In the latest edition of How to Succeed, we ascend into the foothills of Shangri-La (albeit, figuratively) to chat all things vinous with Maxence Dulou, winemaker and estate director of Ao Yun.
Unlike the Chinese companies operating in the tech, telco and financial sectors these last several years that have gained international recognition, few have been brave enough to venture in the country’s wine sector (especially in the current political climate) in order for it to achieve a similarly lucrative status shift.
By most accounts, China is on track to become the world’s largest single market for red wine by 2025; though until now, that demand has been driven by storied French brands with a proven reputation, with genuine homegrown producers — who reflect China’s growth as a serious wine-producing region — largely taking a backseat. Along with a handful of other rugged individualists, Maxence Dulou is determined to change this.
Since 2013, Dulou has been LVMH’s man on the ground in Yunnan (China); building a burgeoning new winery in the province’s vast westerly expanse — an area that’s virtually at the foot of the Himalayas. It is called ‘Ao Yun’ (Mandarin for “flying above the clouds”) and, in all likelihood, represents the best hope for a uniquely Chinese wine with global prospects.
Dulou’s appointment underscores just how serious LVMH are about creating the first ‘Made in China’ Grand Cru: A native of Sauternes with two decades of experience under his belt, he got his start studying the National Oenology Diploma (DNO) before working as a scientific consultant to some 30 estates throughout Bordeaux. Subsequent postings in South Africa and Chile helped to hone the unique vineyard management skills needed for the unconventional ‘high altitude low amplitude’ setting of Ao Yun.
The final puzzle piece emerged in 2005 — when Dulou returned to France to join Château Quinault. Shortly thereafter, the estate was acquired by Cheval Blanc (the only Premier Cru Bordeaux in LVMH’s portfolio), giving him the opportunity to learn the secrets of viticulture at the highest level. Through his connection to the latter, Dulou was ultimately tapped to lead Ao Yun — where he has been toiling in vineyards at celestial altitudes, now for nearly a decade. To celebrate the 2016 vintage’s release — already being hailed as the most polished expression of Ao Yun’s unique, multi-altitude style — Dulou spoke to us about how he got his start, the importance of “synchronicity” and what it’s like to blend wine 2,600m above sea level.
For those who aren’t familiar with the wine world, give us a brief overview of your career. Was there a specific moment — before or after you graduated from the DNO program (2001) — which really inspired you to become a winemaker?
I grew up in the Bordeaux region: So it just so happened that during my childhood I was often in and around vineyards. Admittedly, I spent most of my time dirt- and mountain-biking [laughs]. Even long before I started my career, I was already learning about wine — in a manner of speaking. My mother is a fantastic cook, and using the medium of food she taught me much about complexity, balance and the expressiveness of terroir.
A few years later, I settled on the goal of being a winemaker by simply considering what I’d want to pursue for the rest of my life. I knew I wanted to spend my time ‘in action’ — definitely not behind a desk. Cultivating plants and harvesting fruit seemed to bring me the most joy; and offered the added bonus of following in my grandparents’ footsteps (they grew and sold their own plants in Bordeaux). Travel, cultural exchange, and the opportunity to practice chemistry were also considerations which mattered to me. So, it was more an accumulation of things — as opposed to any one specific moment — that turned me onto this path.
Who is one person who has been instrumental in your success?
There have been a few. I credit my mother and grandparents for helping to hone my taste and inculcate a love of plants at a very young age. In terms of winemaking, I studied with a fantastic master from the region of Entre-Deux-Mers, named Jean-Marie Jacob. Later, I was deeply inspired by Denis Dubourdieu: Initially he lectured at my university, and I later ended up working with him because he happened to be a consultant for Cheval Blanc around the time when I was the estate manager at Château Quinault (the latter was technically under management by Cheval Blanc). Last but not least, I learned a lot from Michel Rolland — whose work with Bordeaux (particularly in the Pomerol châteaux) is world-renowned!
When did you realise you had something truly special on your hands with Ao Yun? You have to admit, there’s quite a lot of resistance to the idea of a world-class wine that’s ‘Made in China.’
To be honest, I understand the scepticism people have. It even took me a few years — a trained winemaker — to be convinced that this singular place [Shangri-La] was capable of yielding unique, world-class red wine (which also had to have long cellaring potential). I’d say my confidence in Ao Yun has grown slowly and steadily. We now have seven vintages of experience to look back on, plus three additional years of weather data.
I’d say it was after a few years worth of analysis, observation, study and many tastings and re-tasting that I was convinced we were on the right track.
In the course of your career, describe one of the toughest or most challenging experiences you’ve been through. What was the most valuable thing you learned?
In 2001 — when I arrived in South Africa. At the time, I was a young winemaker responsible for the first ever wine lab in Stellenbosch. The place was in the midst of a leadership crisis because during the preceding years it had frequently generated inaccurate analyses which, in turn, gave winemakers bad data to work with.
