Chinese wine. Would you chose it if you saw it on a wine list? What if I told you I knew a wine that takes precision French winemaking. Combines it with unrivalled attention to detail and supplicates the Himalayan landscape to create something extraordinary.
With climate change the hot topic (no pun intended), inevitably vine-growing has started to be explored in far-flung areas. Move over France (again), here comes the Judgement of Hong Kong direct from Yunnan Province.
It means above the clouds, and one look at Meili Mountain’s geography tells you it’s pretty special. It looks like a Disney film. It might as well mean perfection, with a side dish of mysticism.
Who dreamt this up?
Dr Tony Jordan, a leading name in the Australian wine industry, was convinced China could produce a high-quality Bordeaux style wine. He started looking for the perfect area and, in 2008, embarked on his four year long “red project”.
The East part of the country, traditionally used to grow wine, was too warm, with two growing seasons. The North, so cold in winter that the vines would have to be buried to keep them alive. The South West and Yunnan Province, although similar to the East in latitude, are sheltered from Monsoon rains and at that all-important high altitude for freshness and concentration.
With unique geography and surrounded by three parallel rivers, the Meili mountain area proved the perfect place to begin. Welded by the discovery that missionaries in the 1800s had planted vines here brought over from France.
Vines are now grown in four individual villages in the Upper Mekong Valley (Sinong, Xidang, Adong and Shuori) on 314 individual plots, with subsequent data showing that soil type changes quite literally every metre even within the villages.
In a final incidence of serendipity, cementing that LVMH had found the right place for their Himalayan wine, the English translation of Meili Mountain means white snow horse, very appropriate for a brand that owns Cheval Blanc.
Ok, so LVMH found their region, now what?
At the time (2011), there was very little data on the land, soils or weather systems. They were going in blind, relying on experience over data. Luckily they had just the man for the job, possibly the most detail-orientated technical director on the planet, Maxence Dulou, working in combination with the local people possessing a rich understanding of their land.
How’s that wine list looking to you now?
With fewer sunlight hours but more substantial levels of UV light, the ripening period is elongated. The grapes aren’t harvested until October or November. That’s roughly six weeks behind Bordeaux. The air up here in Shangri-la has 25% less oxygen than at sea level. With the Ao Yun cellar situated at 2,600 metres above sea level, oxidation risk is as low as it gets, hugely contributing to the wines’ freshness, concentration, and ageability.
Last weekend, under the professional guidance of Charlotte Gordon (UK Wine development ambassador at Möet Hennessy), we opened the 2016 vintage together. The fourth vintage released by Ao Yun; you might think it’s young to open a Bordeaux blend. For a wine with infinite ageing potential, yes. Did it taste too young? No. A blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016 saw 4% Syrah and 2% Petit Verdot add depth and roundness to the blend. Yields are small, and only the best grapes will make the cut. Annual yields are 20 hectolitres per hectare, compared to Chateau Lafite with 50 hectolitres per hectare.
Most importantly, how does it taste?
The 2016 tastes like crushed monasterial incense blended with blackberries, rolling around together in Tibetan singing bowls. It’s spicy and slightly herbaceous. It’s also high in alcohol, 14.5% ABV. You would never know, so well integrated are its tannins with the fruit concentration.
You better believe each grape on Ao Yun sites is tucked into bed each night by hand after a bedtime story, rewarding the drinker with a level of excellence rarely seen outside of the first growth Châteaus.