What Does a $300 Bottle of Chinese Wine Taste Like?
Moët-Hennessy is set to release the first vintage of Ao Yun, a Cabernet blend from the far reaches of China's Yunnan province, for $300 a bottle. Does it live up to the hype?
To cut to the chase, the 2013 Ao Yun red tastes pretty damn impressive. But a bit of background might be in order.
Ao Yun, Moët-Hennessy’s new winery in China’s Yunnan region, is one of the more exciting, and certainly one of the more unusual, ventures I’ve come across in the world of wine. I met with Moët-Hennessy wine division CEO Jean-Guillaume Prats the other day to taste the wine for the first time and talk about the project. He explained that the impetus for Ao Yun was a simple question: “How do we make the best wine in China? How, and where?”
Or, not so simple. Answering that took three years of travel around China, primarily “looking at weather conditions,” Prats recalls. “We already had a vineyard in Ningxia that was ideal for sparkling, but too extreme for red.”
The quest, appropriately enough, led him to Shangri La—not the mythical Himalayan paradise, but the actual city in China’s Yunnan province (known as Zhongdian until 2001). About four hours from there by four-wheel drive, as it turns out, are vineyards, high up in the upper Mekong River valley. “It was an area totally closed to the world until twenty years ago,” Prats says, “not politically but because you could only get in by horse.”
The Chinese government developed the vineyards in 2002 (there actually were vines planted in the region back in the 1850s and 1860s by Jesuit missionaries, but those were long gone). Prats still doesn’t know the official responsible for the work, but whoever he was, he apparently had a fondness for Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Those choices turned out to be smart. The dry climate here lowers disease pressure, and the high altitude combined the local weather results in a growing season that lasts up to 170 days (for comparison, Bordeaux is about 110). “Because of the height of the mountains, you only get sunlight from about 10 am to 4 pm every day, but that light is incredibly intense.” The result is grapes with thick skins and lots of anthocyanins, but also low pH and high acid levels—an ideal state to produce structured reds that aren’t over-the-top rich.
I tasted the 2013 Ao Yun ($300; available in September) and was extremely impressed. It’s an elegant, substantial red, with spice and tobacco notes lifting past the red currant and red cherry fruit; it has the ripe flavor of a New World red but a structure more typical of Pessac-Leognan wine from Bordeaux (besides, referring to China as “New World” seems a bit absurd, given its cultural history as an empire stretches back 5,000 years or so). The blend is 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Cabernet Franc, fermented in used baijo amphoras because the barrel shipments to the winery were delayed (!).
Is it worth $300? That’s a judgment call. The wine is certainly as good or better than many $100 Cabernets; above that level—even below, sometimes—separating how much of a wine’s price is reputation and how much is quality is tricky. But there’s also simply nothing else like Ao Yun. Grapes from 320 different parcels in four separate villages go into it, grown at 8,000 feet of altitude, by farmers who’ve largely never had or even seen a wine before. As Prats says, “There’s no shop, no repairman, no source for barrels, no gas station, nothing. It’s very, very basic. If you want a baguette, there’s no boulangerie. And it’s one of the most extraordinary projects in the world of wine, I feel—truly an adventure.”