I had been hearing vague rumours of an exciting new project in vinously uncharted territory in the far south of China near Tibet for some time. A whisper in Beijing, confirmation in Sydney, a little more in Shanghai... I therefore asked those in charge of it if Nick and I could make a detour from our trip to Shanghai earlier this year. This, and Nick's account of eating there, are the result. This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
'I bet you think we're crazy', said Jean-Guillaume Prats ruefully, the Paris-based CEO in charge of LVMH's project to make the best wine in China. We were looking last March at the rudimentary building site many a hairpin bend above the Mekong River, five hours' white-knuckle drive from the nearest airport, that is designed eventually to be Moët Hennessy's winery and guest lodge.
Tibetan women (harder workers than the men, we were told) were messing around with pulleys and wheelbarrows. The electricity supply was far from reliable. We were at an elevation around 20 times higher than the highest vineyard in Bordeaux. Prats resumed his interrogation of the estate director Stephen Deng as to whether the buildings could possibly be ready in time for the scheduled official opening in September.
If they are not, it is Deng who stands to lose most face. While Bordelais Maxence Dulou is in charge of the vines and wines, Deng's full-time role is to keep local government and other relevant bodies, all 23 of them, happy. On the day of our visit he was suddenly, and typically, called away to meet a representative of one of them, to reassure him that the project would indeed bring great prestige to this remote corner of the Himalayan foothills in Deqin county in Diqing prefecture at the western limit of the south-west province of Yunnan, just 35 km from the Tibetan border.
The story begins with a conundrum. China undoubtedly has a present and burgeoning future as a wine producer and consumer, but all Chinese wine regions assayed so far have one major disadvantage. They are either, like Shandong on the east coast, so wet in summer that it is a struggle to harvest fully ripe, healthy grapes, or they are so cold in winter, like Ningxia, where Moët Hennessy recently established a sparkling-wine operation, that the vines have to be laboriously buried every autumn to protect them from freezing to death. Quite apart from the damage it can do to vines, the continuing urbanisation of China suggests that eventually this may become rather expensive. It was the fact that Yunnan (in red on the map) is free of both these disadvantages that led me to ask Moët if I could come and see for myself.
Moët Hennessy had bought a producer of the Chinese spirit baijiu in 2007 and went on to see China become their most lucrative market overall. Thus they learnt how to operate joint ventures there and were keen to deepen their involvement in China's famous thirst for alcoholic drinks. Accordingly they gave Dr Tony Jordan, the wine scientist who had just stepped back from full-time responsibility for their Australian and New Zealand operations, four years to find a place where they stood the best chance of making world-class red wine.
He was keen to avoid the winter freeze problem and eventually recommended the low-latitude-plus-high-altitude combination that has proved so successful for them (though at lower altitudes) in Argentina, although how he stumbled across the tiny villages in the far west of Yunnan that happen to have a few small vineyards, I cannot imagine. He apparently narrowed down his search to the south west after painstaking climate analysis and discussions with China's top wine academics.
It was the local government that, from 1999, had encouraged the Tibetan farmers here to switch from barley to vines on some of the few terraces flat enough for cultivation in the narrow upper Mekong and Yangtse valleys, as part of a programme to develop the more remote parts of China. According to Deng, 'the Deqin government persuaded some local farmers to plant 150 ha of Cabernet Sauvignon, using subsidies to farmers as an economic incentive'. A winery named after and well south of the Diqing capital Shangri-La, a company previously focused on the very different liquid that is Tibetan barley wine, was persuaded to process the grapes in exchange for being granted a monopoly on all Yunnan grapes (with the exception of those now grown a few miles downriver of the Moët project by a local mining magnate on his Sun Spirit estate, whose sweet red and white wines fetch quite high prices in Beijing). As so often, it was missionaries, French in this case, who originally brought the vine to the region, in this case a non-vinifera variety called Rose Honey, still made into distinctly odd sweet reds by the province's only other winery, Yunnan Red (reviewed without much enthusiasm on this site).
Thanks to the mountainous terrain, the vineyards here (pictured above by Jean-Guillaume Prats) are all small and dispersed. After leaving climate sensors in all the villages he thought had potential, and returning to taste grapes during the 2011 and 2012 harvests, Jordan identified four villages he thought stood the greatest chance of growing good quality wine grapes. After much negotiation, Moët have accordingly taken a 50-year lease on the vines of these four villages, and the relevant local farmers' input, making a total of 30 hectares (just 75 acres) of vines - in no fewer than 320 different blocks. Much of Maxence Dulou's time is spent liaising with the dozens of farmers involved, persuading them to focus on wine quality rather than grape quantity, although this is much easier than in many other parts of China. Dulou, who has worked in South Africa, Chile and Burgundy, told me, 'Tibetans are very good farmers and sometimes find solutions to our practical viticultural problems themselves. They make are very good team and are extremely proficient.' (He, incidentally, has moved his Chilean wife, both of them pictured here in his favourite local lunch spot, and two young children to live in Shangri-La old town. Their children go to school there, and during our visit they were looking for a new home after their old Tibetan wooden house burned down in January.)
