Maxence Dulou was a winemaker of LVMH-owned Chateau Quinault, in Saint Emilion, Bordeaux. Dulou was there for eight years, learning the tricks of the trade from the team behind the legendary Cheval Blanc. Why give that up to head Ao Yun, then an unknown label from mountainous Yunnan, China?
“It is every winemaker’s dream to create something that’s never been done before. Something that will be remembered,” explains Dulou.
“(Northern) China would have been too warm in summer, so you’d lose a lot of freshness and acidity, which in turn reduces the wine’s elegance. You’d also lose a lot of quality when you bury the vines in winter,” explains Dulou. “In the south, summer is too wet, so instead of ripening and producing tannins and phenolic components, (the grapes) are going to grow, so you have poor colour and structure. They’ll also be prone to a lot of diseases, which means they can’t be managed organically.”
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The clarion call to establish LVMH’s next wine frontier came in 2012. Revered wine scientist Tony Jordan had just concluded an arduous four-year search across China for terroir that would be ideal for producing world-class red. Jordan’s “grail” came in the form of four farming villages in south-western Yunnan, thanks to ample elevation and mountainous surroundings. Moet Hennessy took out leases in all four. The stage was now set for Dulou to take the reins, although he was indecisive when the opportunity came.
“It was a dream job; I wanted to create, and at Saint Emilion everything was already done. But during our first visit to Yunnan, I got a little sick from the altitude and so hesitated. But my wife, who is very adventurous, pushed me (to take the post),” he says with a laugh.
Befitting the remarkable altitudes involved, the project was named Ao Yun, which loosely translates to “wandering the clouds”. So how can Ao Yun overcome the less-than-lukewarm attitudes of wine cognoscenti towards a nascent wine region?
Dulou is the first to admit that it will be a long road, but not one that is hard to undertake. “We have, of course, many sceptics. But what we do is to fly them over and let them see the process and taste (the wine) for themselves. And then they become our best ambassadors.”
The first of such converts was respected British wine critic Jancis Robinson, who tasted some lots before they were even bottled. She went on to write: “What I was tasting were wines most influenced by the pure vineyard characters. They were fully ripe but extremely well balanced with real, confident, unique personalities of their own.”
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Ao Yun has an elegant blend that is 90 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 10 per cent cabernet franc. Reserved minerality and soft, rounded tannins let smoky notes of banana linger on the tongue; an exquisitely long finish one would ascribe to a top-quality wine.
Is the wine too expensive?
Last year’s vintage cost upwards of $300 – yet producing Ao Yun takes four times the man hours as top French labels, Chateau d’Yquem included. Harvesting and tending is done entirely by hand, and the vineyards are 100 per cent organic. The project is, in fact, not going to turn a profit for a while.
Can such young vineyards produce good grapes?
Half of the 30ha had actually been planted in the early 2000s, long before any LVMH involvement. The land was thus already yielding good grapes.
Does the name mean ‘Olympics’?
It means “roaming (among) the clouds”. The Romanisation of the Chinese name 敖云 into “Ao Yun” introduces a lot of ambiguity as it can be pronounced in many ways, and hence misconstrued. Two of the most commonly botched interpretations are “proud cloud” and “Olympics”.
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Story originally appeared on The Peak.