Fly­ing high

How Moet Hen­nessy made the ‘best wine pro­duced in China’.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste - By MICHAEL CHEANG star2@thes­tar.com.my

CHINA may be the world’s fifth-largest con­sumer and pro­ducer of wine, but most of the wines that have been pro­duced in the coun­try have yet to come close to those from more es­tab­lished Old and New World wine re­gions. Un­til now, that is.

Moet Hen­nessy re­cently re­leased the Ao Yun 2013, the first vin­tage of a red wine made in the moun­tains of China’s Yun­nan prov­ince, near Ti­bet.

The name “Ao Yun” means “fly­ing above the clouds”, re­fer­ring to the clouds cap­ping the sum­mits of the Hi­malayan moun­tains.

First re­leased in Euro­pean and Amer­i­can mar­kets last Septem­ber, be­fore be­ing mar­keted and sold in China and Asia early this year, the wine has gar­nered pos­i­tive re­views from wine crit­ics; it has even been called “the best Chi­nese wine I have ever tasted” by renowned wine critic James Suck­ling.

It was in 2009 when Christophe Navarre, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Moet Hen­nessy, made the de­ci­sion to find a place where he could make a good qual­ity red wine in China.

“The whole thing started be­cause the pres­i­dent had the vi­sion to do some­thing in China. He was the driv­ing force be­hind it,” JeanGuil­laume Prats, pres­i­dent of Moet Hen­nessy’s Es­tates and Wines divi­sion said, dur­ing an in­ter­view in Kuala Lumpur early this year.

After sev­eral years of search­ing, the com­pany fi­nally found the per­fect spot in the north­west­ern part of Yun­nan prov­ince, near the city of Shangri-La, in sev­eral vil­lages high above the Mekong River, lo­cated be­tween 2,000m and 2,600m above sea level.

Grape vines were al­ready be­ing grown in the area, thanks to Je­suit mis­sion­ar­ies who had planted them in the 19th cen­tury.

Then in 2002, the lo­cal Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties started a project to help the farm­ers around the area plant Caber­net. Moet Hen­nessy se­lected four vil­lages for their project, and built the win­ery in Adong, the high­est vil­lage.

“The grapes were just one of the vil­lages’ crops. Ev­ery­thing is or­ganic and has to be done by hand,” Prats said. “No one had any idea there were vine­yards in the area be­fore we came in!” he said. “Be­fore we went in, these grapes were go­ing to a lo­cal wine­maker.”

While the po­ten­tial of the grapes was there, ac­tu­ally turn­ing them into wine was a lo­gis­ti­cal night­mare.

“First of all, there are no proper roads to these farms. The near­est city is Shangri-La, and from there, we have to drive in on four-wheel drives for about four to five hours,” he re­called.

“Then, there are also the cul­tural bar­ri­ers. The lo­cal vil­lage peo­ple there are in dif­fer­ent worlds from us. We had to put our­selves in their shoes to find out what their con­cerns were, on a daily ba­sis.”

Get­ting to and from the farms wasn’t the only prob­lem – in the be­gin­ning, the farms had no elec­tric­ity, so ev­ery­thing had to be done by hand.

They didn’t even have proper oak vats or bar­rels when the time came to fer­ment the 2013 vin­tage. Ac­cord­ing to Prats, the truck car­ry­ing the fer­men­ta­tion tanks had been im­pounded, after the driver ran over some­one on the way to the lo­ca­tion.

In the end, they fer­mented the wine in am­phorae, or ce­ramic jars, used to fer­ment bai­jiu (Chi­nese spir­its) in­stead.

The re­sult of this rather unique process was a wine that is un­like any­thing ever pro­duced in China. “When we started pro­duc­tion, we had in mind a fairly rich wine. Then when we tasted the few am­phorae of 2013, we could see there was some­thing unique there,” Prats said.

A blend of 90% Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon and 10% Caber­net Franc with 15.1% ABV, only 24,000 bot­tles of Ao Yun 2013 were pro­duced, with each ini­tially sell­ing for US$250 (RM1,074). Re­views have been al­most unan­i­mously pos­i­tive for the new wine, and Prats says that there will be more ex­cit­ing things to come from the brand.

“To be hon­est, we are just at the sur­face of this brand. It takes gen­er­a­tions to un­der­stand, and make mis­takes, with an op­er­a­tion like this,” he said.

“Al­ready, there will be a big stylis­tic evo­lu­tion with the 2014 ex­pres­sion, sim­ply be­cause it is bet­ter made, with more pre­ci­sion, us­ing bet­ter equip­ment.

“We will con­tinue to im­prove by bet­ter un­der­stand­ing the ter­roir and im­prov­ing the lo­gis­tics.

“We have al­ready achieved with the first vin­tage, a wine that has been said to be the best ever pro­duced in China.

“It has the po­ten­tial to be­come one of the iconic wines of the world, could pos­si­bly even be­come one of the great­est of the world.”

A blend of 90% Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon and 10% Caber­net Franc with 15.1% ABV, only 24,000 bot­tles of Ao Yun 2013 were pro­duced, with each ini­tially sell­ing for US$250 (RM1,074). — Pho­tos: Moet Hen­nessy

James Suck­ling de­scribed the Ao Yun 2013 as ‘the best Chi­nese wine I have ever tasted’.

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