Could North Yunnan be a Shangri-La for winemaking? The producers of Ao Yun seem to think so
It’s an unlikely comparison in many ways, but according to Master of Wine and Burgundy authority Jasper Morris, the Himalayan foothills of North Yunnan remind him of Portugal’s Upper Douro valley.
Historically that’s port country – although some fine non-fortified red wines are now being made in the Douro as well. Nothing comparable to port is ever likely to be produced in Yunnan, but it’s possible that the area Morris visited may develop over time into China’s first genuinely great winemaking region.
The quality of Chinese wines has improved greatly in recent years, and some internationally respected names have emerged, among them Grace Vineyard and the Changyu Pioneer Wine Company.
Joint ventures bringing in both foreign capital and expertise have all produced some decent wines, viable for both the domestic and export markets. Pernod Ricard, Domaines Baron de Rothschild and Lenz Moser all have stakes in Chinese estates.
However, what has not yet emerged is a flagship: a genuinely iconic red wine comparable, for example, to Penfold’s Grange, which set the bar for Australian winemaking in the early 1950s. There’s now the prospect of one, though.
Last year, the first vintage of Moet Hennessy’s Ao Yun, the 2013, was hailed for its exceptional promise, and now the second, the 2014, has been released to fulsome praise from some influential pundits. Jean-Guillaume Prats, president and CEO of Moet Hennessy Estates & Wines, said his aim is to create a benchmark of Grange’s stature for Chinese wines. He said last year that he wants to improve the wine with each vintage until it becomes “not only high-quality, but world-class”.
Progress clearly is being made towards that objective. According to Jean-Marc Nolant of the Bettane+Desseauve China Wine Guide, “Ao Yun 2014 appears far superior in its equilibrium than its previous 2013 vintage, and represents a tremendous breakthrough in quality Chinese winemaking.”
It has taken a while to get to this point, and since it was an Australian who identified the potential of the Ao Yun vineyards, the Grange parallel seems apt.
In 2009 Moet Hennessy CEO Christophe Navarre asked consultant winemaker Dr Tony Jordan, who had recently retired from Moet Hennessy’s Australian operations, to locate ideal red wine terroir somewhere on the Chinese mainland.
This was no easy task. Most of the land under vine in China is suitable for making decent wine at best – and much production falls well short of that standard. Extremes of climate make long-term cultivation of vines difficult in many otherwise promising areas.
Grapes had already been planted with some success in the part of Yunnan where Moet Hennessy has leased its vineyards, but it took Jordan four years to find the area.
Prats said the conditions are similar to Bordeaux, but with a longer growing season because of the high altitude. This may have influenced the choice of a French rather than Australian winemaker, albeit one with New World winemaking experience.
Maxence Dulou, Ao Yun’s winemaker and estate manager, is clearly a man who likes a challenge. A 2001 oenology graduate of the University of Bordeaux, he worked in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chile and South Africa before accepting the offer to uproot his family and move to a particularly remote part of China.
Ao Yun means “flying above the clouds”, and when Prats talks about the high altitude he isn’t exaggerating. The vineyards are situated at an elevation of 2,200 to 2,600 metres above sea level.
The drive to Moet Hennessy’s Shangri-La Winery is long and arduous, but Jordan found what he was looking for there. Around 300 vineyard plots are arranged around four villages, precariously perched on mountainous terrain overlooking the Mekong River.
All the grapes are grown organically and have to be harvested by hand. Although the growing season is longer, the vines get fewer hours of daily sunlight than in Bordeaux, but they’re also subjected to more powerful ultra-violet rays. The slow ripening contributes to the wine’s deep, dark colour and the silkiness of its tannins.
Dulou says his job is to express the purity of the Himalayan terroir and the character of the vintage. Each year since he arrived has been different, he says. This accounts in part for the seemingly dramatic improvement in the wine from 2013 to 2014.
“We are organic from the roots and are learning each season how to handle the different and unique terroir of our plots,” Dulou says. “This is especially challenging because we are talking about a completely new kind of terroir for winemaking, and each of the seven seasons we have observed until now are very different in terms of climate.”
In a nod to local tradition some of the wine is matured in Chinese earthenware jars similar to the ones used to store baijiu. Although Dulou has overseen the planting of Merlot and Petit Verdot grapes, at the time of the 2014 vintage only Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were available to him, and the 2014 is a 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon to 10 percent Cabernet Franc blend.
So what does it taste like? According to Dulou the 2014 vintage “shows more complexity than 2013 due to better climate during the season and vineyard management optimisation”.
Some collectors will no doubt want to lay down a few bottles of the wine to see how it develops over the next few years, but if you are going to open one or two now Dulou recommends double decanting – pouring into a decanter and then back into the bottle – about five hours before serving, at a suggested temperature of around 16 degrees Celsius.
Once poured into a Bordeaux glass, you can enjoy the wine’s deep colour; the cinnamon spiciness, leathery cigar-box earthiness and hint of mint of the nose; the soft elegance of the tannins; the minerality; and the fruitiness and touch of sweetness on the palate.
While the 2013 was typically priced under HK$2,000 per bottle, the 2014 typically costs a little more. Value for money? For drinking now, perhaps not. You could do as well or better with wine from elsewhere. For laying down, only time will tell. This isn’t yet China’s Grange, but it’s a very good wine, and the Shangri-La Winery has taken another giant step towards achieving that goal.