Felton Road, Central Otago, New Zealand   
Visiting this important Central Otago winery, known for its stunning Pinot Noirs

Felton Road is one of the legendary names in New Zealand wine. They’re probably the most famous of the Central Otago wineries, making some highly regarded Pinot Noirs. I visited for the first time back in 2010, and it proved an appropriate starting point for my first experience of the region. I was hosted then by assistant winemaker Todd Stevens (now winemaker at Neudorf), as chief winemaker Blair Walter (who has been at Felton Road since the 1997 vintage) was away on a Pinot Noir boot camp. 


The winery and The Elms vineyard

My second visit was three years later, in January 2013, and this time I was taken around by owner Nigel Greening and Blair Walter. 


Nigel Greening

Some history. Felton Road dates back to 1991, when Stewart Elms planted the Elms Vineyard on Felton Road, in the Bannockburn district of Central Otago. Current owner Nigel Greening first purchased Cornish Point Vineyard in 1998 (an 8.6 hectare block), and then in 2000 purchased Felton Road with the Elms Vineyard, which now has 14.6 hectares of vines.  

The entire estate is now run biodynamically, although currently the wines aren’t certified biodynamic, just organic (there was a problem with the certification process). The heart of the range consists of a series of five world-class Pinot Noirs: Cornish Point, Block 3, Block 5, Calvert (a leased 10 hectare neighbouring vineyard whose fruit has until recently been shared with Craggy Range and Pyramid Valley Vineyards) and the regular Bannockburn Pinot Noir. They’re all worth seeking out, and show their subtle differences in site very well. In addition, three superb Rieslings and a couple of solid Chardonnays make up this exciting range.


Cornish Point Vineyard

I began my first visit with a look at Cornish Point vineyard, which is beautifully situated just across the water from the town of Cromwell. It’s a spit of land sticking out into Lake Dunstan, and its 8.6 hectares are split into 25 different blocks, with 18 combinations of rootstocks and clones of Pinot Noir. Cornish Point Pinot Noir was released under its own label from 2003–2006, but from 2007 this has been a single-vineyard Felton Road wine. ‘There’s a generosity to Cornish Point,’ says Todd. ‘It’s an important vineyard, making a generous, attractive wine.’ The fruit that doesn’t go into the single-vineyard bottling goes into the regular Felton Road Pinot Noir, for which it is an important component.

~
Calvert (and below)

Next we headed over to Calvert, a gently sloping, north facing vineyard first planted in 1999, with two more planting phases in 2001 and 2003. The soils are deep silt loams, with moderately high fertility. The vineyard is quite consistent, and because it is a bit lower down than the Elms, it ripens sooner. Interestingly, the fruit from this leased vineyard, managed by the Felton Road team, has for a number of years been split three ways, with Calvert wines also being made by Craggy Range and Pyramid Valley Vineyards. The three different wines that result are an interesting case study in how three excellent wineries each imprint their own stylistic influences on grapes from the same site. Does the terroir come through in the wines, or is winemaking the overriding influence? In the future, however, the impact of a divorce on the owner means that half of the vineyard was put up for sale, and Felton snapped it up, taking the three Pinot Noir blocks Willows, Aurum and Springs. This means that the three-way split will cease.

Finally, we had a look at the Elms vineyard, which is the home block of Felton Road, surrounding the winery building. It was planted over two phases (blocks 1–9 1992–1994 and 10–13 in 2001). There are currently 8.1 ha of Pinot Noir, 4.1 ha of Chardonnay and 2.2 ha of Riesling, all matched to the specific soil types that best suit each variety.

Felton recently acquired a new site, MacMuir, which is next to Calvert and which they planted in 2013 with Pinot Noir. It’s another 5.8 hectares, bringing the total vine area they own to around 32 hectares in total. ‘That’s all we want,’ says Nigel. ‘We have no intention of growing beyond this.’


Blair Walter

So, to my second visit. When Nigel Greening collected me from Queenstown airport, I was probably not in the best condition, after 22 hours to Auckland, followed by a frantic sprint with bags to the domestic terminal to try to make my tight connection.

