Grapes with altitude: Shangri-La hosts its first international wine festival

The name ‘Shangri-La‘ might evoke the earthly paradise of utopian novel Lost Horizon, but this stunning region in northernmost Yunnan is also making real efforts to plant a high-altitude flag on the world’s fine wine map.

The first Meili Snow Mountain International Wine Festival is the latest effort by a region that already has wine fame thanks to top brands like Xiaoling and LVMH’s Ao Yun — can we call them the region’s ‘Grand Cru-nnan’? — and an oenological history that features 19th-century European missionaries bearing vines.

Organized this month by the the local government, including its agriculture and commerce bureaus, the one-day outdoor festival included song and dance performances, a display area featuring local products, a wine tasting for 100-plus guests, and a forum, all with those snow-capped mountains as backdrop.

Growing Diversity

With a rising number of brands in Shangri-la, and other China wine regions making moves, the festival aims to further elevate a place that has attracted much attention these past dozen years. That includes major international operations, with LVMH’s Ao Yun officially founded in 2013. And more recently with Penfolds cooperating with Shangri-La Wines, the biggest fruit source.

Add a mix of ambitious entrepreneurs putting down roots and roving operations such as FARMentation, Xiao Pu and Petit Mont — which were pouring their wines at ProWine in Shanghai while this festival took place — and the seeds for an intriguing wine scene are already sown.

The results so far range from fine Cabernet-driven wines that make international critics swoon to superb ice wines to quirkier offerings, including riffs on grapes associated with those missionaries, such as Rose Honey, and even a juicy ‘orange’ Chardonnay.

Intriguing Story

I guess none of this is a surprise given the attraction of Yunnan. As I wrote in this story seven years ago for Wine Business International.

“In a world awash with wine brands, they say that good stories are essential. Yunnan has many: vineyards scattered in the far-flung valleys of a land called Shangri-La. Grape varieties thought extinct, thriving in a vinous Jurassic Park. Bordeaux-style blends with world-beating prospects; ice wines made at latitudes that favour mangoes; exotic concoctions named Rose Honey and French Wild.  

“Roughly equal to Switzerland in size and Spain in population, Yunnan is China’s southwest bulwark. It borders Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Its terrain spans plateaus, mountain ranges and rivers like the Mekong, Salween and Yangtze. And it produces a wide array of grains, vegetables and fruits along with well-regarded coffee, tea and tobacco.

“While it seems an unlikely candidate for premium wine – it lies so far south that the Tropic of Cancer cuts through it – winemaking in the region dates at least to the latter half of the 19th century, when European missionaries came bearing vines. Although the Ningxia region in the far north dominates the discussion of quality winemaking in China, Yunnan seems poised to make a few statements of its own.

The First Festival

I’ve attended many wine festivals across China and this one exceeded expectations for an inaugural event. The setting gave the organizers an impressive starting point: waking to the snow-capped Meili Mountain range drenched in sunlight. Enjoying that view while walking to the nearby festival area—after loading up on salty bacon, fried eggs, local noodles, yak butter tea and coffee—maintained the vibe.

For the festival, let me start at the end — an outdoor 100-plus person tasting of 11 wines that concluded the day.

The first wines poured were the heaviest hitting reds — even before the Chardonnay — Ao Yun, Shangri-La, Xiaoling, Bao Zhuang, Roduit. I like that moxie.

The total lineup of eleven included a mix of well-known brands and unknowns, ranging in quality from world class to “needs improvement”, and in style from dry reds to quality ice wines to a love-it-or-hate-it late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon. (I waffled and liked it.)

I sat beside a French winemaker based in Shandong province who gave helpful technical feedback on each wine that nicely balanced my hedonistic judgements.

The service was impressive: the staff precisely poured the wine, politely dealt with any issues and somehow kept track of which bottle each of us was tasting. Notable, especially under such conditions and for a first event.

As with other Chinese regions, there is a heavy focus on Bordeaux / France in terms of grape varieties and styles. (And of the handful of foreigners present, I was the only non-French.)

Given the region’s missionary history, it would be nice to present at least one grape variety linked to those pioneers, such as Rose Honey, especially as I’ve seen Bao Zhuang’s version featured in some bars and restaurants.

One tasting highlight was unexpected: a freelance winemaker named Martin W Ding brought his local orange Chardonnay unannounced and I tried that on the side. This had 8 months of skin contact, 17 months of aging in lightly toasted barrels and was bottled last month. Juicy and fruity—think grapefruit and tangerine—it made me think of pairing it with the salty bacon and slightly greasy eggs enjoyed that morning. Breakfast wine!

Unfortunately, for most at the tasting, and at a group dinner later that night, this orange wine was one to be ignored or tried with a grimace. It reminded me of visits a decade-plus ago to regions such as Ningxia, where if it wasn’t a Bordeaux-style red aged in new French oak, well, don’t expect much patience or audience.
In any case, the tasting was very well-organized. Yes, one could quibble about things such as “Western” baked goods being served during the tasting instead of the very worthy local snacks, but the quality of the wines, service and setting made this an afternoon to remember.

Now, back to the festival’s beginning. A few observations.

I understand the need for VIPs to make speeches. And the bigger the festival, the more the speeches. But enduring a dozen-plus consecutive addresses plus taped congratulatory messages from “famous” people worldwide, as I’ve experienced at festivals in Ningxia and elsewhere, is not especially enjoyable.

At the Meili Snow Festival, there were fewer and they were spread in a program with fantastic local song and dance performances. That included a harvest dance—a staple at China festivals—paired with wine-related videos, photos and info on numerous big screens.

Likewise, I participated in the “International Forum on High-Altitude Grape and Wine Industry” and this was also tightly organized. Moderated by professor Ma Huiqin of China Agricultural University, with Cui Kexu of Shangri-La Wines, Peter Dawa Pinchu of Ao Yun, Bertrand Cristau of Xiaoling and KOL Antoine Bunel, we each had about five minutes to make key points about wine in the region. (I’ll cover mine in a separate post.)

Finally, the festival included an area with booths featuring vendors of wines, including those not in the official tasting, and local products like honey, walnut oil, canned mushrooms, fruits and more. Yunnan offers a wealth of tasty treasures, and these can benefit from mutual association. Strength in numbers, I say!

The day’s icing on the cake—or its espresso after the wine—was the mobile coffee vendors on site who made as good an Americano or Latte as you will find anywhere on the road. Well done, Shangri-La.

That’s a quick look at what I believe will be the first of many such Meili Snow Mountain wine festivals, an impressive first effort, from the meals to the views, from the quality of the wine tasted to the people who were pouring them.

I have a couple more posts coming soon on Grape Wall, one on our tour to Ao Yun–two vineyards and the winery–and to Bao Zhuang, maker of Celebre, which has attracted much attention this year. And one on what I think are the five advantages of Shangri-La wines.

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