Features 3 minutes 16 November 2017

The Vineyard Closest To Heaven

Perched high up in the Tibetan mountain is a winery that is one of the highest in the world, where French winemaker Maxence Dulou attempts to create a wine as pure as the natural surroundings of Shangri-La.

French China wine

About 2,000m above sea level sits one of the highest vineyards in the world. Deep in the mysterious and tranquil land known as Shangri-La, master French winemaker Maxence Dulou endeavours to combine his winemaking prowess with the essences of the air and soil there, in order to create an ethereal nectar.

Shangri-La literally means “the sun and moon in the heart”. Dulou happily left his home in Bordeaux for this near-paradise where the nature manifests itself at its best, from the stars in the sky to the running streams and rivers.

Maxence Dulou, winemaker from Moët Hennessy Shangri-La Winery.
Maxence Dulou, winemaker from Moët Hennessy Shangri-La Winery.
Dulou’s career in winemaking has led him to live in places like Saint-Émilion, where he worked for one of the world’s greatest wineries, Cheval Blanc, as well as Chile, South Africa and other countries from the New World in wine production. He was offered the opportunity to manage Moët Hennessy Shangri-La Winery after the LVMH group had spent four years searching for the perfect spot to set up this vineyard in the mountain, which began operation in 2012.
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Unlike Bordeaux, which has a time-honoured history in winemaking, Shangri-La wasn’t equipped with any knowledge and facilities. Dulou’s team had to start from ground zero, teaching the local Tibetans to do all the necessary preparation work. In addition, the high altitude also rendered the supplies of water and electricity unstable. Some of the machines required in the winemaking process couldn’t be transported into the vineyard either. All these constraints called for Dulou to channel his creativity to get out of his comfort zone and adapt to the terrain.

Besides working in a foreign land, the daily life there proved to be an immense hurdle, especially with the language barrier and cultural differences. 

Living in the ancient town of Dukezong in Yunnan Province, China, with his wife and two children, Dulou travels long distances to get to the vineyard, often not being able to return home for days.

One of the most trying incidents occured in 2014, when a fire devastated Dukezong. The lack of water put all the residents’ lives in danger. The Dulou family luckily escaped thanks to the help of his colleagues.

Yet, all these hardships did not deter Dulou.

“It’s every winemaker’s dream to discover a new terroir and create a great wine out of it. For me, Shangri-La is a dream come true. The landscape and the Tibetan culture around here are fascinating too. It’s really a rare opportunity,” he said.

His work finally bore fruit in 2016, when the first batch of vintage wine Ao Yun 2013 was launched. Ao Yun being a small production of 2,000 cases doesn’t diminish how much it means to Dulou, not after overcoming all the problems he experienced.

Worlds Apart, Similar Terroir

Though separated by thousands of kilometres, Shangri-La has an unexpectedly similar terroir to Bordeaux. The mountain climate is characterised by a sharp contrast in temperature between day and night, and low humidity, both beneficial for the cultivation of grapes. The biggest difference between the two locations is the fewer hours of sun Shangri-La receives, which makes the fruits to grow more slowly. In a way, it’s a blessing in disguise. The extra 40 days the grapes spend on the vine allow them to fully develop their phenols, acidity and sugar content.
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“Because of the height of the mountains, shadows form easily and reduce the time the grapes are exposed to sunlight. Instead, there’s stronger UV and drier air here,” Dulou said. Another important factor is the thinner air on the mountain. The oxygen content in the air there is 30% that of flatland. The road to finding the most suitable cultivation and winemaking methods is still long.

The varieties of grapes grown in the vineyard include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Dulou plans to extend the types of grapes he grows.

“The terroir here is like a combination of the old and new worlds. The biggest challenge for us is we don’t know enough about the natural environment here,” he explained.

The Way Of Shangri-La

The whole vinification process is completely done by hand at the Moët Hennessy Shangri-La Winery. The estate, with an area of 28 hectares, spreads across four villages and relies on local Tibetan workers.

“Right now, there are 120 Tibetan families working here. Everything is done by hand without any help from machinery,” Dulou said.

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Trimming the vine branches by hand, irrigation with the melted mountain snow and transportation via the native yaks are some highlights of the organic winemaking approach of Dulou’s vineyard. The winemaker has tremendous respect towards this traditional way of life.

“Farming is the trade of the Tibetans. They feed their animals with the produce they grow and, in turn, use the animals to help them grow the plants. It follows the nature’s order and we are trying to do everything we can to maintain this lifestyle,” Dulou noted.

Since last year, Dulou has been focusing on promoting his Ao Yun 2014 around the world. He’s very satisfied with this vintage composed of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc.

He said: “Ao Yun 2014 is the second vintage coming out of this magical adventure. It’s more complex than the first vintage 2013 because of the better weather and we’ve gotten a hang of running the winery.”

This story is written by Tang Jie and translated by Vincent Leung. Click here to see the original article.

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