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Making premium wine Ao Yun in China is no easy feat, according to Moet Hennessy (Estates & Wines) head Jean-Guillaume Prats

With neither access roads nor electricity and very little water, it would be a nearly impossible feat to build a winery in the remote village of Adong in Yunnan (straddling the China-Tibet border). Jean-Guillaume Prats, president and CEO of Estates & Wines, the Moet Hennessy Wine Division, tells us about the challenges they face to craft this premium wine.

 

In which year did Moët Hennessy arrive in Yunnan and started the production of Ao Yun?
The venture began eight years ago in 2009. Christophe Navarre, CEO of Moët Hennessy asked Dr Tony Jordan, an Australian consultant, to travel throughout China to identify the ideal place to make a great red wine. Four years later, having narrowed the search to four villages in northern Yunnan province, we began our first harvest. Those grapes became Ao Yun 2013, our first vintage.

Are there any plans to replant the vines with clones preferred by Moët Hennessy?
We have begun a planting programme of our bare land. After a three-year study of soil and climate, in 2015, we planted 15ha with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The three-year study pre-planting allowed us to better understand our terroir and to determine our planting choices to best suit each plot.

Tell us about the climate and growing conditions, and what sort of influence does the terroir(s) of the plots have on the wine.
Our climate is similar to Bordeaux, but with a high-mountain identity. The high altitude combined with the local weather gives us a growing season of up to 160 days (very long when compared with Bordeaux’s harvest around 120 days after flowering). So you could say the grapes are slow cooked.

The sunlight is really different there with fewer sunshine hours but very strong light. So we are continuously experimenting in the vineyard experimentation in term of canopy management to find the ideal balance for optimum fruit ripeness.

The long slow ripening period (160 days) gives the wine an incredible softness to the tannins and their silky texture shines through. Ao Yun vineyards are located at altitudes over 2,000m. At this altitude, the Cabernet offers its purest expression. Altitude also confers deeply coloured wines of great concentration but real freshness.

What are some of the greatest difficulties in producing Ao Yun, and how these were overcome?
There are many challenges to producing Ao Yun. Accessibility is one of the greatest challenges. Our vineyard is located between 2,200 to 2,600m, and our winery is at 2,200m. We have snow in winter and this can bring road closures for days or even weeks preventing us from accessing our vineyards and sometimes even our winery – if we are travelling when it snows. So logistics are difficult. By road it is 4.5 hours to Shangri-La and 28 hours from there to Guangzhou, crossing 4,300m summits to access the winery. This brings challenges for delivery of machinery and dry goods, parts for maintenance and the like. There’s no shop, no repairman, no gas station, nothing in our winery village, Adong.

Language is another challenge. The local farmers speak Tibetan and only some have a little Chinese. So our team needs to speak Tibetan, Chinese and English.

To accomplish what we have, we have become self-reliant and have a team who are up for a challenge, able to adapt and to find our own solutions. The Tibetan villagers are very good farmers and often they find their own solutions to challenges in the vineyards.

Is Ao Yun’s cost of production significantly higher than what it would typically cost to produce wine in Bordeaux for example? Why so?
Our vineyard processes are meticulously conducted by hand. So our manpower costs are the highest of any of our estates as we must employ so many people to work our vines… every last thing is done by hand –  3,500 man hours per hectare per year. And the logistics costs are horrendous – the cost of bringing everything we need in, and getting our wines out to markets.

What sort of training was needed for the locals/villagers to work in the vineyards? And how long did the training take?
The villagers have been farming grapes for many years. Their government encourages them to plant grapes back in 2002. We have worked alongside them to focus on grape quality rather than grape quantity.

Does the local culture impact the winemaking in any way? If so, how?
The local culture impacts a lot especially in the vineyards – ways of working with the villagers. In the winemaking process, we mature a portion of the wine in Chinese earthenware jars (traditionally used for baijiu) – giving the wine another layer of locally influenced complexity.

What have been your most valuable lessons in producing Ao Yun?
The importance of resilience, flexibility, adaptability, self-reliance. Having the right people who rise to a challenge.