CLOUD WINE

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.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY MI­LANDA ROUT

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.

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