From grapes harvested at the foot of the Meili Mountain in China—a nation not oftentimes front-of-mind when considering winemaking—five-year-old wine brand Ao Yun is an unexpected gem. The LVMH-owned wine defies expectation—thanks to its terroir, altitude, climate and creative approach to winemaking.
“We firmly believed that China had the potential to make unique and elegant word-class wines, considering its size and diversity,” Maxence Dulou, Ao Yun’s estate manager, tells us. The challenge, however, was to find the ideal terroir in a country so big—and with such varying and complex climates. “In 2008, the renowned and adventurous Australian winemaker Tony Jordan travelled throughout China to search for the ideal place,” Dulou continues. “After two years, he understood that the main areas were not suitable for our project, so he started to search deeper to find a micro-climate that would allow us to make great red wines. In 2013, having narrowed the search to four villages in northern Yunnan province, we began our first harvest.”
Everything is complicated here, but Chinese culture also makes everything possible!
The vineyards, nestled in the mountains between the Yangsee and Salouen rivers, are at altitudes between 7200 to 8500 feet—giving Ao Yun its name, which is Chinese for “flying above the clouds.” A tricky four-hour drive up the mountains, the vineyards are anything but conveniently placed. “Winter snowfall can lead to road closures for days or even weeks, preventing us from accessing our vineyards and even our winery,” Dulou says. “Picture a village, Adong, where there is no stable electricity, no shops, no gas station… Everything is complicated here, but Chinese culture also makes everything possible!”
There’s not much light per day during growing season, but when it occurs, it’s intense. This high intensity means “exceptional photosynthesis, giving thick skins and small berries—resulting in more concentration and ripper seeds’ tannins,” Dulou says. As for the climate, the altitude means there’s a lack of humidity and oxygen, but as Dulou explains, “The temperature variation between day and night is ample—allowing grapes to keep their freshness while adding color… The end of the season is generally sunny and dry permitting us to get optimal ripeness with very cool nights.”
Of course, climate and terroir are just a few pieces in the vast winemaking puzzle. The human approach to this wine is perhaps what sets it above others—as the viticulture is done entirely by hand, by 120 Tibetan families. “These families have lived on these lands for centuries and have an incredible and precious knowledge of this land,” Dulou says, explaining that this human approach is intrinsic. “We have been working with the local farmers in the vineyards for five years. Our relationship is getting stronger and stronger. It is key for us to protect their ancestral culture and traditions while the vineyards’ requirements and needs are met.”
With such an adventurous beginning and atypical conditions and location, it’s no wonder that Ao Yun wines taste complex and intense. But with the creative and human approach, they are more than that: deep, silky and ultimately unique. Dulou tells us, “Ao Yun is a real human adventure and the result of shared knowledge between our multi-ethnic technical team and these families. This adventure would not have been possible without them and our team that’s not afraid to move mountains.”
Images courtesy of Ao Yun