When I first heard that Moët Hennessy was going to make a super-premium red wine in China, I was skeptical. Rumors began to surface six years ago that the company was seeking land in the foothills of the Himalayas to make a Bordeaux-style red that would be on a par with the great wines of the world. The vineyards chosen by Moët were in Yunnan province of southern China, very close to Tibet, at altitudes of nearly 9,000 feet. They were parcellated in four separate villages. There was no trained winemaking talent in the area, and vineyard workers would have to wear oxygen masks as they worked. To put it mildly, it seemed like an insane idea.
As one of the few wine writers in the country to sample debut vintage of Ao Yun (which translates to “flying above the clouds”), I can testify that it’s a stunner. The project was masterminded by Jean-Guillaume Prats, scion of one of Bordeaux’s great wine families, and supervised by winemaker Maxence Dulou. The hurdles were nearly insurmountable. They harvested grapes from those four locations which were not really vineyards, but rows of vines in remote villages. They trained local farmers to tend the vines, and transported the fruit by yak to a primitive winery with no electricity. The fermenting vats didn’t arrive in time, and the grape juice was converted to alcohol in used amphorae that had once held Chinese liquor. Short of the winery building burning to the ground, it would be hard to imagine a more challenging situation.
Is Ao Yun worth the price? If you have disposable cash to spare, the answer is yes. The wine is already in great demand, and a Moët representative disclosed that the company had several offers for the entire 2,000-case production. They opted for selective distribution in high-end retail stores and restaurants, so it’s possible to find and order it. The packaging is as classy as the wine itself, with bottles arriving in individual bamboo gift boxes.
The 2013 Ao Yun ($300), a blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc, has a brilliant, saturated purple/black color. The clean, fresh nose yields whiffs of black plums, graphite, anise and minerals. The wine is just as elegant in the mouth as it seems on the nose: a pure and graceful expression of Cabernet Sauvignon with feather-like flavors of blackberries and plums framed by a fine herbal edge. The tannins are supple, the texture is rich without being unctuous, and the wine is a pleasure to drink. The finish is long and succulent, with the flavors amplified by good acidity.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.