I’d originally gone to South Africa to work in the vineyards, but ultimately ended up spending all of my time in the lab trying to improve its accuracy. I distinctly recall plenty of local winemakers telling me to “stay in the lab,” rather than going into the wineries to help them. That was pretty stressful and disappointing, though it did help me realise that winemaking is a broad discipline — one in which you should be prepared to never stop learning.
What, in your opinion, is an essential characteristic for a good winemaker?
There’s this quote by the proprietor of La Coulée de Serrant, Nicolas Joly about how a good winemaker should think of himself as “nature’s assistant.” I love that notion.
Being in the position you are now, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
It sounds slightly ridiculous but I’d say it’s important not to forget your dreams. Tied up with that is the concept of synchronicity — something that is actually very familiar to guys like me and Hervé Bizeul (of Le Clos des Fées) who spend all our time working in the vineyards. Hervé explained the idea as “a compromise between things you can control and those you cannot,” and it just so happens that I’d actually embraced the concept some years earlier in 2012. At the time, I was three years into studying to become a certified agronomist — with a wife and two young kids — when LVMH showed up on my doorstep to offer me this unique opportunity. I thought to myself “this is something you can control,” and thus began my adventure with Ao Yun.
What does an average day at Ao Yun look like for you?
When I’m in Adong [one of the four villages making up the estate], I start the day by checking in with Remi Vincent, our vineyard manager. Here we harvest fruit from more than 100 blocks suspended on a sharp incline above the Mekong River, in the shadow of snowy peaks ranging between 5,000-7,000m above sea level. Afterwards, we drive to Shuori — the second of our four villages (situated at 2,600m). The route can sometimes be perilous because the roads are prone to falling rocks, mud slides and motor accidents. To finish, we usually assemble the technical teams from our vineyard and cellar — including Zhao, our assistant winemaker — in order to taste a few dozen of the wines from the various terroir.
You’d think that after a day like this, you’d have no trouble falling asleep but the high altitudes make that quite difficult — even for those who are adapted to the location. Still, it’s not a terrible price to pay for such clean air, warm hospitality and such an unforgettably beautiful setting.
You’ve previously said the goal is to make “wines [which] won’t be a copy of Bordeaux or any other existing terroir” but rather that they’ll be pitched at the quality of a top Bordeaux “with distinctive aspects of balance reflecting the high altitude of Shangri-La.” Can you expand on that?
So, our long-term goal for the project centres on creating a fine wine able to compete on the world stage, that also possesses certain unique Chinese characteristics. These are expressed through elegance, freshness, complexity, and the potential for lengthy ageing.
You don’t initiate a four-year search and invest this level of capital into such a remote place just in order to copy something. For that reason, we strove to attain the elegance and complexity you find in excellent Bordeaux blends, but we’ll get there by creating something that is specific to our unique variety of terroir.
The 2016 vintage has just launched — would you mind doing a brief recap for us of the harvest and weather that preceded this vintage? Has anything in the vinification process changed since 2015?
Another novel characteristic at Ao Yun is how we still have the capacity to flesh out our archetypal ‘style’ with each new vintage. Usually, in other more ‘iconic’ places, winemakers have decades (sometimes even centuries) of qualitative experience with terroir, meaning that the climate is the main parameter for improving each successive vintage.
Thus, because we’re still learning about our soil and cultivar season-to-season, we have the ability to adapt and improve the accuracy of the vinification process. 2016 is the first vintage, for example, where we managed to identify 30 different micro-terroirs. We did that by further dividing our 900 existing sub-blocks, because even though a single subdivision is tiny (area-wise) there’s still too much diversity. Then, every season, we customise the vineyard management processes for each individual terroir — down to the way we do pruning and harvest.
In addition, 2016 is the first time at Ao Yun that we’ve decided on the exact composition of the final blend outside of the estate. Crucially, we did the final tasting workshop in Hong Kong — enabling us to get a lot closer to the ‘archetypal’ style that we want for our wine. This is crucial, because when we’re tasting out of barrel at 2,600m, lowered atmospheric pressure; less oxygen; and below-average humidity mean your palette is much less accurate than it would be under more normal conditions.
One of the benefits of being such a young estate is that Ao Yun has a relatively small portfolio of wines: Do you have a personal favourite so far?
That’s a tough call: For reasons I’ve just mentioned, each vintage varies pretty drastically. Right now, I’m really enjoying the 2016 — it’s the closest so far to the style that I imagined for Ao Yun. 2013 is my runner-up, because it was our inaugural vintage and the fact that we even managed to produce it was quite miraculous. There were so many challenges we were facing at the term: Building the business from scratch, creating the infrastructure for the vineyards; and all that was before we even got to the winemaking!