The Winemaker Behind China's Ao Yun on Producing Wine at the Foot of the Himalayas
One of the ironic things about working in wine is that most of us are so busy that we too rarely sit down and actually reflect on an individual wine. Instead we rush around from one tasting to the next, swishing, spitting and judging in a matter of mere seconds what took somebody else a year or often much more to produce. For 2021, my goal is to spend more time contemplating wines––even if it means I ultimately taste fewer––and taking the time to speak with the people behind them––even if, for the time being, it’s mainly over the internet.
In that vein, I want to share an excerpt from my conversation with Maxence Dulou, estate director and winemaker of the toweringly ambitious Ao Yun, located in Shangri-La in Yunnan Province or, as they are calling it, the first Grand Cru of the Himalayas, upon the release of their 2017 vintage.
The terroir for Ao Yun was found and recommended to Moët Hennessy by [Australian winemaker and scientist] Dr. Tony Jordan after four years’ search. Do you know what drove him to choose this particular area of Yunnan rather than a more established region?
In 2008 we asked Tony Jordan to search for a dream location. We wanted to produce a world class wine in China but one that had more finesse rather than power. Tony Jordan has spent 30 years pushing people to increase finesse in wine and he’s full of integrity; if he couldn't find it he would just tell us so.
After two years Tony came back to Paris and explained there were many climates that didn't fit our objectives: the East and South were too wet with too many monsoons. In the areas where the new wineries are now (Ningxia, Xinjiang) the winters are too cold so you need to bury the vines and the summers are too hot so you risk losing the freshness we wanted.
He understood that he'd need to find a microclimate. In the North you can't both cool down the summer and warm up the winter but in the southern part if you find something that is in a rain shadow you can get what you need. What he found was a place with three parallel North/South rivers separated by 5,000-7,000m mountains creating climates with far less rain than outside the valleys (actually similar rainfall to France). From there we can play with the altitude from 2,200 up to 2,600m above sea level, which changes the timing of the harvest.
Did the romance of the Shangri-La myth and the Himalayas play a role in the choice?
It started more with the ideal climate, but the purity and natural beauty of the place we also loved. The main role of the Himalayas is to block the sun, which only hits the vineyards at 9:30am so we get 30% fewer sunshine hours per day. This gives a really long, cool growing season––about 20-25 days longer than in Bordeaux––which lets us push the harvest later without any oxidation to get a unique tannin texture.
That’s pretty incredible. The typical challenge with producing fine wine in China has not been a lack of investment, quality sites or winemaking talent but a dearth of experienced vineyard workers; what has it been like for you working with local farmers?
It is hard to find experienced labourers here. When we arrived the farmers were selling the grapes by the kilo to a big winery. They were good farmers but they were producing 12-15 tons per hectare; now they get 3-5. We managed to negotiate with the government to allow us to lease the land to the farmers and train them. We are lucky because this remote location naturally produced a sustainable farming community with a virtuous, closed-loop cycle between plants and animals.
However, when we first changed it was hard; we had 100+ families on 28 hectares in fragmented blocks and we put them into groups to work the land together and train to the quality level we wanted. While at first it was working, we soon found we were starting to lose quality. From the 2019 vintage each family is now back to working on their own land. Giving them back their autonomy has regenerated their pride.
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Do you have a particular model in mind when you're making Ao Yun or do you just follow the vintages?
It took centuries to develop this understanding Europe, but today we have communication and knowledge sharing. Every year the wine quality is impacted by the vintage but also by our growing experience. We are lucky that we have no limits to the time and creativity we can put in; because everything is done by hand we spend 3,500 hours per hectare every year.
Now, even in challenging vintages we can improve the quality. 2017 was cool and wet but we let the weeds grow high and increased canopy height to absorb more water. Before we didn’t do this because we’re organic and the disease pressure would be too high, but now we just do more leaf plucking and it’s fine.
Who are you looking at and comparing yourselves to; is it mainly other Chinese wines or are you thinking internationally?
We’re drinking good Chinese wine and also great wine from outside. Quality in China has improved a lot: in July 2020 a private event called the "Judgment of Hong Kong" was a blind tasting of Bordeaux vs. China, eight head-to-head flights and 15 fine wine drinkers. Out of the eight flights, six were won by China and two were equal. Ao Yun was up against Lafite 2015 and eleven picked Ao Yun.
Who is the main market for Ao Yun?
It should be mainly China, but we want it to be bigger. Our objective was to make a fine wine in China but the deeper why is to be part of a team creating something great in China and to share Chinese terroir with the world. It was originally one third USA, one third Europe, one third Asia, but China is more now than it was before.
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Internationally, there is a lot of surprise when you tell them that there is a US$250+ bottle of wine made in China; how did you pick a price point?
The decision was made before my time and I must admit that at one stage it wasn’t easy for me to accept this price because it means you can't share it with too many people. Now I understand a bit more what we're doing and the cost of it, the uniqueness of the wine and the project. Knowing that it will take 30 years to return on investment, you need to be strong financially and mentally.
What is your ten year plan for Ao Yun? Are you concerned at all about the impact of the changing climate on your site?
We have ten years of climate data now, comparing each vintage to the average but it’s not really enough yet to know. The great thing is we have four villages with two months' difference between harvest dates because there is a 400m altitude difference so we can “cool down” the blend if it’s a warm year by using higher altitude plantings.
Any new projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
We are creating a second wine, that maybe will show more individual village selection.
That’s quite unusual these days when so many wineries’ top wine comes from a single site.
Yes, it’s the opposite philosophy from many; for the main wine we want to use a blend, we think you can make something even better through human art than what you achieve in a single site.
And what about a white Ao Yun?
I had to fight to keep a little bit of Chardonnay on the site when I first came, but I insisted to my manager in Hong Kong. I have experimented for a few years now and it’s an interesting expression: high altitude on clay soils. We will only have 1,000 bottles to share with a few clients and will launch it next year. It’s interesting to see the expression of the terroir through another cultivar.
That will be very interesting; maybe you’ll have another Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc, Ornellaia Bianco or Haut Brion Blanc on your hands and it’ll outstrip the original in price.
We’ll have to see…
Ao Yun 2016––starts with a glaze of satiny, lustrous red fruit: dewy cherries and raspberries with a goji berry with a tonic, herbal edge. The texture is seamless with gracefully drawn tannins interlaced with bright acidity.
Ao Yun 2017––dark layers of tarry smoke, cumin and caraway and black currant; sleek wash of fruit over gravelly tannins with incisive acidity. Quite angular and tense; slightly more volume than 2016 but markedly more structure. A sweetish layer of oak sits on the back palate.