This Exceptional $300 Wine is Produced in the Foothills of the Himalayas

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Location may be important in real estate, but it’s absolutely essential in wine.

When you think of growing grapes for wine, your mind turns to France or the Napa Valley — probably not 8,500 feet in the air outside of Shangri-La. Which is why we spoke to Maxence Dulou, a winemaker who hails from Bordeaux and has previously plied his trade in Burgundy, Chile and South Africa.

He’s also the driving force behind Ao Yuna limited-edition red wine from Moët Hennessy produced in the foothills of the Himalayas. The vineyard is located in a remote northwest corner of China’s Yunna province. The brand claims it’s a “previously unexplored terroir,” and it’s almost certainly the highest elevation at which a wine has ever been produced.

What’s Ao Yun mean?
“Flying above the cloud.” You can see the inspiration and some aerial shots of the vineyard in this video.

Why make a wine in China?
China’s becoming a player in wine, at least as far as consumption; the country is currently the fifth-largest consumer market for wine in overall volume, and the top consumer of red wines.

Why make a wine in a remote, mountainous region in Yunna?
“The project was to make world-class wine in China,” says Dulou. “It took three or four years to find the right terroir. For a lot of the country, it’s too cold in the winter and too warm in the summer. Or there’s too much rain.”

Fortunately, Ao Yun is produced in a protected microclimate (well, microclimates, plural)  in a region not too dissimilar from Bordeaux. The production is handled by the residents of four villages (Adong, Xidang, Sinong and Shuori), in an area better known for producing wheat, barley and walnuts.

What makes this area unique?
Located in UNESCO World Heritage region of three parallel rivers (Yangtze, Mekong and Sal ween) and just below the Meili Mountain (22,310 ft.), the Ao Yun vineyard is protected from extreme weather fluctuations and rain, and the grapes are exposed to stronger UV rays.

“That makes for a thicker skin on the grapes,” says Dulou. “Overall, it’s going to make the wine softer and give more freshness in the mouth and nose.” The 140-day ripening period is also longer than usual.

It’s an extremely complex area to grow grapes; Dulou and his team actually drew up a rather detailed map that plots out all the different microclimates, terroirs and harvest times, all of which can differ, even within a single growing block.

What’s in the wine?
It’s predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (90%), with a touch of Cabernet Franc.

How’s it taste?
Very approachable! Drinking this in a warm stuffy room in the middle of a cold winter afternoon was a delight. It’s dry, medium-to-full body with both fruity and mineral notes. “Freshness” is a word Dulou uses a lot, and it’s a descriptor pretty much on the nose (and the palate). Of the two vintages available, I slightly preferred the 2014 over the 2013 (as have most critics).

How should I drink this?
Take out of your wine cellar, put into a large decanter for 30 minutes, then pour back in the bottle and replace in the cellar for two and a half hours. Serve at around 61 degrees.

Where can I get Ao Yun? A few suggestions, via Moet-Hennessy:

What’s next? A 2015 vintage will be out later this year.

Final thoughts: “Ao Yun is a very expensive project, and even getting the right equipment to the vineyard is difficult,” says Dulou. “It’s certainly not a project to make money, but to create and do something different.”

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