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.
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.
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