China Wine: Could Wine Made In China Be Better Than Old World French Wine?
Bordeaux-trained Maxence Dulou, who now helms the Moët Hennessy Shangri-La Estate, shares what it takes to make one of China’s first great reds.
In the world of viticulture, it’s all about terroir, terroir, terroir.
Soil type, the climate, the latitude, the topography, its orientation towards the sun, its proximity to forests, river basins, and so on. All these intricacies and features of the land where grapes are grown pass on a distinctive quality to the wine, specific to site.
So in a country where bargain-basement plonk and overpriced average wines pretty much dominate domestically, China seemed an unlikely place to make wine that could dazzle the world.
Even so, the Middle Kingdom is the single biggest global market for red wine and that may have propelled the French luxury goods giant LVMH to embark on a quest with a bold and simple vision in mind: “To challenge the status quo, rewrite the rules and to scale new heights to create something not just extraordinary, but legendary.”
In other words: move over Bordeaux.
Their brazen pursuit took four years and led them to Yunnan province near the legendary city of Shangri-La. The chosen vineyards, more than 27 hectares in total, were secured by LVMH in 2012 and are spread across four tiny mountain villages at the edge of the Himalayas, straddling the border between China and Tibet.
Maxence Dulou, estate manager of the vineyards, said: “We were very pleased with the climate here. Because in China, you’ve got two types of climate: in the north, it’s too warm, which means you lose freshness and elegance, and in the south, it rains a lot so you lose concentration. But we went ahead to search the south anyway for a place with a rain shadow effect and we found the perfect spot: in the middle of three parallel rivers (referring to the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Salween) with mountainous terrain to act as a shelter.”
According to Moët Hennessy, the climate bears similarities to Bordeaux but with lower night temperatures, stronger sunshine and a drier growing season, seeing as the area is at an elevation about 20 times higher than the highest vineyard in the famous French region.
Logistically though, it was a nightmare. It is four to five, and was 11, hours of difficult drive from the nearest city, Shangri-La. Dulou said: “We had to rely on only a few machines due to transportation issues. And if these were broken, we needed to ship spare parts from France so if we could, everything was done either by hand or yak.”
Dulou, a Bordeaux-trained enologist, managed to develop a French grape variety that had never been grown at 2,600m. However, LVMH wasn’t the first to discover the land’s potential for winegrowing. French Jesuit missionaries had already introduced small-scale viticulture in the 19th century.
Then in 2002, the Chinese government persuaded farmers in the area to plant cabernet vines to diversify their crops and earn extra income.
Seems like LVMH hit the vinification jackpot. “When you already have bourgeoning fruit in the vineyard, you can start to make wine as soon as possible,” said Dulou, who moved with his family to China in 2013. “If we started from scratch, you’d have to wait 10 years. This means I would only be able to speak to you about what we managed to produce in the year 2026!”
About 24,000 bottles of the first vintage, 2013, were produced and launched last year. The bottle, labelled "Ao Yun", translates to “flying above the clouds”. Its logo is inspired by the traditional Tibetan cloud symbol.
Ao Yun 2014 is the second vintage and was recently unveiled to the Singapore market. Just like its first predecessor, it is a blend of 90 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent cabernet franc, offering a ripe sort of fruitiness and freshness yet dark with an earthy tang.
Asked if the wine is offered to the local vineyard workers, Dulou answered: “We don’t give the farmers bottles of wine, but they are welcome to try. And when we ask them to try, they usually refuse to. They prefer baijiu.”