So what has changed of late at Felton?

‘One of the things we have been really keen to do in the last few years has been to step back as far as we can from all forms of winemaking decision,’ says Nigel.

‘At any point where a winemaker has to make a decision, we ask ourselves whether it is possible to complete that step without having to intervene, because by definition all interventions are a human distortion in the process.’

‘You have to have a “recipe” – a winemaking process – but we run an identical process for all the wines. The only thing that changes is small changes in length of élevage for a couple of the large cuvées. And if we saw a significant change in fruit character due to vintage, it might provoke a slight change in our stem percentage. But that is the degree of the tone control that we allow ourselves.’

‘All the wines are essentially coming in between 25 and 30% whole bunch. The whole bunches go into the bottom of a fermenter and then it is topped up with whole berries. There is a 5–10 day cold soak before a spontaneous wild ferment. If we are not getting a ferment kicking off we will warm it slightly. Generally, they will do it themselves. We haven’t opened a packet of yeast for eight years.’

Felton Road are taking part in yeast researcher Matt Goddard’s study. Goddard has been looking to characterize the populations of yeasts in vineyards, wineries and wines. At Kumeu River, where he started his research, he found that the yeasts that did the wild ferments in the Chardonnays were local to the area and even the vineyard.

I asked Nigel Greening what results had been obtained at Felton Road. ‘It is exactly the same result as found at Kumeu River – the biggest single cohort is unique to place, and this is 30–35% of the yeasts. The second largest cohort tracks back through the barrels to the forests the oak was grown in. This is really interesting for Chardonnay if you are barrel fermenting. They can track those back by oak origin. Then for the cohorts after this it gets harder to define where they came from. Just as with Kumeu River, Matt Goddard couldn’t find a single strain that tracks back to a laboratory yeast, so we were clean.’

I asked Nigel whether he thought that the yeasts were part of the terroir. ‘Yes, but I can’t tell you what part. Virtually everything we call flavour in wine from the fruity/aromatic side are fermentation products. They don’t come from the fruit. My assumption is that the aromatic precursors in the fruit are the pathway that then go through the yeast to create the aromatic chemicals we sense. Any Sauvignon Blanc maker will tell you the choice of yeasts has a profound effect on flavour. In our case it must similarly play a part.’

What is the winemaking here, for Pinot Noir? ‘The ferments would be getting three punch downs a day and then post ferment maceration for around a week. Typically 21 days on skins is the cycle. There’s nothing particularly unusual in any of this. The wine is moved by gravity by barrel, where it spends anywhere from 11 months to 18 months. Bannockburn has to be 11 months because we need the barrels by next vintage. The others get 15 months but we let Block 5 have an extra 3 months. It does the whole second winter because it has more stuffing in it, it seems to like it. We do wild malolactic fermentations, no fining and no filtration.’

‘The only additions that go into the wines are the occasional use of enzyme. We find that we do need some enzyme use as a preferable alternative to filtration. If we didn’t use the enzyme we would have to filter.’

One of the issues in Central Otago is that the acidity of the wines during fermentation is unstable, which makes it very hard to avoid adding acidity. ‘It is seen quite widely around the world: its happens in Oregon and elsewhere in New Zealand. There seems to be acid instability during fermentation and you can lose anything up to 3 g of acid over the course of fermentation. The normal practice in most wineries in the region is to do acid measurements daily during fermentation and then to add tartaric acid to balance this out,  the objective being is to end up with a wine that has the same TA at the end of fermentation as happened at the beginning. No one has come up with a convincing explanation for what is causing this.’

‘One thing that intrigues us is that it is a much smaller phenomenon at Cornish Point than it is at our other two vineyards. There is no difference in viticulture, winemaking, clones, rootstocks or vine age that accounts for this. We are assuming there is something about the climate or soils at Cornish point that results in better acid stability. We are working on this at the moment with some researchers. If we can find an explanation then we might be able to deal with it, and then it would be nice not to have to acidify.’

