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Ao Yun is the fruit of an ambitious venture initiated by Christophe Navarre, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Moët Hennessy: the creation of a new winery in a virgin terroir where vineyards had never before been planted. The venture began in 2009, when Navarre enlisted Australian enologist Tony Jordan (who had established Chandon in Australia and managed the company's other wine estates there) to undertake a several-year-long search throughout China for the best terroir. Jordan rejected provinces in which other producers are deeply engaged in the race to produce a great Chinese red. Shandong, an eastern coastal province where Château Lafite Rothschild has a joint-project, was too wet. Ningxia, where Moët Hennessy founded a Chandon sparkling wine facility on the Yellow River in 2013, was too cold; vines have to be covered up in winter so they don't freeze.
He ended up in the northwestern part of Yunnan province, adjoining Tibet, where Jesuit missionaries had planted vines in the 19th century. In 2002, the local Chinese government helped farmers in 25 or so Tibetan villages on the steep slopes above the Mekong River plant cabernet vines as a way to diversify their crops. Moët Hennessy selected four villages, two on each side of the river, at elevations from 7,200 to 8,500 feet, for their grape potential.
The 320 plots of vines the company controls are interspersed with rows of tomato and occasional hashish plants. Moët Hennessy has a 50-year lease on the vineyards, a partnership with Chinese baijiu producer VATS. The closest major city is Shangri-La, named for the peaceful utopia in the novel Lost Horizon. With its fantastic potential, rich culture and breathtaking landscapes, the Yunnan region in the Himalayan foothills was the ideal location for this initiative. Some 300 hectares of vines were planted by Chinese authorities in 2002. Moët Hennessy and estate director Maxence Dulou embarked on the bold challenge of developing a French grape variety that had never been grown at 2,600 meters.
Thanks to the altitude, the climate is dry and cool, but because of shadows from the mountains, there's sunlight only from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The growing cycle is 160 days from flowering to harvest, longer than the 120 in Bordeaux. Local farmers have worked these lands for centuries, building terraces on the steep mountainsides. Guided by this artisanal culture with a deep respect for nature, Ao Yun has been developed from small parcels of vines, totaling 30 hectares around four villages. The grape harvest and production is done by hand by residents of the villages.
Ao Yun means "flying above the clouds", a reference to the clouds that cap the summits of the Himalayan mountains. Reinventing the concept of luxury, the estate's first wine, the 2013 vintage, is a truly exceptional and rare experience.