On the Trail

A Taste of Shangri-La

David Driscoll

Last night I was invited along with my boss Clyde Beffa to attend a special preview dinner of LVMH's bid to bring high-end wine production to China. The Ao Yun, which translates roughly as "proud cloud," was being poured for a few select wine industry professionals and guests of those invitees. I brought my long-time customer and friend Paul Tong, who brought his wife Debbie. Being veterans of Chinese wine from their numerous travels to the country, I knew they would get a kick out of the experience. We gathered in a private room at Hakkasan in downtown San Francisco where LVMH's wine CEO Jean-Guillaume Prats was waiting for us. Introductions were made amongst the group, Dom Perignon was poured, and we visited amiably while awaiting the presentation of the night's main star. Only 24,000 bottles were produced of the Bordeaux-styled cuvée, a blend of 90% cabernet sauvignon and 10% cabernet franc, and apparently it was not easy to make. The vines were planted along the slopes of the Yunnan province, near Tibet, where modern technology isn't readily available. "There's no electricity there. We had a generator for light," Jean-Guillaume said to me at one point. "There was no temperature-controlled fermentation. It was very basic winemaking."

Personally, I was intrigued. After hearing about yaks for transport (and local cuisine), the hashish cover crops, and the winding, treacherous mountain roads being traversed to make this dream a reality, I was definitely eager to taste the wine. Seeing that this was an LVMH luxury experience, I was expecting something polished—a smooth, round, silky, airbrushed, modernly-styled wine. Instead, I was treated to old school, back-to-basics truth. There's nothing flashy or fake about the Ao Yun. It's full-bodied and rich in weight, but the more nuanced flavors range from bell pepper to black pepper and the finish seems much more mature than the 2013 vintage date. We were all rather taken aback—in a good way. "The harvest in Bordeaux usually happens 120 after flowering," Prats explained to us as we nosed the glass. "Whereas here it takes 160 days to achieve optimum ripeness, so the grapes are slow-cooked." It's a dark wine, both in the glass and on the palate. There's black fruit as well as an opaque density to the eye. No one at the table could find a suitable comparison.

"But how will it pair with food?" I whispered to Clyde after we tasted. We were about to find out. Dim sum was passed out, followed by peppered beef and Chinese-styled lamb chops. The gamey and savory flavors of the meat were the perfect companion. "This actually goes with Chinese food," I said to Paul as we compared notes. He was pretty stoked on the wine as well. "But are you ready to spend $250 a bottle?" I said with a smile. That's when the two ladies sitting across from us raised their hands and said, "We are!"

I've always liked Jean-Guillaume and as an enthusiast I appreciated the way he presented the wine; its challenges, difficulties, and its optimistic outlook for the future. As the former head of Cos d'Estournel, he and Clyde have been friends for years. Along side my buddy Lester Lopez, I've been working with LVMH on the spirits side of things for some time as well and I've always admired the way they've handled their brands like Ardbeg and Glenmorangie. I'll be very curious to see how this project plays out. It's a bold attempt at luxury on a level that the industry has not yet seen. Prats compared it philosophically to the Penfolds Grange, the original Australian experiment by Max Schubert who tried to make a world-class wine from the southern hemisphere back in 1951. We all know where that ended up (hint: wine of the year in 1995). Will the release of Ao Yun mark the beginning of a similar wine culture in China?

It's a damn good start.

-David Driscoll