China isn’t the first place you probably think of when searching for quality wine, but Moët Hennessy and Maxence Dulou are trying to change that.
The global wine and spirits company recently released the second vintage, 2014, of the luxury wine Ao Yun. Dulou, the estate manager in China, believes the sky is the limit for Chinese wine. (Ao Yun, it should be noted, means “flying above the clouds.”)
With a red wine fever in China the past 20 years (the country is poised to be one of the top wine-consuming countries in the world by 2020), Moët Hennessy sought to find the perfect terroir to produce the first Grand Cru red wine from China and found it in Shangri-la in the foothills of the Himalayas. Once it was found, the company approached Dulou to head the project.
“When studying winemaking at Bordeaux University, I was dreaming of discovering a new micro-terroir in China,” says Dulou, who’s traveled the world, France to South America to Africa, making wine. “It was irresistible. I believe this place brings a different expression than any other well-known terroirs, with exceptional complexity, finesse, and long-aging potential.”
When they arrived in 2012, Cabernet Sauvignon was already growing. An analysis determined the grapes were already very high quality and since then Dulou has worked with the villagers in the four farms growing the grapes to produce the wine. The wine also includes a touch of Cabernet Franc.
The fours towns — Adong, Xidang, Sinong, and Shuori — and the general microclimate avoids the wet growing seasons of Eastern China and differs from the other western wine regions of France with mild winters.
Located at higher altitudes than many other wineries in the world — the cellar is at 8,500 feet — Dulou’s chief role is to take care of the wine, which is all produced by hand. Processes were developed to compensate for the lack of oxygen and humidity at the altitude to ensure the grape’s different expressions.
The area’s infrastructure (very little by way of roads, electricity and other modern amenities) also pose problems, but Dulou takes it all in stride for the better product.
“There are a lot of people to manage within each village, which brings great experiences,” Dulou said. “We have language barriers, so logistics is very challenging. But on another hand, Chinese people are fantastic when it comes to creativity and always looking ahead, willing to move forward.”
The resulting wine of the labor-intensive work is a “paradoxical unique blend of freshness and concentration,” according to Dulou.
“A lot of color and very ripe tannins that are a gauge of longevity,” he said. “The most unique note is fresh fruit and a particularly Cabernet Sauvignon grape note. It may seem silly for non-professionals, but it is unique to feel the taste of grape in the final wine.”
Ao Yun sells for near $300 a bottle, and it’s likely just the beginning of high-quality, luxury wine coming from China. The quality of wine coming out of China will continue to increase, Dulou said, as young Chinese winemakers are now traveling the world to learn the skill before settling in and making Chinese wine.
The wine segment is expected to continue to grow in China, as the “obsession” and education is reaching the younger and middle-class demographics in a country of nearly 1.4 billion people.
“Chinese love spending hours during a meal and wine is perfect for enjoying this moment even more,” Dulou said. “We believe we are only scratching the surface of wine consumption in China.”