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Asia’s Answers to Bordeaux- Discover the Unique Wineries and Vineyards in Shambhala

The unique wineries and vineyards of Shambhala are becoming Asia’s answer to France’s Bordeaux with exciting high altitude wine.

Mar 14 2022

The spiritual kingdom of Shambhala is a mystical region. Home to a range of unique wineries and vineyards that rival the quality and flavours of French wine from Bordeaux, it is shrouded in legend.

The rugged yet stunning terrain is home to world-class Songtsam lodges and both old and up-and-coming vineyards that are producing Chinese wine of a global standard. With the area’s high altitude, the unique and sought-after wine environment is nestled in Shangri-La in the Tibetan highlands, to the northwest of Yunnan. With grapes planted between 6500-9500 feet above sea level, Tibet is making a name for itself in the altitude wine sector.

Traditionally, the majority of wine consumed in China has come from abroad. In 2016, there was a large boom that saw the import percentage increase 18% from the previous year. However, in recent years, and with the rise in popularity in local Chinese wine, more and more vineyards have opened in China.

Tibetans picking grapes Tibetans picking grapes

What Are High Altitude Vineyards?

Over the past few years, the effects of altitude on wine have become a key talking point. As a result, wine labels are increasingly including the phrase ‘‘high altitude vineyards’’ as a selling point. Some may regard this move as a clever marketing ploy to increase intrigue and interest by winemakers wanting to stand out from the crowd, but high altitude vineyards do produce characteristically different grapes.

You would not be the first to wonder what constitutes high altitude or what it means when it comes to wine. Only one association has attempted to give the term a definition and standard in the wine industry. The European Centre for Research, Environmental Sustainability and Advancement of Mountain Viticulture (CERVIM) has determined that ‘‘high altitude’’ can be used on labels for  vineyards at  a minimum of 1600 feet above sea level. Unsurprisingly, this altitude is relative and is viewed differently in different regions. In Europe, 1600 feet is  considered high, but  relatively low in Argentina. In Argentina, vineyards are often  between 2000 and 3600 feet above sea level, yet  generally haven’t been regarded as being “high altitude”, so the definition has a few grey areas.

Apart from the technicalities and meaning of ‘‘high altitude,’’ the phrase definitely emanates a mystical and ethereal connotation. In addition to the actual differences in grape qualities, just the idea of high altitude wine from the mountains of a spiritual area gives the wine an extraordinary characteristic and perception.

Tibet Highland Vineyards Tibet Highland Vineyards

Reasons Why Winemakers are Attracted to High Altitude Vineyards

The effect altitude has on grapes and vineyards is varied, especially when coupled with factors such as latitude, temperature, and the landscape. With the discovery of altitude wine, new potential vineyard areas that were considered unsuitable for wine have opened up. This is due to average diurnal temperatures (the difference in temperature between night and daytime) being more stable and lower in the higher altitude regions of previously too warm regions such as in Spain, Greece, and South Africa. In too hot areas, grapes will stop ripening and start shrivelling.

However, climate and altitude are not the only factors to consider when searching for the perfect vineyard location. The closer to the equator you search, the warmer the average annual temperature becomes, but other factors to consider include humidity levels, aspect (direction faced), and rainfall. These are all factors that come into play with tropical and warm locations.

On the other hand, mountains can also affect vineyards in close proximity  to them. For example, Alsace is one of France’s driest regions due to the nearby Vosges Mountains shielding from westerly rain-bearing winds. In Argentina, the Andes creates a rain shadow over vineyards which necessitates good irrigation. Meanwhile, fog, mist, and clouds hover over mountainous vineyards in Chile, whereas in California there is a cooling influence from the ocean not usually found in the warm areas. A culmination of factors alongside altitude affect wine quality and viability.

Winemakers are also attracted to vineyards at high altitudes because of the wind conditions . Vineyards on steep slopesexposed to the air tend to have a high wind factor, an often desirable trait. Providing that winds are  not too strong, particularly in hot or coastal areas, it  can help ward off plant diseases by cooling down vines and removing moisture from the air. Moreover, the wind helps  thicken the skin of the grapes,  makes them smaller, and more concentrated in flavour. Grapes with thicker skin result in deep coloration and the high tannin in red wines, while  producing a dark and richer  flavour profile.

Characteristics of Altitude Wine

Wine produced from high altitude vineyards is made from high-quality grapes that give us a great contrast between tannins. Wine from these vineyards is made from thicker and darker colored fruits which provide a very rich, concentrated wine that somehow also manages to be elegant, fresh, and harmonious at the same time.

The main advantage of vineyards on slopes at a high altitude is that they get more solar radiation. Coupled with this is the benefit of cool temperatures, particularly at night, which slows down the grapes’ ripening process, increasing the production of flavour compounds in the skin. At this altitude, while the flavour compounds are developing, the sugars in the fruit are ripening at the same slow rate, which results in the grapes often being fully harvestable before the sugar levels have risen to the threshold that would make them very alcoholic.

