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Anson on Thursday: Vineyards on the roof of the world

We turn off the main Shangri-La to Lhasa road just as the Mekong river is narrowing to one of its tightest spots. It has taken around four hours to get to this point, writes Jane Anson in her latest column after visiting Moet Hennessy's winery in China's Yunnan province.

Views from near to Moet Hennessy’s vineyard in China’s Yunnan province.

This is a pilgrimage route, where believers regularly travel the 2,000km on foot or bicycle. It quickly becomes clear what an undertaking that is; we have already climbed close to 4,300 metres through the Cheval Blanc mountain pass, before dropping back down to the 2,300 metres that we are now at.

There is a bottle of oxygen in the car just in case the altitude becomes dizzying, but no one has needed it so far. The last stage, for us, is a narrow dirt track cut roughly into the mountain, vertiginous drops to one side, slate, gravel and limestone hillside to the other. Even this track doesn’t go all the way into the village of Shuori, and we park up just before a shrine with brightly coloured prayer flags, and walk the final section.

You’ll find similar shrines guarding all villages in this region, even ones as small as this with just a few dozen houses and maybe 100 inhabitants. There is no one else around, save a few fat-bellied black pigs, the odd stray yak, and a particularly fierce rangy looking dog that I am relieved to see is tied up.

We are in the foothills of the Himalayas, in a region known as the Three Parallel Rivers of China’s Yunnan province, close to the border of Tibet. It’s one of the most remote regions of the world, a UNESCO protected wilderness that covers 1.7 million hectares of deep gorges and glaciated peaks. It contains some of the richest variety of biodiversity that you’ll find anywhere, and is the source for a significant part of the world’s water. It may not be the most obvious place to be walking alongside Jean-Guillaume Prats, the dapper ex-director of Chateau Cos d’Estournel in Saint Estephe and now president of Moët Hennessy Estates & Wines.

We are here because these remote mountains almost certainly are about to challenge the existing wisdom of where to grow quality wine in China. It’s a search that has been ongoing for some time, led by increasing numbers of Chinese and international companies. To date, Ningxia has drawn the most plaudits with pockets such as Penglai in the Shandong Peninsula also attracting attention with investment from (DBR) Lafite. Even in these mountains vineyards have been planted since 2002, but it has taken the 2014 arrival of Moët Hennessy to shine a light on the enticing prospect of Tibet producing the first truly international-quality Chinese wine. The potential is clear; these vineyards lie on the 27th parallel south, the same as parts of Morocco but at serious altitude. Think Cote Rotie, Douro Valley, Andes Mountains on steroids.

‘Every hundred metres that you climb, you lose a degree in temperature,’ says Maxence Dulou, whose title of estate manager sounds far more comforting and predictable than the reality of his role. ‘So where it is sub-tropical down in the tea-growing districts of southern Yunnan, up here it is drier, more continental in climate. We tend to get three to four hours of brilliant sunshine each day, limited by the shadows cast by the mountains, particularly during the exceptionally dry late season September to December. It means a slow long ripening for the grapes, and the luxury of being able to choose the best date for bringing them in. The altitude also means high light intensity, exceptional photosynthesis, concentration, thick skins, small berries, deeply coloured wines with great freshness’.

This being China, Moet Hennessy was not able to simply turn up and plant. There is a partnership with a mainland Chinese baiju producer called VATS Group that has a monopoly on the 300 hectares of vineyards, originally planted by the local government looking to give villagers more options than the existing barley, mushrooms or yak farming.

VATS is a 20% partner in the vineyards that we are now walking through, containing the oldest cabernet sauvignon vines planted back in 1992, laid out in a series of small plots in front of the handsome earth-and-wood village houses. Moët Hennessy has a 50 years lease on 30 hectares of land, half of which already contains vines, and the rest that should be planted by June – logistics allowing, as the new plants are being shipped from the Shandong peninsula over 4,500km away. But where VATS trucks its grapes, bottled under the name Shangri-La Winery, to a large production facility six hours from here, Moet Hennessy has invested locally, building a winery out in the mountains and a lodge to house guests.

Although there is one other small winery making sweet riesling (able to operate outside of VATS through a local government connection), in theory no one else can plant in this spot without their agreement, and the Moët Hennessy contract say they must be consulted before any other partner is considered. ‘But it is highly unlikely that anyone else will come here, at least in the near future’ says Jean-Guillaume. ‘The logistical complications are huge, the investment and manpower needed almost overwhelming. The most difficult thing is the communication, getting a team in place that can speak Chinese, the local dialect and English’. Not to mention, he could add, French, as Maxence is from Bordeaux (Jean-Guillaume found him working with Alain Raynaud at Quinault l’Enclos).

There are a dizzying number of factors to take into account here. They work with 150 villagers across four villages. The villages stand at 2,200m, 2,300m, 2,500m and 2,600m in altitude, two on either side of the Mekong river in the foothills of the Meili Mountain. The nature of the terrain means the vines are grown across 320 plots, each one an average size of one tenth of an acre. Electricity in non-existent in some villages, intermittent in others.

No surprise then that is the highest cost of production of all Moet Hennessy estates – even the manpower cost is higher than in France because although individual wages are low, they have to employ five times as many people. Everything is organic, and everything is done by hand. Cultural reasons impact too, as VATS paid by the ton, encouraging high yields, whereas Moet Hennessy pays for leasing the land and gives a daily rate, to ensure the focus is on quality.

It says something about the potential here that the project merits the investment. I am only the second journalist to taste the wine, the first to try the final blend that is due to be launched (internationally first, under the name Ao Yun) in a few months. We head to the winery in Adong village and first try barrel samples of the 2014 vintage from each of the four villages, then turn to the finished 2013. The wine is rich and ripe without sacrificing freshness. The quality of the tannins is what impresses me the most, soft but dense (in figures you are looking at around 85 IPT with pH of around 3.6) and even the barrel samples in 100% new oak betray no tell-tale vanillin aromas, suggesting that the fruit quality is high (they will be 40% new oak by bottling, but at this stage Maxence is working on opening up the wines, something that is necessary at altitude where less oxygen means very little sulphur use but a need to guard against reduction).

‘We’re still learning how the vines and wine respond in this location,’ says Jean-Guillaume. ‘We are just 10% of the way to what we can achieve.’ Then he leans back and smiles, well aware of what that means.

Written by Jane Anson

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