It was hard to get my head round the contrast. One day I’m shivering in a snowy, dark-skied London. The next, I’m sitting on an internal flight crossing the dividing range in New Zealand’s South Island, looking down at dramatic snow-capped peaks in laser-sharp light on my way to Queenstown, Central Otago.
I very nearly missed my flight, though. The Air New Zealand service from London on Sunday evening boarded on time (many flights were cancelled from Heathrow), but then sat on the stand for three hours waiting to be de-iced. With a three hour connection time scheduled in Auckland, I was a little concerned. Missing it would have meant missing out on Central Otago – there was no plan B, I was on the last flight of the day, and on this jam-packed itinerary I was only in Central for one day.
Arriving in Auckland with an hour between flights, I figured I had a good chance, only to then have to wait 20 minutes at the baggage carousel. They were 20 long minutes. After jogging from the international to the domestic terminal, I made the connection with five minutes to spare, and claimed my seat, all sweaty but grateful.
Central Otago is one of the world’s most ruggedly beautiful wine regions. The combination of mountains, water and mind-blowingly vivid light is a magical one. So it was with a sense of anticipation – and also regret that I was to stay here such a short time – that I walked off the plane to be greeted by Nigel Greening of Felton Road, the most celebrated of the region’s producers.
On the way to the winery, we stopped to look at one of the gorges where people much braver than me do some grade 5 white water rafting.
It’s the first time I’ve had a chance to chat seriously with Nigel, and he’s a wine writer’s dream interviewee. He is very smart, has in depth knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, and also has a broad perspective on the wine business gained through having worked at a high level outside it first.
We tasted through the current releases (2011 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; 2012 Riesling – full report to follow), and then headed off for dinner at Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter’s pad in Cromwell.
Blair (pictured above) and his wife Erin Shull (who imports barrels into New Zealand) have a spectacular property, on the shores of a lake.
As well as Nigel and I, their guests were Japanese journalist Yoshi Sato (of the Shuhan News), Kyoko Sato (who works at Felton Road as a viticulturist), and Kyoko’s husband Yoshi. Yes, that’s two Yoshi Satos.
Yoshi and Kyoko also make wine together. Sato Wines is their label, and these are naturally made with no additions save for a little sulfur dioxide at bottling. (One cuvee, which we did not try, has no additions at all.) These wines deserve a separate write-up.
It was a lovely dinner, on a beautiful evening. Even though it had taken me over 30 hours to get here, and I should have been horridly jet-lagged, I felt great. We began with a beautiful tart and salad combination which Nigel had rustled up, and then had a slab of beef, which had come from Felton Road’s own herd, and which Blair had cooked on his barbie to tender perfection.
Some older bottles of Felton Road were opened, all of which were screwcap sealed. The 2001 Riesling was pristine, tight and focused, showing no inclination at all to age. The 2004 Chardonnay had begun to develop, though, with rich figgy, peachy fruit – open and inviting. And the 2001 Block 3 Pinot Noir was incredibly sweetly fruited and inviting, with a bit of sweet and sour character. It is evolving very nicely, but perhaps could do with a little more focus?
Blair thinks that the current wines are heading in a more focused direction, and this is to do with picking time. The window where physiological (flavour) ripeness and sugar ripeness meet is quite short for Central Otago Pinot Noir, and Nigel and Blair are keen to speed up their harvest so that they can get everything in at the right time, compressing the picking down to 7 days rather than the typical 18. ‘If we pick at the right time, it gives us detail and finesse,’ says Blair.
The 2011 Pinot Noirs from Felton do not lack these qualities. It’s a vintage that had its problems, but which has yielded single vineyard wines that express their vineyard characters really well. My favourites from a very good line up were the 2011 Calvert and 2011 Block 3. But everything that Felton Road does is great – they are one of those few wineries where you can just buy anything you find with their name on it.