A tough climb for Chinese wine

16 January, 2017

When doomed British mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Everest, his now legendary answer was “because it’s there”

The quote came to mind when I asked French winemaker Maxence Dulou what had made the company he works for, Moët Hennessy, start a similarly ambitious, if rather less life-threatening, project in Yunnan province on the Chinese side of the Himalayas. “They had a wish to do something different,” Dulou said of the beginnings of the project that would go on to be called Ao Yun. “And China was a perfect territory because nobody had tried to make a world-class fine wine in China.” Translation: why are you doing this? “Because we can.”

Unlike Mallory’s abortive mission (he perished on Everest in 1924), the odds on Ao Yun succeeding seem much higher. Reviews of the debut, 2013 vintage of the Bordeaux blend (90% Cabernet Sauvignon/10% Cabernet Franc) have been generally enthusiastic since its launch in the summer. And with its wonderfully aromatic black-fruited nose, racy freshness and fine-grained tannins, you can understand why (even if this taster hopes that the slightly powerful alcohol will be tamed, or at least better integrated, in future vintages).

But this has not been an easy project. According to Dulou, it took much-respected Australian winemaker Dr Tony Jordan several years to find the right spot. He says: “First he focused on where China had already planted, but he quickly understood that these places had two problems in terms of climate: it’s either too wet in the summer, or too hot in the summer and cold in the winter, meaning you have to bury the vine, which has an impact on the quality.”

Eventually, Jordan found some 30ha of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc planted in 300 plots in the foothills of the Himalayas. The latitude may be the same as Morocco, Dulou says, but the altitude of 2,200m-2,600m has a cooling effect on the climate, while the surrounding mountains provide protection from summer monsoons.

It’s a fantastically remote situation. Dulou has to drive some four-and-a-half hours from his home in Shangri-La city to get to the winery, where he stays each week. It’s hard to get equipment here, so everything has to be done by hand. And getting his message across to his staff has also involved a certain amount of cultural readjustment. “You can imagine, when you are not Chinese, you try to explain something, but they will never understand because it’s another way of thinking. And so you have to understand you have to explain it differently. But of course, there are misunderstandings.”

Fortunately, Dulou says, the largely Tibetan workforce “has agriculture in its blood”, and has helped him understand “about the different cultures, and the different soils, climate”. Dulou continues: “We have to optimise the process. It will be endless. We are far away from achieving the level. But every day we are learning something.”

In Dulou Moët Hennessy surely has the right man in the right place. But the work doesn’t stop in these heart-stoppingly beautiful surroundings. It will be left to the company’s sales teams around the world to explain why China’s “first fine wine” already has a price tag to rival the best of Bordeaux. Now that really is a mountainous task.

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