Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Postcard from Felton Road

Felton Road, famous for its Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Rieslings, was the last stop on our Family of Twelve visit to New Zealand.  They will be used to either being the first or last stop on any tour as they have the joy of being located in Bannockburn, Central Otago, the best part of 20,000 kilometres from London. They are also a couple of hundred to the nearest hospital with A&E, though there is an air ambulance service.  

Being this far south, 45.5º S, has a remarkable effect on the vines too.  It was noticeably cooler in the evenings here than even in Christchurch.  The day time temperature was around 22º C but by the evening it was more like 12º. Apparently this day/night temperature difference is nothing compared to some extremes they have experienced. Chief winemaker Blair Walter reports that in 2012 they had a 10 day period when it was 27º-29º C maximum in the day and below 3º C at night!  Now if you want to talk about day/night temperature making a difference to the retained acidity in grapes, that is something remarkable.  Then you have to add in the high UV here. Sun hats are compulsory in the vineyard as you will begin to burn after 10 minutes.  With just 350mm of rain per year, you have a climate which is perfect for ripening grapes.  The land here rises and falls quite sharply with the vineyards, like those of the Côte d’Or, being sited at 200-350m of elevation and subject to constant north or south winds.  Disease pressure is low and there is plenty of water to be had from nearby rivers.  Bannockburn which was first the site of a gold rush has – for good climatic, soil and water availability reasons – turned into a viticultural gold mine. 

A current debate here is whether to register Bannockburn, 325 hectares of prime vineyard land now virtually all planted to vines, as a Geographical Indication. This would certainly underline its distinctiveness, over against the other sub-zones of Central Otago. The problem is that you can only have one GI named on a label and so you could not also have Central Otago, the much better-known name of the wider region as well.  One solution would be to use Central Otago as the GI and set up a Bannockburn association with the self-imposed rule that 100% of grapes (not just 85%) have to come from the sub-region.  This can then feature prominently, for example on back labels.  

From experience, Felton Road has learnt to make the best use of its two principal soil types.  In the main, the schist and gravel soils (fan soils in Block 2) are used for Chardonnay and Riesling while the heavier, rather richer loess soils on the slope (Blocks 3 and 5) are best for Pinot Noir.  To achieve the highest quality stringent crop thinning is carried out.  In the perfect, warm conditions of the Bannockburn spring vines can set 20 good-sized bunches but green harvesting carried out on three or four occasions in the season these are reduced to 9-11 bunches which can be up to 200g a bunch.  The final yield is 6 tons per hectare which converts into 42 hl/ha. From experience, they know that there is no quality advantage if yields are further reduced.  The vineyards are farmed biodynamically as written up on their web site.  

If the first priority here is to grow perfect fruit, the next challenge is to make wine which best shows the quality of that fruit.  Gravity-fed whole bunch pressing is the norm for the Chardonnay, while the Pinot Noir is fermented in open tanks with 20-30% whole bunch. Felton Road was a pioneer for whole bunch in 1991, looking for aromatic lift and softer, silkier tannins when these ferments are well managed.  The Chardonnay is fermented in oak barriques and the aim is to use the minimum new oak to allow the vineyard character to shine.  (One prized old barrel is 16 years old.) All the wines go through 100% malolactic fermentation to soften the still racy acidity.  

The best illustration of the total commitment to quality here is the building of a new, additional barrel room. This is not about producing more wine but to enable Felton Road to keep its Chardonnay in barrel beyond the following vintage, requiring more space.  This is a large investment for a fairly marginal gain but one that counts towards quality.  

Fittingly enough, after our tour and tasting, we had our final ‘Family of Twelve’ lunch on the small terrace overlooking the idyllic vineyards. The sun shone, the food was simple and delicious, and the wines outstanding.  An older vintage of Block 5 Pinot Noir, 2010, a cooler year, showed the full potential of these wines with a bit of age.  After this short time in bottle, the wine had taken on superb savoury notes integrated with that bright, incisive fruit, while the palate was silky and textured.  This was a  great finale to this incredible tour of New Zealand, courtesy of the Family of Twelve.  

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