winery using locally produced fruit. Before Chungju, they lived in Paris with their child for over a decade.
After touring several candidate cities in Korea in search of a location for their winery, they were attracted to Chungju because it is home to premium apple and has good soil and weather conditions for farming grapes.
Being a farmer creating pure, natural wine with locally produced fruit has long been a dream for Herque. He quit his job as a computer programmer nearly two decades after he entered the sector and went to a Paris-based agriculture college to learn wine-making when he was 45 years old.
Since 2016, after settling in Chungju, the couple has made apple cider with fruit they harvested from a rented orchard about the same size of their vineyard at a brewery in Pottery Village, in the city's northern area of Umjeong-myeon. They also bought organic grapes from a friend who has a vineyard in Gimcheon City and made sparkling rose wine and white wine.
|Herque checks apple cider at his brewery in Chungju City. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
While brewing apple cider and making wine for sale online, the couple realized they needed their own vineyard to truly live up to their commitment to produce pure, natural wine.
"The landlord of the apple orchard we rented is a farmer," says Shin. "Just like other local farmers here, he used traditional agricultural methods for a long time to grow apples. So the soil and other conditions were not good enough for us to produce the apples that we wanted. So we concluded we needed our own farm to cultivate the soil and fruit as we wish."
After buying the vineyard in Suanbo-myeon, Herque and Shin planted five grape varieties, including Campbell Early, Riesling and MBA. Each vine is held tight by a wooden guard marked with a tiny piece of fabric tied around the top. The colored fabric indicates which grape variety is planted there.
Creating the vineyard required a lot of work.
"Dominique was born to be a farmer," Shin says. "The other day, I asked if he regretted his decision to come to Korea and settle down in Chungju to start a winery. I asked this because I was a bit tired of operating the winery here because the work is endless.
"A winery requires farmers to work all day long, from early morning till evening, but the financial compensation rarely reflects our long hours of work. My husband said he had no regrets and he even feels happy when he prunes grapevines during the winter."
Shin, also a novelist, met her husband in Paris in the late 1990s. After releasing her first novel, she headed to Paris for a language course. The former French major said honing her language skills was just an excuse, noting she just wanted to explore France for a year or so. She then met Herque at a mutual friend's housewarming party. After marrying, they had a child and remained in Paris until they returned to South Korea to start the winery business.
"Dominque wanted to operate a winery in France," Shin says. "But I was tired of living in Europe … Thankfully, he agreed to move to South Korea. He just wanted to be a farmer and the location of his farm was a secondary issue for him."
The biodynamic farming the couple adopted for their vineyard keeps them busy.
The organic farming technique was introduced by German philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in 1924. Under the scheme, farmers choose to plant, cultivate or harvest various crops based on the phases of the moon and the zodiacal constellations the moon is passing through.
"We follow the sowing and planting calendar that is updated every year," Shin says. "The idea behind biodynamic agriculture is that we grow grapes while cultivating the soil. Unlike other local farmers who are mostly interested in harvesting better and more fruit, our agriculture method allows us to work on soil fertility too, as the fruit and soil are interrelated."
Their vineyard reminds Shin of Alsace, a rustic French region in the French-German border area well-known for white wine. Herque was born and raised in the area and worked briefly as a winemaker there after he quit his job as a computer programmer.
"Suanbo-myeon, which houses our vineyard, is similar to Alsace," Shin says. "Alsace is a region surrounded by the Vosges Mountains and like in this area, the vineyards are located on the slopes of a range of low mountains and exposed to the sun. Also like here, in Alsace there is a small village at the base of the mountain. The only striking difference between the two places is that Alsace has a lot more vineyards."
|Herque poses with grape he harvested from his vineyard on Sep. 17. He and his wife will make natural wine with grapes they will harvest from their vineyard next year. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
In South Korea, wineries are an emerging agribusiness for young farmers.
The culture of wine production in Korea has a relatively short history. But in the past five decades there has been a big shift in the industry ― from the dominance of corporate-made wine to wines produced by small farmers.
In South Korea, wine production began in the 1970s as a state-sponsored project directed by then-President Park Chung-hee. Inspired by the Riesling wine he tasted during a state visit to Germany, Park proposed homegrown wine production as part of a national strategy to increase farmers' income by making the most of abandoned land.
Farmers were encouraged to grow crops on fertile land and create vineyards in territories that were not suitable for crops.
Back then, the homegrown fermented alcoholic beverage makgeolli, also known as drunken rice which was made using rice, was popular among farmers. Park reportedly didn't like the idea of "wasting" rice to make alcoholic beverages.
Under his direction, vineyards were created in the rural North Gyeongsang Province on land unfit for rice production. Noble Wine produced by Haitai in 1974 was the first Korean wine. Three years later, Majuang was released. It was the result of Oriental Brewery's years of work to produce homegrown wine. It sent local experts to German wineries for training. Majuang, a combined Korean word meaning "sit together and enjoy," became a hit. But the local wine label faced brutal competition in the 1990s with the increase in imported wines.
Majuang managed to survive as it was used during Sunday Mass at Catholic churches.
With the end of the corporate winemaking era, local wineries began to emerge in the 2000s with the influx of educated young people entering the agriculture sector in search of business opportunities.
Currently, there are nearly 150 wineries nationwide and some 700 wine varieties are on sale.
Homegrown wines are popular among people in their 20s and 30s who seek trendy new beverages.
The rapid growth in local production over the past two decades is a remarkable change from the 1990s when European and Latin American varieties dominated the wine market.
|Herque and his wife Shin at the brewery / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
Back then, there were many who were cynical about the potential of local wines. Some claimed Korean soil and grape varieties were unsuitable for wine production.
Shin says there is still a heated debate among Korean winemakers about "authentic wine."
"I realized some Koreans have a certain fixed notion about wine," she says. "Here, I oftentimes hear that there's a certain formula that makes wine great. For red wine, for example, they say the tannin content should be a certain level and the alcohol content for great wine should be somewhere between 12 to 13 percent. To make their version of 'great wine,' they add sugar and other additives."
Shin says she and her husband disagree.
"We believe there is no such thing as a perfect wine," she says. "But we do believe there is a well-made wine. If a wine has the very taste and flavor of the ingredient, we think that's a well-made wine. We stick to natural wine. We don't use any additives ― there's no sugar and no ingredients other than grape juice. We believe every fruit can be a great ingredient for wine."
Shin says Campbell Early, for example, is a good variety for sparkling rose wine, noting its tannin content is low and it's not red enough to use for red wine.
"Our experience says its alcoholic content is 7.5 percent," she says. "To raise it up to 12 or 13 percent, sugar would have to be added. But we don't do that, because Campbell Early tastes best with the initial alcoholic content."
Wine making is not a lucrative business, especially for those running small wineries like Herque and Shin. Economy of scale does not apply to their agribusiness as annual production is limited, depending on the amount of fruit harvested.
So, for many operating wineries, diversifying income sources is an issue.
Herque and Shin are no exception. Their annual sales revenue last year was 90 million won ($77,000), an income level that falls short of a sustainable winery.
Shin and her husband are pondering how they can earn other income. They are preparing to build a new brewery near the entrance to their vineyard. There are numerous administrative processes to go through, including filing applications for a permit. Shin hopes construction of their second brewery will be complete by next spring.
"Inside the brewery, we plan to set aside a space for small gatherings," she says. "There, we will meet winemakers and aspiring farmers to share our knowledge and experience related to wines and organic farming."