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In the pursuit of learning as much as we can about wine so we can share that knowledge with others, we have been to every country in the world that produces it in any significant quantity. People are often surprised to discover that we have visited multiple wine regions and too many wineries to count in China, and their response to finding this out is often along the lines of, “Well the wine’s not very good, is it?” Considering China’s size (it has roughly the same land mass as the United States), varied climates, and the fact that wine has been made there for around 2,000 years, it’s hard to believe that anyone would just dismiss the entire country, but here we are.
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One only need look at the outside investment in Chinese wine projects to realize that the $42 billion annual business of winemaking there should be taken seriously. There are almost 500 wineries scattered across 12 main regions, but the fact that Louis Vuitton-Moët Hennessy, Domaine Baron de Rothschild (D.B.R.) Lafite, and Penfolds are in on the action makes even the most hardened snob sit up and take notice. This is not to say that the wineries without international partners are not producing world-class wine, but the majority of those at the high end are selling within their own domestic market and are not even seeking global distribution.
The LVMH project Ao Yun, which translates to “flying above the clouds,” was the first of the three to come to market, with the release of the 2013 vintage. This boutique winery high in the foothills of the Himalayas within the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture has 68 acres of vineyards tucked into bends in the Mekong River at soaring altitudes of 7,200 to 8,500 feet above sea level. Estate director and winemaker Maxence Dulou, a Bordeaux native, divided the vineyards into 314 blocks and 900 sub-blocks based on differences in soil type, terroir, drainage, and sun exposure. Plots are worked completely by hand, vinified separately, and then blended to create a sumptuous wine that would be described as a Bordeaux-style blend—except for a bit of Syrah in the mix. Dulou is as meticulous at the blending table as he is in the vineyard, and the result is a delectable wine that consistently earns high scores from critics. He describes his wine as having “freshness and ripeness in the nose and acidity and density in the mouth,” with “very ripe” tannins that “create a soft, gentle texture.” The U.S. is a small market for Ao Yun, with only 10 percent of its output exported here, but bottles are relatively easy to come by. Half of the wine is sold in China, with another 20 percent shipped throughout Asia.
Much farther northeast and only slightly closer to sea level, D.B.R. Lafite planted its terraced vineyards in Shandong Province in 2008. The first vintage of Long Dai, which is known in China simply as the Chinese Lafite, is the 2017; it was released in 2019. Technical director Olivier Tregoat (who holds the same role at Château L’Évangile in Pomerol and at Château Rieussec in Sauternes), tells us, “The priority of the Domaine de Long Dai is to learn from the terroir and develop expertise in soils and grape varieties, led by a strong local team, in order to find the best expression of this Shandong terroir and create a unique Chinese wine with a French touch.” Long Dai is not a typical Bordeaux blend; it is made with 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Cabernet Franc along with 25 percent Marselan, a cross between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon that is widely grown in China. Marselan contributes touches of baking spice and floral notes to the wine’s dark-berry flavors and polished tannins. Even though we were told by a spokesperson for the importer that it “is predominantly sold in mainland China with a strong distribution among wine collectors and wine lovers,” it’s possible to find Long Dai online at a handful of reliable retailers at prices close to its suggested $699 retail price.
The other project that we took note of is Penfolds, which released its Penfolds 2021 Chinese Winemaking Trial 521 Cabernet Sauvignon Marselan, or Penfolds CWT 521 for short, this past summer. The numerals 5-2-1 refer to five regions from which the grapes are sourced and the vintage year of the wine. “CWT represents an expression of Penfolds house style through a Chinese lens,” Penfolds winemaker Matt Woo says. “The wine speaks to both Penfolds varietal characters and is expressive of regions from which it was sourced.”
Unless you’re traveling to China or Australia, it will be hard to get your hands on a bottle of Penfolds CWT 51. As for the other Chinese wines we’ve mentioned, they are drinking well now and will continue to age beautifully at home for at least 10 more years. That said, they have not reached the status of investment wine. “While we have seen some top Chinese wineries come to the sales room at auction, this has been relatively rare,” Nick Pegna, Sotheby’s global head of wine and spirits tells us. “Underpinning this is the fact that most of these wineries are relatively young, so we are not seeing substantial increase in values yet. While there is a following for the new releases for Long Dai and especially for Ao Yun and the quality level is excellent, they have not yet become seen as collectable.” That’s okay with us, because as we’ve mentioned before, wine is for drinking, not squirreling away to sell at a profit.
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