This is the best vintage of Ao Yun to date and also the highest-scoring Chinese wine I have ever reviewed. It, therefore, requires a more detailed account to understand why. The 2019 Ao Yun is a blend of 67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 10% Syrah and 6% Petit Verdot (this latter emanating from the village of Sinong). Notably, Merlot did not make the grade in 2019, which was less to do with vintage but, according to winemaker Maxence Dulou, more a function of Merlot vines at an adolescent stage of development (at five to six years of age, Dulou feels Merlot doesn’t produce the most interesting fruit compared with younger or older vines). The relatively cooler and wetter winter prior to 2019 gave the vines decent reserves, but the drier and warmer than expected spring meant some irrigation was required around budburst and flowering. Overall, across Ao Yun’s different villages sites—Xidang, Sinong, Shuori and Adong—2019 witnessed a warm, healthy growing season and not too warm autumn with yields at their lowest to date (around 16 hectoliters per hectare rather than the average of 20-22 hectoliters per hectare). The long harvest commenced in Xidang on September 9th and finished in Adong on November 21st. Of the varieties above, the proportion of fruit was drawn from the villages in order of elevation as follows: 23% from Xidang, 21% from Sinong, 32% from Shuori and 24% from Adong. In the harvest as a whole, only 53% went into Ao Yun’s top wine, with tiny percentages being used for the Villlage Cru reds (6% each) and 2% for the 2019 Chardonnay. Thus 33% of the harvest was not used for Ao Yun at all. But what of the wine? The 2019 Ao Yun has an intensely deep purple appearance. On the nose, there is already appealing, immensely powerful dark fruit showing abundant cassis, black cherry, bramble, blackberry and blueberry fruit with some subtle, leafy herbaceous character (sage, green bell pepper, mint) combining with very well-integrated new oak notes of vanilla, clove, toast and smoke (note that Ao Yun only sees around 35% new French barriques with the remainder being matured in stoneware vessels and old oak). On the palate, the wine is immensely full-bodied but far from heavy, with vibrant acidity and very coating, ripe, fine-grained and polished tannins. Dulou reports that this was the first vintage when the entire harvest was gravity-fed through their winemaking facility in Adong with much gentler crushing resulting in partially opened berries retaining seeds inside (even through to racking the wine off gross lees). He also now opts to ferment in narrow, higher-filled vessels, which results in easier cap management, a less-aerated cap with less thermal variation. All of which helps explain the refinement and integration of tannin in the 2019. There is a scintillating core of complex fruit, herbaceous character and subtle new oak notes that are harmoniously integrated. With its very long length, the 2019 Ao Yun is unsurprisingly very youthful and will show better from 2023 at the earliest, even if it can already be appreciated. It will also develop impressively in bottle over the next 15 years or so. In sum, 2019 is the completest statement to date of everything Ao Yun has aspired to be in terms of attaining the best blend achievable from this complex patchwork of vineyard sites stretched across different villages at markedly different elevations.
- Edward Ragg (2023)