“A lot of Korean people like to eat pasta and Italian ingredients,” Kim told AFP-TV as he stopped to congratulate one of the 4,400 exhibitors at the Vinitaly fair in Verona in northeastern Italy late last month.
“Now there are over 700 Italian restaurants operating in the Korean market and demand for Italian wine will automatically increase,” said Kim, who is deputy head of South Korea’s wine importers association.
Faced with the fallout from the economic crisis in their traditional markets, Italy’s wine growers are trying to ramp up their sales to Asia.
Even though Italy was the world’s top wine exporter last year with a 23-per-cent market share globally, in a country like South Korea it is third-placed behind France and Chile, with only 16 per cent of the market.
That is gradually beginning to change as Italian vineyards look beyond their traditional markets in Europe and North America and wine becomes increasingly fashionable in Asia, also as an accompaniment to Italian food.
Wine is part of a list of “Made in Italy” products that are looking to boost their sales in Asian emerging markets – part of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti’s mission as he visited China, Japan and South Korea this week.
Wine sales are also helped by the continent’s changing consumer habits.
“In the past Chinese consumers were more eager to drink strong liquor,” said Benjamin Chau, deputy head of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
“Now they have become more and more health conscious and also the living standard has improved a lot. So they are going to spend more on wine,” he said.
Mr Chau was visiting to sign an official partnership agreement for Hong Kong’s own wine fair, which this year will number 200 Italian companies.
“French people have done a lot in the past, so they have been enjoying the first-mover advantage. I think European countries including Italy have to work harder to make themselves known to the market,” he said.
“Italy is really the centre for fashion and lifestyle. I like their wine very much, with strong character and personality,” he said.
Debra Meiburg, a master of wine who has worked in Asia for 25 years and has her own television show, is a pioneer in educating Asian consumers.
“I think it’s a great time for Italian wines. There’s a real movement towards Italy,” she said.
“We’ve been very obsessed with Bordeaux and now we’re checking out Burgundy but Italy is certainly the next wave,” she added.
“The trick will be to help people understand the origins of the wines,” she said, pointing out that Asian consumers like to research their wines before buying and want to feel “confident” when serving them to friends or colleagues.
Wine consumption in Asia was 5.5 billion litres last year – a 10 per cent increase from 2010. Experts are forecasting a rise to six billion by 2015.
“The big bet for wine growers today is China,” said Ettore Nicoletto, head of the Santa Margherita wine group.
Nicoletto said the key thing was to “understand what wine is, why it is drunk and how to combine it with food.”
Pierangelo Tommasi from the Tommasi vineyard pointed out that Italy is lagging behind France, and does not have the well-established diaspora community that once
boosted sales in Europe and North America.