Needless to say, the grapes are virtually all Cabernet and Merlot with a little Chardonnay, as is the unimaginative Chinese norm, but being grown at such high altitudes, between 2200 and 2700 m, they have skins that have proved usefully thick for the long journey south to the Shangri-La winery where the 2013 grapes were vinified. This year with any luck they will have to travel only as far as Adong, the highest village, where the winery and lodge are being built.
Because Adong, and the other three villages, are so relatively inaccessible, the winery has been designed to be brutally practical. No fancy bits of computer software that may need spare parts or engineers to be shipped in. To reach here from Shanghai you have to fly three hours to the Yunnan capital of Kunming (where the rail station massacre took place earlier this year), then an hour over the mountain tops to Shangri-La, then four or five hours along the twisting, turning road, avoiding the fallen rocks and jockeying for position with scarlet trucks carrying Tibetan iron ore into China and pilgrims making their way to Lhasa. Each of the villages is a hair-raising climb from the main road on tracks so rough I cannot imagine trucks full of grapes making it, but presumably the locals are made of sterner stuff.
As well as Adong, we visited Shuori, the village thought to have the greatest potential for top-quality grapes. Moët has leased every single vine they could get their hands on in this extraordinary little settlement. Adong, further up the valley, is bigger and relatively lively, with locals of all ages sitting outside the village cafe under colourful, flapping prayer flags playing cards and waving cheerfully at us as we passed in Moët Hennessy's two white Landcruisers. But in Shuori there was no one to be seen, and nothing to be heard other than fast-flowing water and the lazy hum of insects. Even though the vineyards were surrounded by substantial Tibetan houses, all we saw were butterflies, walnut trees, a tree laden with oranges, blossom and promising, healthy-looking, obviously well-tended vines awaiting their spring growth. Perhaps the Shuorians were all off gathering mushrooms. Dulou has to vie with the appeal of these mountains' exceptional profusion of funghi when trying to recruit help in the vineyards.
Although the nights in this mountain air are much cooler, the upper reaches of the Mekong valley have similar summer temperatures overall to those of Bordeaux, but are so protected from the cold and monsoon rains that affect Yunnan to the east that summer rainfall is only about two-thirds that of Bordeaux, with no shortage of potential irrigation water in terrain that is so dramatically overlooked 365 days a year by the snow-covered Himalayas. Autumns are also much drier, so the grapes can be left to ripen on the vines much longer, which will probably make up for the fact that, in such narrow valleys, the vines are in sunshine for far fewer hours per day. And in the dry mountain air they are plagued by far fewer pests and diseases than are common in Bordeaux.
There are advantages to the somewhat unlikely big company connection. Dulou's chief viticulturist had just returned from a study trip - requiring a 48-hour flight each way - to Moët's Argentine operation Terrazas de los Andes. And when it came to making the trial vinifications of the first, 2013, vintage, Dulou was able to use the neutral earthenware jars traditionally used by the company's baijiu producer in Chengdu - once he had invented special floating lids for them that would keep harmful oxygen out of the varying volumes of wine to be fermented.
I tasted six lots of these experimental 2013 reds and was very impressed by five of them - quite an achievement since only a few days before I had tasted 53 of China's better wines. They are first and foremost mountain wines, with the dense colour and vivid, finely etched flavours that you find in the high-altitude wines of Argentina or even in the best Ribera del Duero wines grown at a mere 300 or 400 m altitude. But the most exciting thing for me was that the oak influence on most of the samples was minimal. What I was tasting was wines most influenced by the pure vineyard characters. They were fully ripe but extremely well balanced with real, confident, unique personalities of their own.
The project has no name as yet, nor even a definite launch date. No decision has been taken as to whether to launch with these experimental 2013s or to wait for the 2014s, in which the Shangri-La winery will be involved merely as a transactional intermediary, thanks to that monopoly agreement. But Dulou is strongly disposed towards retaining at least a portion of earthenware-jar influence, as being one distinctly local ingredient. Not that, in a landscape like this, both natural and human (my picture shows a family preparing a meal outside a temple near Shangri La), there is any shortage of distinctive local character.