The next Chinese import: $405-a-bottle wine

Not every wine needs a story, but here is one with a doozy tale to tell. It is called Ao Yun, it is produced near Shangri-La in remote south-western China and it is amazingly good. When it is released in the United States in September, it will cost US$300 (S$405) a bottle. Maybe more.

If you just spat out your morning coffee with a howl of laughter, no matter. This wine is not for everybody.

Only 500 of the 2,300 cases produced will be allocated to the American market.

"The idea is to give collectors in the US and Europe a chance to buy it before it becomes available in China," says Mr Jean-Guillaume Prats, president of the wine division of Moet Hennessy, part of the LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton conglomerate of luxury brands.

Sometimes, wine's allure is not so much its flavour or its alcohol as a sense of adventure - a uniqueness that promises an experience only a few willing people can share. Ao Yun is that kind of wine.

Back to that story: About a decade ago, Mr Christophe Navarre, chief executive of Moet Hennessy, decided to make red wine in China, Mr Prats said. Winemaking efforts in China, inspired by the huge potential domestic market, have centred on two regions, each with significant problems: Shandong peninsula in the east, where it rains a lot, and Ningxia in the north-central area, where vine trunks need to be buried after harvest to protect them from harsh winters.

Mr Navarre sent a vineyard specialist to China to find a suitable growing region with the proper climate.

The answer was Yunnan province, which borders Tibet, Myanmar and Vietnam and where the Mekong River snakes through the mountains at more than 2,000m above sea level. Vines had been planted in the region by Jesuit missionaries in the 1840s and, surprisingly, newer plantings of Bordeaux varieties were placed there in 2002.

In 2013, Moet Hennessy used grapes from 19ha planted at altitudes ranging from 2,400m to 2,600m to create its first vintage of Ao Yun, which translates as "floating over the clouds".

Specialists trained the local farmers in modern methods of viticulture. The company has built a winery there and began planting 10.9ha of new vineyards in 2014.

To get to the site, one flies to Shangri-La city, at an altitude of nearly 3,658m, and then drives more than four hours through the mountains. Mr Prats explained how the geography shapes the wine's character. The air is clean and dry, so there is no need for fungicides, herbicides or even pesticides. Mountain runoff allows vintners to apply just as much irrigation as the vines may need.

Meili mountain, considered sacred by the local people, towers over the vineyards and blocks the sun. During the crucial ripening period, the vineyards are in sunlight for only about six hours a day. That slows photosynthesis and stretches the ripening well into November. Once the sun disappears behind the mountain, the temperature drops swiftly and dramatically. That preserves acidity in the grapes and toughens the skins, helping colour development.

Because of the altitude, the wine is exposed to less oxygen during fermentation, which he says will help it age. He recommends decanting it for several hours before drinking to add a little oxygen back to the wine.

The first vintage was not easy. Fermentation tanks did not arrive at the new winery in time and barrels only the next March, so the wine began its life in amphorae.

Mr Prats, formerly the chief winemaker at Bordeaux's Cos d'Estournel, says: "Here, we were making wine as it was done in Roman times. Yet when we first tasted it after fermentation, we realised we did not just make a Chinese wine: We had made a world-class wine."

The 2013 Ao Yun, the wine to be released in September, is cabernet sauvignon blended with 10 per cent cabernet franc. It is supple and energetic, carrying deep black-fruit flavours and a refreshing acidity that disguises its rather high (15 per cent) alcohol by volume.

I tasted my sample two hours after decanting over the next two days - it was ripe and lush, yet without the fatness and overripe flavours that afflict so many high-end New World cabernets. And it kept getting better - a sign of a lively wine that should have a long life. It lived up to its name and its story.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 10, 2016, with the headline 'The next Chinese import: $405-a-bottle wine'. Print Edition | Subscribe