Writing concisely about Chinese wine is much like trying to write about China itself—a task for the foolhardy. This wouldn’t have been the case a mere decade ago, when producers worth mentioning might have been counted on two hands (and perhaps a foot). The 2009 book The Vineyards of Greater China by Houghton Lee featured a mere 14 producers. However, every passing year makes the topic less appropriate for an article than a tome.
Today, about 450 wineries span the Chinese landscape in 12 regions, from lush plateau to blazing desert.
This is not to say that the story of Chinese wine has been an unbridled success, as profitability has remained elusive for many wineries. Production has actually dropped in China every year since 2015, when it hit a peak of 1 billion litres, to 450 million litres in 2019. However, what seems to have accompanied this drastic drop is a substantial hike in quality. Still, much is yet to be determined: a signature grape or style; whether to focus on quality, volume or national distinctiveness; whether to court domestic consumers alone or strive for plaudits overseas.
Thus, attempting to create a “best of” list—my original goal for this piece—felt like an act of hubris. Instead, I chose to highlight a handful of wineries from across the nation to deliver something of a snapshot of where the Chinese wine industry is heading today. Their stories are about origins, the “why” of each extraordinary person or group that embarked on an undertaking to make wine, and also how they are achieving their next set of goals.
The name Ao Yun, appropriately enough, means “flying above the clouds.”
The LVMH team aimed to create a world-class fine wine in a region never before known to do so and in the process reimagine “Made in China”.
The mountainous southwestern region is distinctive within China for its milder climate, with a long, languid growing season and low humidity permitting organic practices. However, the remote, precarious sites make logistics challenging.
Maxence Dulou, estate director and winemaker of Ao Yun since 2012, cites French vision, wine expertise and attention to detail, as well as the local Chinese team’s creativity and fearlessness in facing change, as keys to learning and moving forward quickly. That makes for a strong pairing.
2014 Although 2013 was Ao Yun’s inaugural vintage, the 2014 was the first I tasted that made me a believer. Classically structured, it delivers a concise palette of green pepper, paprika, black cherry, graphite and steel. Though 90 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 10 per cent cabernet franc, I found the overall effect more redolent of the latter.
Ao Yun 2016
This vintage incorporated tiny amounts of syrah and petit verdot, lending it an extra shade of depth. Commencing with green olive and a flash of herbal vigour, it soon serves up black cherry and strawberry on a well-proportioned tannic frame sharpened with lucid acidity.
Hong Kong-born CEO Judy Chan, who took over Grace Vineyard from her father nearly two decades ago, is a much admired figure. In 2018, when the company listed on the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong, Grace’s production capacity was nearly 2 million bottles.
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