A leading figure in Asian wine circles, Lu Yang is the world’s first and only Chinese Master Sommelier. He became global wine director, then wine consultant, for Asian luxury hotel brand Shangri-La Group in 2012. He is the founder of TOP|SOMM Studio, a wine consultancy for the hospitality industry in China, and Grapes & Co Institute, the leading wine education and service firm in China. He also works with non-wine brands, including San Pellegrino and Gaggenau.
Ever since James Hilton’s Lost Horizon was published in 1933, the name Shangri-La has become something of a legend. But despite the name of Shangri-La being so well known, few are familiar with it as a wine region – even the most dedicated sommeliers won’t be able to tell you much. Let’s hope that changes, because, for me, Shangri-La – in the northwest corner of Yunnan province in China’s southwest, sandwiched between Sichuan and Tibet province – has the potential to be one of the most exciting, high- quality wine regions in the world.
The reds are typically very intense, ripe and flavourful yet fresh with vibrant berry fruit, and distinctive graphite notes – vigorous yet polished wines of powerful structure, destined to age.
The terroir here is unique. The latitude is only 27°N, on a par with southern Morocco, giving a sub-tropical climate down in the valley. However, most vineyards are planted on the mountain ranges above 2,000m (some close to 3,000m). This means the UV light is very high, giving the wine intense colour and helping the tannins to ripen and soften. The high altitude also leads to a huge diurnal range, sometimes more than 15°C between day and night, giving the wines a marked freshness.
The mountains also provide shade, with 30% less sunshine than normal reaching the vines. But this is offset by the long growing season, stretching to 160 days between flowering and harvest. This not only guarantees sugar ripeness (alcohols above 15% are easily achieved), but more importantly pushes physiological ripeness to a whole new level, all without the sacrifice of freshness.
Challenges remain, including labour costs, logistical issues, language barriers, not to mention differences in local culture and religion… but this also means that Shangri-La can only aim for limited, and high-quality production.
While most current planting is of red varieties, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, we have only reached the tip of the iceberg in terms of the region’s versatility and potential. With planting at different altitudes, exposures, soil types and so on, the possibilities are almost infinite. Syrah and Cabernet Franc are a given. Chardonnay can perform well at higher altitude. Why not Pinot Noir and Riesling? Watch this space.
Lu’s top-pick producers in Shangri-La
This ambitious project by LVMH aims to put China on the fine wine map. Since its inaugural 2013 vintage, Ao Yun (2018, £255-£343 Berry Bros & Rudd, Brunswick, Hedonism) has succeeded beyond expectations. Winemaker Maxence Dulou crafts a structured, muscular style based on Cabernet Sauvignon to showcase the power and ageability of Shangri-La. Ao Yun also made three village-designated wines in 2018, and has made a Chardonnay since 2016.
This wine label created a buzz with its first release last autumn. Owner-winemaker Mu Chao trained in Burgundy and sharpened his claws by working vintages at Clos de Tart, JL Chave in the northern Rhône, Clos des Fées in Roussillon, and Vérité in Sonoma. It’s safe to say he’s not only technically solid, but also aesthetically sound and globally visioned. He makes an elegant, sensual Cabernet- based red, as well as a textural and mineral-driven Chardonnay in minuscule quantities. facebook. com/chao.mu.52
Created by Ian Dai, who sources grapes from different regions across China and makes low-intervention wines, including orange wine and pét-nat. He produces a couple of labels from Shangri-La, which are not as serious as Ao Yun or Muxin, but have a fun and post-modern vibe, and sell at a much lower price.