Calling this an investment would be akin to damning it with scant praise, for Ao Yun’s second vintage has just hit the wine market, one that might make a lesser oenophile squirm — unless, of course, you really like it. Many do, from the likes of Jancis Robinson, Elin McCoy, Jasper Morris and John Stimpfig, with a startling price point to match (about £225 a bottle), finally prompting one to ask a pertinent question: “Who on earth is Maxence Dulou?”
“Dulou” is French on both sides; his first name, after a Roman emperor, and his last, “from the wolf” (even though it’s not spelt with a “p”). His wife is Chilean and they have two children aged seven and eight. She’s keen on travel and learning Chinese, though they have certainly moved miles from home — to Shangri-La, near the vineyards where he works. Ao Yun, which means “roaming above the clouds”, is owned by Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) and is its second in China after the sparkling wine in Ningxia. Dulou previously worked in Bordeaux at Chateau Quinault L’Enclos (under Chateau Cheval Blanc), Burgundy at Domaine Michel Caillot, as well as two years each in Chile and South Africa.
He then joined Moët Hennessy and was appointed its Estate Manager and Winemaker in 2015, overseeing its 28 hectares in Northern Yunnan, in Deqin county in Diqing prefecture, nestled below Meili Snow Mountain. This comprises 314 plots of vines on either side of the Mekong on the edge of the Himalayas in Adong, Sinong, Shuori, and Xidang at altitudes of between 2,200 and 2,600 metres. This cycle offers four more hours of sunlight per day, the flowering period itself is 140 to 160 days (while Bordeaux enjoys 100 to 120 days).
The past July saw the release of Ao Yun 2014 in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia (and the rest of Asia after), and I sat down with Dulou, 42, after a serving of 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Cabernet Franc, with wok-fried beef fillet, shallot black pepper, claypot glass noodles and wild mushrooms, to discuss the intricacies of his day job.
Jean-Guillaume Prats, your CEO, likes to joke that you have to enjoy “yak meat, tomatoes and mushrooms in the long haul”.
You have to eat those?! Well, we have local ingredients and very good vegetables and, in terms of meat, we are not so well-served — we do have yak meat, which is a little tough! But, you know, if you don’t explain, others don’t understand. And these others also don’t understand that you can make a great wine in China even though China is as big as Europe, so they are a bit scared.
Tasting the wine for the first time today is different — a bit of Old World from Ribera del Duero and a bit of Napa Valley. But it’s not quite one thing.
Yes, I completely agree. There is the progressiveness and the freshness of the Old World with the concentration and the softness of the New World. This is why we travel — to learn about processes from California and from the Douro Valley in Portugal, to pick up things we can learn. The end of season is looking more like the New World and the beginning season is a mix between New and Old World. This terroir where we are is different from those that we know. One needs to adapt the way one thinks and the way one acts, and I have the chance to adapt processes that I have learnt before. You have to be creative.
Did you expect this to happen when you made this wine?
I would say that if we thought we could not have made a great wine in China, we’d probably not have done this project. After we analysed the climate, we could see the vineyard at 15 years old, planted by the local farmers and can taste the grapes there. This was very exceptional because we had the mature vineyard and we had the tools to say that we had a good place to try.
How many bottles have you made of this vintage?
The 2014 is 34,000 bottles, or 2,900 cases of 12. The last vintage, 2013, was 24,000 bottles, but what we did was to select the best grapes, the best blocks to do the first wine, and afterwards if there were enough grapes, we can do a second wine and the rest we can sell in bulk. For the 2014, the yields are smaller and we didn’t do a second wine. It’s a great selection and the best we can do.
You’ve got 314 plots but what is the size of each block?
The average size of each block is 700 sqm. That’s very, very small and very complicated to manage. This also lends complexity to the wine — even if each block is so small, it needs to be divided into different parts that we will manage in completely different ways in order to adapt to soil type. And there’s special handling, like our using terracotta jars that were used for baijiu. That was my idea because we didn’t want to put too much new oak into the first vintage and we didn’t want to buy old oak from outside because it would transmit microorganisms that we might not like. So we took the opportunity to try these jugs. That’s an example of creativity: We used new ones rather than those from Chengdu, so you don’t taste any baijiu inside.
So this is a new “interpretation” of Cabernet Sauvignon, would you say?
Yes, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon and the manager of the team is the terroir. We had 120 families in the vineyard but two or three persons per family so you can do the count, between 200 and 300 persons in the vineyard, though not at the same time. We rent our vineyard across four different villages, with one local chief villager and one vineyard assistant as a permanent team in each village, and there’s an office team in Shangri-La. These local farmers are Chinese, many from Tibetan culture, but we collaborate well. They have better working conditions and are paid better than before, and now we are leasing the vineyard and managing the space. Prior to this, they worked alone but now they work in groups of 10 each and they have a half-hour break in the morning and another half-hour break in the evening.
How would you compare the vintages?
I think the 2014 is a little more accurate in terms of aroma. It’s more pure, more precise. It has a bit more structure, more tannin, more dense, and a little bit more acidity in the balance. I think it’s better than the 2013 for my taste, though you know wine is so subjective and things can differ from one person to the next.
How do you match your price point with sales? Some say that’s fine if the Chinese people want to pay for it.
Yes, but we sell 85 percent outside of China. I did not set the price; it was the demand that set the price, but I can give you the main parameters that can justify this price. Firstly, the cost is the most expensive in the world. We work 4,000 hours per hectares per year, because it’s all done by hand and we work plant by plant. That’s four times what we work in Bordeaux, and even if the salaries are smaller, the cost to make the grapes is bigger. Then we have our small yield — four tons per hectare, which increases the cost of the grape, and you can’t get a higher yield with ripened grapes up there. Finally, there are the Chinese food safety rules, which means a microbiology laboratory on top of the regular analysis laboratory, a sterile bottling room, and a lot of people in the cellar to manage these new tools.
And that makes it overly expensive to manage?
Yes, and a big risk because the company will not make money for 10 or 15 years, and in China nobody will invest in a project with a turnover of under five years. It’s really a long-term investment. What really pushes LVMH is, we are producing very small quantities to be sold all over the world. We are offering a wine that’s passionate, with a new terroir to taste, and the freshness and purity of the Himalayas in Ao Yun.