‘The wines have a small sulfur dose as they go into the fermenter, then they are sulfured a second time once they have completed malo, and we adjust the level to 30 ppm free to go to bottling. This is for Pinot Noir.’

In some ways this is a test case of terroir, because Felton Road do the same winemaking for all the wines. ‘We try not to making any blending decisions, and we also try not to taste the wines with a view to adjusting or making blending decisions. Essentially, Block 3 and Block 5 are those blocks, with the exception of young vines from these blocks which get blended into Bannockburn, our “village” wine. When it comes to Cornish Point and Calvert, about 30–40% will go to a single-vineyard bottling, and the balance goes to Bannockburn. So we have a dilemma: we have to choose which 30–40% to use. There will typically be eight lots from each of the vineyards, and we will taste them about three times, blind. We score them not for their quality as a wine but for their expression of site. The wines that get the highest scores for Calvertness, depending on how big the lots are, we will take sufficient wine down that scoresheet and then draw the line. The Calvertiest ones become Calvert, and those that show the least Calverntess go into Bannockburn. The same applies to Cornish Point. Calvert is the more elegant, tighter, more linear wine. Cornish Point is volutuous, perfumed. This is naturally what this vineyard does and we want to show that expression of site as clearly as we can.’

‘The important thing is that if we have decided that three lots make up Calvert, we will not put the three together, taste the blend, and see whether we like it. It simply goes into the bottling tanks and the first time we try it is when it is going down the line. It is an assembly and we don’t taste it until it is too late. It is a conscious part of our letting go of a human decision making process.’  

I asked Nigel the boring question about closures, and when he switched to screwcaps. ‘We started in 2001. We did both 2001–2004, and by then we didn’t want to see another cork, so we stopped the trial. Since then we have just been screwcap. We had to continue doing magnums in cork because we couldn’t get bottles. We still have to do jeroboams in cork, and we use Diams for these.’

‘The thing I found most convincing is that when we would open cork and screwcapped wines blind, occasionally you’d get a perfect cork, and then you couldn’t tell the difference blind. That told me everything I needed to know.’

Central Otago is quite a new region, so in some ways it is a test case of seeing the effects of vine age, especially in Pinot Noir. ‘Our oldest vines now are 21 years old, and we have cohorts going back. We see a fairly profound change around the 10–12 year point. The vines respond less, their roots are deeper, there is greater inner strength to them. The wines show less variance, they are less fickle and there is more permanence. They don’t get bigger: the may get more structural, but the difference is subtle. There is a solidity around them. Everyone around here expresses the same thing a different way: the older vine quality just has a feel of permanence about it. We would be typical within the region. I did a graph of average vine age in Bannockburn Pinot the other day. It was at a relative high point when I came to the winery in 2000, because it was relying almost entirely on plantings made in 1991/2/3. Then as we started to expand and plant new vineyards the vine age progressively dropped. It took us to 2009 to get back to a new high point. For our Bannockburn Pinot Noir, the average vine age will be about 12 years.  A lot of producers are in a similar situation, and it’s true across much of New Zealand. Most of the big improvements we are seeing are coming from better viticulture, better understanding of climate and how to respond to it, and vine age. New Zealand Pinot Noir is getting better year on year because of this.’

In terms of future directions, Nigel would like to be able to harvest a little earlier, and have slightly lower alcohol levels. ‘With Pinot Noir we now understand that we have an earlier picking opportunity, but it is a very brief one. We will have to harvest in 7–8 days, as opposed to 18, which is typical, so we will need a lot more people.’ He says he will be happy if he could pick at 13.8–14.2 potential alcohol, rather than the 14–14.2 that he currently does. ‘I would like brilliance without getting nailed with green phenolics.’

The focus here is on Pinot, but what about Chardonnay? ‘Chardonnay might be New Zealand’s greatest strength. It’s at least as strong a story as Pinot Noir. To my sorrow it has such a low profile.’

