Ao Yun 2014 Vintage: The Hard-Earned Richness of Wine from the foothills of the Himalayas

What would compel a winemaker to uproot himself and his entire family to move to the rural areas of China (technically, one of the more romantic regions - Shangri-La) to manage a vineyard?

Well, for Maxence Dulou, estate director and winemaker of Ao Yun, the choice to 'move to greener pastures' was indisputable. Having been born and raised in le Sauternais, the French man has bundles of wine-making experience tucked under his belt, accumulated from his studies in Bordeaux and from working in South Africa, Chile and then back to France. I was a bit skeptical at first. Was it a case of a man buying into the lure of cash cow (seeing that the project was commissioned by Moet Hennessy) or was it in a spur of a moment, one inspired by Brad Pitt's "Seven Year in Tibet"?

It didn't take me long, precisely after a 5 minute long movie and brief introduction to the philosophy of the vineyard, that opened my eyes to his drive and ambition. Located in the remote northwest corner of the Yunnan province, lies the legendary Shangri-la, a shady paradise at the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Aerial shots filmed with deft skills using a drone revealed deep valleys, meandering rivers, vast sloped plains and picturesque landscapes that evoke a sense of wanderlust. I, for one, was smitten, what more a winemaker with a sense of adventure?

The project first begun with Moet Hennessy CEO Christophe Navarre's belief that China had the potential to make great wine. Conceivably so since the China's vast lands definitely means that part of it would fall within the latitudes best suited for wine grapes growth. Fuelled by one man's ambition, the rest is history.

The Ao Yun (meaning roaming above the clouds) vineyards are located in the Adong, Xidang, Sinong and Shouri regions where the climate is similar to Bordeaux with lower night temperature, drier end season, milder winters and stronger UV - traits that make for the end product's unique flavor profile.

What's more impressive about the project is the natural collaboration between the local farmers and winemakers that had fallen into place. It was never a case of ousting the indigenous people in a cold-hearted money-profiteering project; also owing to the fact that it was incredibly challenging convincing anyone to shift quarters to the rural area, where resources and basic amenities were scarce. The solution: rope in the locals. Full of eagerness to learn, they easily turned their livelihoods in favor of abetting the vineyard culture. Using manure from their cattle and the remains of their agriculture growth to fertilise the vineyards. The circle is virtuous, thoroughly organic and very inspiring. As winemaker Maxence Dulou declares, "we will do anything and everything in our power to maintain these traditions". And with that, my faith was restored.

What better way to enjoy the subtleties of the wine than with the aid of a 6-course menu at Shang Palace? 

We began by teasing the palate with endless tipples of the Dom Perignon Plenitude I Vintage 2006 in between breezy conversation topics about life in Shangri-la with Maxence, whom I was so fortunate to be able to sit next to throughout the meal. His dedication to putting his chopsticks skill to use while working through the trio starter of Gold foil suckling pig, Fresh Australian Abalone and Avocado and Barbeque Pork Salad; a testament of his hardiness to delve into the Chinese culture. The decadence of all three small bites providing grounds for the bone-dry acidity of the Dom Perignon to shine. The biting freshness of the champagne cutting through each morsel to provide a beautiful balance and harmony.

He speaks fondly about the diet that they are exposed to whilst living in Yunnan, one that is provided for by the fertile lands around, rich in fruits and vegetables with the occasional yak on the table. That probably explains the glimmer in his eyes the moment the next two courses of Wok-Fried King Prawn with Seasonal Green and Diced Sea Perch cooked two ways is served. Escorted by crisp pours of the Cloudy Bay Te Koko Vintage 2013 which retained aromas of ripened stone fruit amongst a bouquet of lemon sugar on the nose, giving way to exotic tropical notes tinted with a slight nutty nuance. It's modest mineral structure pairing perfectly with the showcase of seafood.

The menu, built with care, provided a plump pillow for the pinnacle of the tasting, the new 2014 Ao Yun Vintage -  a charismatic blend of 90% cabernet sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. Consumed at the cooler end of the spectrum, the rich red liquid offers hints of spiced banana coupled with medium earthy tones. No pretentious puff here, but the wine spoke of the estate and its devotion to preserving the land. More importantly, it was delicious. The Wok Fried Diced Beef Fillet with its brazen shallot black pepper sauce accentuating the floral nuances of the wine. Following which the Claypot Glass Noodle with Roasted pork and white pepper builds a stage for the slight tannic spiciness to linger on the tongue, imprinting itself on the palate memory. The alcohol meandering into our bloodstream paving the way for what seemed like the start of a boisterous, albeit spirituous afternoon.

Desserts are unpredictable, and by that, I mean the lustrous pour of Chateau D'yquem Vintage 2008. Bright light gold, it reminds of fresh apricots doused in vanilla bean flecked honey, the slight oak providing a subdued restraint to the compelling sweetness. Sip on that in between bites of the Pumpkin pastry with Custard and corn, still piping hot and blisteringly crisp on its exterior giving way to alluringly soft and sweet corn custard. Repeat.

Did I drink more wine than necessary at lunch? Maybe. Did it make me a happier person. Of course it did. But for what it's worth, The Ao Yun 2014 Vintage is a fantastic glimpse into the sophisticated yet mostly domesticated world that is China's Wine market. Guarded by ideal climate and utopian terrain, China is definitely a promiseland for wine enthusiasts. 

Ao Yun's 2014 Vintage is available to buy through Moet Hennessy Diageo Singapore's direct sales channel. Price is available on application. Contact Clementine Wee at for details.

Shang Palace
22 Orange Grove Road
t: 6213 4473

Operating Hours:
Mon - Fri: 12 - 2 30pm; 6 - 10 30pm
Sat - Sun: 10 30am - 3pm; 6 -10 30pm

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