Ao Yun - A wine from China
Ao Yun - A wine from China

Henry Yuen

I was browsing the BC Liquor Store website and out of curiosity I typed in “China” in the search field, out came a grape wine priced at $390 called Ao Yun and that there were only 3 bottles available in all of BC! Of course my interest was piqued instantly;  what kind of Chinese grape wine would command such high price?  What is it? How rare is this wine? Crafted in China from vineyard deep in the western part of China’s Yunnan region close to the remote foothills of the Himalayas near the legendary city of Shangri-La closer to Tibet, Au Yun is indeed a rare and unique wine! And yes, it did not take long at all for all 3 bottles to be sold.

The name Ao Yun means “soaring above the clouds” so aptly named because the vineyard is situated in an extremely high elevation that is almost 8,000 feet above sea level. It’s almost unprecedented even amongst those high altitude wine regions such as Argentina with the Andes as the back drop. And this is only the beginning of the making of Ao Yun.

The project was created by the gigantic Moet Hennessy Group,  whom we all know is a wine and spirit conglomerate from France associated with many fine products. Moet was looking for something unprecedented to showcase the group’s ability to craft out new niche market. What better country would be more-suited than China? The fact that most regions in China are either too wet or too hot to grow vines led them to Yunnan. 

Only 2000 cases of Bordeaux style '2013 Ao Yun' were made in this remote winery located over 7000' high.

Interestingly, back in 2002, the Chinese government planted 750 acres of vines in a track of lands in the remote northern Yunnan area with close proximity to the Himalayas to initiate farming diversify for the area. The rationale was the region’s warm days and cool nights, even at such high altitude, might be a good possibility for vines to flourish. However, no further development was done until the Moet Hennessy group moved in in 2009 to provide the expertise and planted 75 acres. The experiment was to plant Bordeaux varietals in such high altitude, even though Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot etc. is seldom planted above 5,000 feet and yielded exceptional results around the world.

In spite of the high altitude, the terroir has some flat slopes. In the upper reaches of the Mekong River along the mountain valleys and ridges, they provide the protection required for the organic vines to survive the harsh climate. At such high altitude, clear sky above the clouds brings in sunlight and heat for the grapes to ripe and longer flowering days (160 days compared to the normal 120 days). The climate may be somewhat favourable, but other challenges brought forward by the remoteness of the area persisted. Electricity was intermittent forcing high volume of winery work to be done by hand. A number of winemaking equipment could not reach the winery due to poor road condition resulting in various improvisations when crafting the first vintage of 2013. Only 2,000 cases of the 2013 Ao Yun was produced with a blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc with only six months in new French oak simply because no used French oak barrels were available. 

The wine had A tasting debut in New York in 2016 to gauge the attention and reception. It was then followed by releases in Europe, North America and Asia earlier this year. I am not sure how many bottles were allocated to Canada and whether BC had more than the 3 bottles that was shown briefly on the BCLDB website. In any case, the 2013 Ao Yun is definitely a collector’s item due to its uniqueness and novelty aspect. The story itself is as intriguing as owning the wine! Whether the product is worthy of the price is always a fun debate,  but as long as there are buyers, who can say otherwise?  According to press release, 1/3 of the 2,000 cases is being reserved for the Chinese market but there was already an offer from a collector in China to buy the entire lot. No doubt it is the hottest items in the history of the Chinese wine-making industry, at lease as of now!