IN THE HIMALAYAN FOOTHILLS, WITH VIOLENT TEMPERATURE SWINGS AND NO ELECTRICITY OR MODERN EQUIPMENT, MOËT HENNESSY HAS CREATED A VINTAGE IT HOPES WILL BE AMONG THE BEST IN THE WORLD.
It is known as the lost city of Shangri-La. The hidden valleys and soaring snowcapped mountains in the foothills of the Chinese Himalayas, bordering Tibet, India and Myanmar, are said to have inspired a tale of a secret Buddhist monastery where time stands still. At 2600m above sea level, you need oxygen here to counter altitude sickness; there is no reliable power, and the locals eat yak. This is the unlikely place where Moët Hennessy decided to craft its latest fine wine.
“It’s a bit of a dream,” says Jean-Guillaume Prats, president of estates and wines for Moët Hennessy, of the Ao Yun wine project in Yunnan province. “This place was not open to the world just 15 to 20 years ago. It’s extremely religious. It is villages, extremely remote, on the banks of mountains. It’s an extraordinary place in the world that is totally lost and totally protected from human intervention.”
So what on earth prompted Moët Hennessy to attempt to make wine in such an isolated and difficult location? It seems it was the dual ambition to push the boundaries of wine-making and also get into the next big emerging wine market that is yet to have its own significant production: China.
“In the world of wine everyone talks about creativity and innovation and doing something new,” Prats tells WISH on a recent visit to Sydney. “You can be creative in the label, you can be creative in the marketing, but with the product itself, it is extraordinarily difficult. But we wanted to do that because that is who we are at Moët Hennessy. The second reason is that every market in the world that is consuming fine wine – Australia, New Zealand, and the US – is also producing fine wine. China is the exception. It is only in recent years, from 2000, that people started making fine wine in China.”
The Ao Yun project (which translates to “flying above the clouds”) has been a number of years in the making. It was the vision of Moët Hennessy CEO Christophe Navarre, who in 2009 commissioned Australian wine expert Tony Jordan to find a suitable place to create a luxury wine in China. It took three years of travelling around the huge country to settle on the location, five hours’ drive from Shangri-La. “He looked more at weather patterns than soil,” explains Prats. “He looked at the right number of hours of sunshine, the difference in temperature between day and night, the cycles of weather, trying to find a place which we felt would be balanced but not subject to excessive conditions. The weather in China is either sub-tropical or extremely cold temperatures.”
Not only was the location of the Ao Yun winery – or locations, as the vines are spread across four villages – identified as having ideal weather conditions for growing wine, but it had already been done before. Firstly by Jesuit missionaries that came to China in 1845 and planted cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc vines in the 1850s and 60s. They disappeared in World War I, were replanted and then disappeared again with the Mao-led Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Local Chinese authorities replanted them in 2002 in an attempt to develop the upper Mekong valley to create investment and infrastructure for the local villagers.
Moët Hennessy does not own any of the vineyards but rents them from the villagers, who manage the vines and harvest the grapes by hand (with the help of a yak or two). No pesticide is needed as there are no diseases so far up in the mountains. “There is a real human challenge in communicating with these villagers who are also extremely religious,” Prats says. “There is also difficulty with the [Moët Hennessy] team because it is so remote. There is no way you can have a family there, there is no shops, there are no boulangeries, no coffee. It’s like working on an oil-extraction platform; the team go there for six weeks and then go home.”
The team is made up mostly of locals and headed by a Frenchman. The weather conditions mean they harvest the vines unusually late. In Australia for example, they harvest 110-125 days after the first day of flowering. At Ao Yun, they harvest at least 160 days after flowering.
“Because of the height of the mountains, the sun arrives at 10 in the morning and disappears at 2 or 3 in the afternoon ,” says Prats, who has been there at least 15 times. “For about four or five hours, you really get burnt. The UV is extreme.” But then when the sun disappears, the temperature drops by up to 25C within a few minutes. The result is grapes that have been “cooked” over a long period of time. “It’s like if you pick a piece of fruit from your garden that is quite ripe but not fully ripe. You put it in the sun for a few hours and then you put it back in the fridge for the rest of the day,” he explains. “Do that for a couple of days and the fruit will ripen but at the same time keep its freshness. That is exactly what happens when the temperature drops. You have the acidity and the sugar going up. You end up with very small berries with very heavy skins.”
Prats describes the tannins in the wine and the skins of the grapes at Ao Yun as “extremely silky” as a result; not unlike lamb when cooked over several hours. “It’s a very velvety wine which comes from these extraordinary weather patterns,” he says.
Once the first harvest had been completed – by hand – the real fun began: producing the first vintage. By his own admission, Prats had become obsessed with precision and the latest wine-making equipment in his previous job running the Chateau Cos d’Estournel, a winery in Bordeaux established in 1852.
“We tried to make everything as perfect as we could,” he says of his former life in not-so-remote mountain wineries. “But in this case, we had no electricity, the vats didn’t arrive, we had no sorting tables, we had no labs so we could not run anything more than the basic analysis and we had no temperature control. So it was done in a very old-fashioned way, with no intervention because we could not intervene. It is truly an expression of the location.”
Prats concedes it was not a stress-free experience at Ao Yun – despite the deeply Buddhist setting -- and the prospect of failure went through his mind now and then. “Every day,” he says, laughing. “Every morning was a nightmare. Every morning there was something wrong. And if the lights go out it is a five-hour drive to get one in Shangri-La. And that drive is not on a motorway.”
Despite these odds, the Moët Hennessy team has been able to produce something extraordinary at Ao Yun. The 2013 vintage – the first – produced 24,000 bottles and has already been hailed by critics as being the best wine ever produced in China. So what was going to be a wine targeted at the top end of the Chinese market (it retails for $500 a bottle) has now become a wine targeted at collectors around the world. In fact, Prats wants it to be the next Penfolds Grange Hermitage.
“We have that dream and we have the ambition that it could be on parity with the greatest wines of the world,” he says. “We always felt coming here that we would be able to do something magic.”
“We had no electricity, so it was done in a very oldfashioned way. It is truly an expression of the location.”
Meili Mountain rises behind the Ao Yun vineyards and winery, five hours’ drive from the ancient Tibetan town now known as Shangri-La, below left.
The 2013 Ao Yun vintage is said to be the best wine ever made in China.