For many people, Chinese included, the notion of a world-class or luxury Chinese red wine is about as realistic a proposition as a Chinese-made equivalent of Ferrari’s current 488 Pista.
Granted that as China has only been trying to forge a place at over A$100 per bottle based on quality alone for about 20 years, it’s not doing such a bad job.
Far from suggesting that the world is about to be swamped beneath a deluge of such wines, I’m always of the view to give credit where credit is due. And so, a small number of Chinese wine producers are making wines whose quality alone merits some attention.
Two such wines come from Dêqên County, northwest of Yunnan province, and I’d like to talk about one of them – from the Shangri-La winery, which happens to be the name of the main local town as well as the nearby ancient city of legend.
There’s a strong Australian connection to the region and the Shangri-La winery. The site was discovered at the end of a four-year search by the late Dr Tony Jordan, whose brief was to find the best spot in China for high-end red wine. Jordan was taken by the length of the area’s growing season – most Chinese wine regions are hampered by the very early onset of winter – and the relative mildness of winter itself which meant that vineyards could be planted without vines ever having to be bent down and buried every winter, as is common throughout most Chinese regions.
Jordan also wanted a place that avoided the high levels of humidity evident across many Chinese regions. So he began to encourage the development of vineyards between 2,200 and 2,600 metres above sea level in this remote part of China in the foothills of the Himalayas. The region’s first vintage was about 15 years ago.
Two projects have spun out of Jordan’s efforts to date: Moët Hennessy Estates & Wines has created its Ao Yun red wine project, which is based around cabernet sauvignon and franc. The name means ‘flying above the clouds’. Apt.
Similarly, the Shangri-La project is principally focused on the red Bordeaux varieties. It’s owned by VATS, a large distributor/owner of traditional Chinese spirits. Both obtain fruit from much the same group of growers, located in villages about two to three hours apart.
Well-known Australian winemaking consultant Gary Baldwin was introduced to the Shangri-La project between 2012 and 2013, before his business partner Mark O’Callaghan commenced with the 2014 vintage. Having tasted and thoroughly enjoyed the concentration, polish and richness of the 2017 wine, I fully understand why he says he’s getting close to what he really believes the brand can deliver.
There are around 500 hectares of vines in Dêqên County, and the Shangri-La winery takes around 3,000 tonnes of fruit each year, hand-harvested and delivered to the winery in crates. Around 200 to 300 tonnes are allocated for the premier red each season. The company is now leasing some of the better vineyard sites and therefore has more control of the vineyard processes.
While the Shangri-La winery also makes less pricey wine from a wide range of varieties including chardonnay, shiraz and marselan (a cross between cabernet sauvignon and grenache that is common in China), the current 2016 vintage of its prestige red, Shengyu, sells for around A$300. Moët’s Ao Yun wine is considerably more expensive still.
Surprisingly, perhaps, one of the reasons behind this price is the sheer cost of buying the fruit and getting it to the winery. The plots of land owned by local growers are so small and steep that a parcel of 1.5 tonnes of grapes is actually a significant one.
O’Callaghan says that to get around 10 tonnes of high-quality fruit requires dealing with more than 10 families. With the tiny plot sizes and the hand-managed nature of everything, it actually costs around A$4,000 to A$5,000 a tonne! Incredible.
It’s easy to see why O’Callaghan is excited by his Chinese project. The winery is hard to get to and pretty well devoid of Western visitors, while the work is constantly challenging and is always invigorating.
And it’s slowly, like a handful of other projects in the country, showing the world what Chinese wine can really be like. Not yet Ferrari level, but certainly Alfa-Romeo. And 20 years ago who would have thought that? Other than Tony Jordan that is…