These more elegant wines with complex flavour profiles also have more pronounced and attractive acidity levels. The acidity levels of high altitude wines have allowed the flavours to be carried around the tastebuds more beautifully and smoothly. These acidity levels are only typically able to be achieved in cooler temperatures that can be found at high altitudes.

Though these are common characteristics of grapes grown in high altitude vineyards, wine grown at these heights can also differ due to site selection. The location of vineyards directly impacts the style, ripeness, freshness, and development of flavour in grapes. For example, sun exposure can alter the ripening process, causing grapes to be more sour than those with a longer ripening time in a shaded area.

Grapes from the highland vineyard Grapes from the highland vineyard

Famous Wine Grapes Produced by Tibet

Wine is an important part of Tibetan culture. The wine culture of Tibet is ancient and deep-rooted, used for centuries to warm the body and in celebrations of  many varieties. The most popular and oldest wine among the people of Tibet is Tibetan barley wine, which is a necessity in celebrating festivals. It is consumed by everyone. However, in recent years, the rise of other varieties, both traditional and modern, have been on the increase and are  receiving global recognition.

Traditional Varieties

Vineyards and wine have been transforming village landscapes and household farming throughout Tibet's valleys of and mountains. The most well-known and prevalent Chinese wine seller in the region is the “Shangri-La Wine Company”. Their wines are available for purchase at the Songtsam lodges. The boutique wine list also includes other traditional varieties such as Chardonnay.

European and American Hybrids

The region also is home to the European and American Icewine. Icewine, known as “Eiswein” in Europe, is made from Riesling grapes and is highly lucrative in Tibet. More lucrative than grain production, many farmers are turning to wine production using the crops from the seedlings planted by French and Swiss Catholic missionaries in the mid-1800s.

Eiswein Eiswein

Rose Honey

A Cabernet Sauvignon variety called “Rose Honey” is prevalent in the area and grew from the vines planted centuries ago for Catholic mass. Cultivating grapes is a ritual, and although the vineyards were blitzed in 1860, a French sommelier visiting the area in the 1990s rediscovered the last hidden acre of the rose honey grapes.

The production of rose wine by missionaries introduced the process of grape cultivation and winemaking to Cizhong. The rose honey grapes are dark and small, yet sweet and sour with an intense aroma. The grapes are picked in Autumn and early in the morning after frost when they are sweet and are fermented in clay vessels, a tradition that follows French methods.

Cizhong Catholic Church Cizhong Catholic Church

Representative Wineries in the Yunnan Province and Tibet

The main wineries of the Yunnan province and Tibet are Ao Yun and Shangri-La, whose styles are very different. The better wine is up for debate, and usually comes down to personal preference. Nonetheless, both wineries are incredible and represent their region well.

Ao Yun Winery

One of the highest vineyards in the world is Ao Yun vineyard owned by the LVMH Group. Established by Moet-Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, it is located in Shangri-La with wines reflecting the purity of the area. Shangri-La wines are known for being more subtle and reserved in flavor, being easily paired with meals. Furthermore, a custom wine experience can be designed for Songtsam guests at the winery.

Aoyun Wine Aoyun Wine

Shangri-La Winery

The Moet Hennessy Shangri-La Winery employs 120 Tibetan families from four surrounding villages to work by hand over 75 acres of vineyards. The winery provides Songtsam with local wines in both red and white varieties available for purchase at both the Songtsam Shangri-la Village and the Songtsam Shangri-la Lodge. Moreover, tours of the winery and wine tastings can be arranged for guests of the lodges.

Qushui County of Lhasa

The other prevalent vineyard in the area is in Cai Na Xiang, Qushui County of Lhasa. Sitting at more than 11500 feet above sea level, it has been recognized by Guinness World Records as officially being the highest vineyard in the world. The vineyard is planted with 11 different varieties, including Vidal, Muscat, and an indigenous Icewine variety named Bei Bing Hong.

Songtsam’s Boutique Wines

Wines at Songtsam lodges are carefully chosen with precision, delicacy, and balance in mind. So naturally, wines need to complement the vibrant flavours and textures of the local cuisines, and the Songtsam wine list does that impeccably. Included on the list are wines from Shangri-La vineyards.

Shangri-La Altiwine Chardonnay

This dry white wine is described as having notes of green apple and tree fruits and is made in the Bordeaux white wine style. Served cold, it pairs well with local cheese, Tacheng trout, and chicken breast.

Shangri-La Altiwine Cabernet

The Cabernet Sauvignon boasts hints of cases, a sweet black fruit. After decanting for 30 minutes, this wine is full-bodied and luscious. It pairs well with spicy dishes, duck, and yak.

Discover the Beautiful Wines of Shambhala

Steeped in legend and splendour, just like Shambhala, the wines of the Yunnan province and Tibet are luxurious. Being hailed as the answer to Bordeaux, high altitude vineyards in Tibet are quickly making a name for themselves and are gaining reputation and interest at an exponential rate. Songtsam lodges proudly feature these wines in their boutique collections and are thoughtfully celebrated. Visit Songtsam Cizhong Lodge or Songtsam Tacheng Lodge to experience the nearby spiritual wine culture and taste the delicate grapes of the region.