 

THE WINES

Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
Fresh and perfumed with sweet black cherry fruit nose, quite fine and expressive. Supple, fresh, sweet, elegant and rounded on the palate with good acidity and a bit of spicy warmth. 93/100

Felton Road Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
Smooth, supple and rounded with lovely generous cherry and plum fruit. Quite ripe, generous and silky with no rough edges. 93/100

Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
Beautifully perfumed nose of fine, fresh cherries and plums. Aromatic and precise. Lovely freshness on the palate with fine tannins and good acidity. A supple wine with lovely precision. 95/100

Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
A wine that Nigel Greening describes as having, ‘a beginning, a middle and an end.’ There’s a hint of green on the nose as well as some bergamot. The palate has nice structure and acidity giving a backbone to the plum and cherry fruit. Precise, with a hint of earthiness. 95/100

Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
Lovely cherry, herb and spice here, with good structure. Quite rich but also has nice savoury freshness. Sweet supple rounded cherry and berry fruit. Lovely weight. 94/100

Felton Road Elms Chardonnay 2011 Central Otago New Zealand
Very little oak here. Apples, pears, herbs: it’s fresh and fruit-driven with direct, rounded fruity characters and a hint of nuttiness. Fruity and simple at the moment but with potential to develop. 88/100

Felton Road Bannockburn Chardonnay 2011 Central Otago New Zealand
Tight, fresh and focused with a fine, toasty nose and some white peach and apple fruit. Textured and fine on the palate with nice acidity and subtle nuttiness. Delicate style. 92/100

Felton Road Block 2 Chardonnay 2011 Central Otago New Zealand
100% Mendoza clone, which typically has a grapefruit pith back note. Sweet, mealy, nutty, toasty edge to the nose with fine white peach and pear fruit. Very fresh with nice acidity and pure pear fruit, as well as some citrus. Pure, bright and fruit driven; fine and expressive. 93/100

Felton Road Dry Riesling 2012 Central Otago New Zealand
12% alcohol, made in a Trocken style from schist/gravel soils. Tight and vigorous with limey fruit and a hint of fruit sweetness. Lovely rounded fruit here: it’s dry, but not at all austere. 91/100

Felton Bannockburn Riesling 2012 Central Otago New Zealand
Schist gravel, 8.5% alcohol. Great precision here with lemony fruit, some grapefruit, and nice sweetness balancing the acidity (it’s off-dry). Mouthwatering, sweet and fresh with lovely juiciness. This is the same wine as the dry Riesling, but for this portion fermentation was stopped, leaving 65 g/litre residual sugar. TA is 9.5 g/litre. Very convincing. 93/100

Felton Road Block 1 Riesling 2012 Central Otago New Zealand
Grown on loess, which is more Pinot soil. 8.5% alcohol. Rich-textured and generous with melon, pear and apple notes. The heavier soil gives more peach and less lime. Lovely balance on this wine though, and nice sweetness (67 g/litre residual sugar, TA 9.6 g/litre). 92/100

wines tasted 01/13

A film of the visit:

Older notes 

Tasted in London in October 2010:


Blair Walter

Blair Walter, chief winemaker, presented these wines. '2009 is amazing for us,' he says. We regard it as the best vintage we have ever seen. 2010 was also good, but it's hard to say whether it will be better than 2010.' Blair also talked about his use of whole bunches in the ferment. 'We typically put in a quarter whole bunch and destem the rest of the bunches. And then when we punch down we don't go to the bottom of the tank. After 28 days you can still pull out whole bunches. They have fermented inside [the intact berries] and there is still some sweetness that is pulled out.' He thinks this remaining sweetness is important because it keeps fermentation ticking along for a while. 'Burgundians typically chaptalise in six-to-eight small additions. This results in a slightly stressed fermentation producing more glycerol. This changes the texture and adds some fruit sweetness. It surprises me that more people don't use whole bunches.' Blair thinks the weakness of New Zealand Pinot Noir is that often there is just pure fruit with something missing. 'We are lucky in Central Otago that we have that platform of fruit. We can then go searching for more interesting characters.'

In 2009 he averaged around 28% stems. Most fermenters have between 10% and 35% stems. They used to do one fermenter with just whole bunches (including the stems, of course) each year, but have now given up. 'For us it is too much,' he says. 'It is interesting but the wine becomes too herbal - it is like a hessian sack character.' But he is keen on using some stems. 'I believe it gives us an edge to transform one-dimensional fruity aromas and flavours, but also texturally: we get more chewy, chocolatey tannins.'

