To get to the remote vineyards that provide the grapes for Moet Hennessy’s new high-end Chinese wine, you have to travel first to Shangri-La – literally.
The airport in Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian) in Yunnan Province is the departure point for the five-hour trip in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the vineyards tended by ethnic Tibetan villagers for the wine called Ao Yun, which makes its U.S. debut this week. The name means “proud cloud,” according to Jean-Guillaume Prats, president of Moet Hennessy’s wine division, although the company’s marketing materials translate it more poetically as “flying above the clouds.” Considering that the wine costs $300, perhaps the additional poetry is warranted.
The project began with a decision by Christophe Navarre, chief executive of Moet Hennessy, to make a world-class wine in China, Prats said in a recent interview in San Francisco. Although there are vineyards in China, planted mostly to supply the growing Chinese market, their locations have been problematic. In the Hebei and Ningxia regions, for example, the winters are so cold that the vines must be buried to survive. Navarre sent Australian enologist Tony Jordan, who had established Chandon in Australia, to find the right spot.
Much of Yunnan Province in southwestern China is subtropical, but the northwestern corner, near Tibet, climbs to a higher elevation, with a dry, sunny climate. In 2002, in an effort to diversify the agricultural economy, the Chinese government helped some of the villagers plant wine grapes (primarily cabernet sauvignon), interspersed with crops like tomatoes and hashish. Jordan heard about the vineyards, and Navarre decided it was the right place for the project. Four villages were selected, two on each side of the Mekong River. The average elevation of the vineyards is about 8,200 feet.
“It was a brave, risky move,” Prats says of Navarre’s decision.
At that altitude, the ultraviolet radiation is strong, but there are only five or six hours of sunlight before the sun drops behind a mountain. The growing season, from flowering to harvest, is about 160 days, with harvest in late October or early November, compared to Bordeaux’s 130 days. Prats – former director of Chateau Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux — likens it to “slow cooking.”
The villagers were trained to cultivate the vines to the company’s exacting specifications, but Prats admits that even the experts are still feeling their way. “We’re in a giant learning curve where we don’t know exactly what to do,” he says. How much should they irrigate the vines? What are the ideal yields? (In 2013, the first vintage of Ao Yun, Prats thinks they reduced yields too much.) And when should the grapes be picked? Because of the dry climate, there’s no botrytis or mildew, so Prats says they could leave the grapes on the vines until they turn to raisins.
Winemaking has presented a separate set of challenges. The logistics of making wine in such a remote place are a nightmare, and that was particularly true in the first vintage. The fermentation tanks didn’t arrive in time, so the grapes were fermented in the type of amphorae used for the Chinese liquor called baijiu. The destemmer didn’t work, and the grapes were all destemmed by hand. Prats says malolactic fermentation took 20 months because they couldn’t warm the room.
The winery in Adong was finally completed in 2014, and Prats says the 2014 vintage is “one step above in precision.” The company has also added about 27 acres of higher-density plantings to the original 47 acres. The vineyards are under a 50-year lease.
So what about the wine? I tasted the 2013 Ao Yun with Prats recently, and it’s impressive. When he poured the wine, the aromas leapt from the glass. The wine is dark and savory, with black fruit, hints of olive, cracked peppercorn and soy sauce, good concentration and fine tannins. At 15 percent alcohol, it’s a ripe wine, but a firm core of acidity lends nice freshness and keeps the wine from being too heavy. Ao Yun is about 10 percent cabernet franc; I say “about” because the original plantings include several varieties, including chardonnay, which was vinified on its own. “We don’t know what we’re going to do with” the chardonnay, Prats says.
Just 500 cases of the roughly 2,000 cases of Ao Yun that were produced in 2013 have been allocated to the U.S. The wine is being sold by Wine.com, K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City, Calif.; Wally’s Wine & Spirits in Los Angeles; Calvert Woodley in Washington, D.C.; and Sherry-Lehmann in New York.