'With stems, people expect the wines to become angular. I find the opposite. Destemmed wines taste more angular. A lot of people don't have the courage [to use stems]; they aren't willing to tolerate earthiness and herbal characters in the wine.' 

Felton Road Chardonnay 2009
Complex, aromatic, toasty nose is fine and complex with some refined toastiness and a bit of citrus. Real purity. The palate is fresh and toasty with lovely elegant fine citrus fruit and subtle nuttiness. Thrilling. 94/100

Felton Road Medium Riesling 2009
Sweet limey nose with lots of fruit character. The palate is off-dry, fresh and textured with with smooth, sweet liminess and a hint of spicy complexity. 91/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Bannockburn 2009
Beautifully aromatic sweet cherry fruit nose is lively, fine and spicy with real elegance. The palate shows ripe but restrained cherry fruit with good structure and nice savoury bite. 93/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 2009
Thrillingly elegant nose with spicy aromatics and expresive red cherry fruit. The palate balances ripeness and elegance with pure, mineralic spicy cherry fruit. So pure and elegant, yet also concentrated. 96/100

Felton Road Cornish Point Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009
Highly aromatic with some sweet cherry fruit and a hint of herbiness. The palate is sweetly fruited and fresh with a touch of plumminess as well as good acidity. Lovely wine. 94/100

Felton Road Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009
Quite ripe with mineral and iodine notes as well as fresh cherry fruit. Fresh and quite intense with sappy, spicy, mineral notes and good acidity. 94/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir 2003
Sweet and spicy with rich, fudgy, spicy notes under the ripe, sweet fruit. Showing some evolution with sweet cherry fruit on the palate and some spiciness. Age seems to make this taste sweeter. 92/100

Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir 2003
Sweet, spicy and a bit herby with warmth on the nose. The palate is rich, spicy and elegant with a hint of earth to the sweet fruit. Lovely. 94/100

Tasted at the winery in January 2010:

Felton Road Pinot Noir 2008
A blend from all three vineyard sites: The Elms, Cornish Point and Calvert. Aged in 30% new oak for just under a year. Lovely elegant nose is forward, rich but balanced with spicy dark cherry flavours and some subtle meaty notes. The palate has lovely density and elegance, combining power with restraint, together with some earthy complexity. 93/100

Felton Road Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2008
15 months in oak. Lovely smooth, pure, elegant berryish nose with some really fine pure cherry fruit. Great sweet fruit purity. The palate is beautifully elegant and expressive with fine sweet cherry fruit underpinned by some minerality, with spicy notes too. Fantastic elegance here: really fine. 95/100

Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2008
This spends 15 months in oak, 30% of which is new. There’s a subtle spicy, meaty wildness to the nose here, with hints of iodine and some minerality. The palate is fresh and expressive: bright but taut with nice minerality and some earthiness. Quite old world in style, and beautiful. 95/100

Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir 2008
15 months in oak. Beautiful aromatics: smooth, pure cherry and berry fruit with some floral notes and a hint of herbiness. Again, a hint of iodine. Nice concentration and structure on the palate, with lovely focus and some nice weight. Finishes silky: a really expressive wine. 94/100

Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir 2008
This is right next to Block 3, but the main difference is that Block 5 has more clay in the soil. It spends 18 months in oak. Focused, taut nose is pure and aromatic with some spicy minerality and some non-fruit complexity. The palate is dense with firm structure underpinning the rich, dark cherry and berry fruits and a hint of herbiness. Well structured, this has promise for the future but is currently less seductive than the others. 94/100

A short film from my visit in 2010:

CENTRAL OTAGO SERIES
Felton Road
Mount Difficulty
Pisa Range 
Carrick
Rippon
Amisfield
Peregrine
Gibbston Valley
Quartz Reef

Wines tasted as indicated  
Find these wines with
wine-searcher.com

Back to top