I really looked forward to this tasting of Felton Road wines in the company of Blair Walter, the house’s long-time winemaker.
I hadn’t had much chance to taste many wines with the Society this winter – all the tastings had coincided with a family ski weekend away, and thus I have missed out on Loire whites and red Burgundies amongst others – but this was one tasting I was determined to attend. Cos NZ wines, etc, plus I have tasted and bought Felton Rd wines previously.
Blair kindly provided some introductory notes to the tasting which I reproduce here:
It was 26 years ago that Stewart Elms founded Felton Road, beginning with acquiring the land called The Elms Vineyard on Felton Road in Bannockburn. At that time, there were only about 20 ha of vineyards planted in Central Otago and none in the entire Cromwell basin, where now around 70% of Central Otago’s 1896 ha are now planted. When Nigel bought the winery in 2000, there were three vintages released and the 2000 in barrel, 11 hectares of vines, and the start of a global recognition. Seventeen years on, the core team of myself, Gareth and Nigel have settled down to the long game of turning precocious ambition into a classic fine wine.
There are now 32 hectares in the estate across four properties, all certified biodynamic and all in Bannockburn. The vineyards have been under an organic and biodynamic farming regime commencing in 2002, and the general vineyard and soil health is now inherent and immediately obvious. As the vine trunks grow slowly thicker, our understanding of how best to farm in our unique growing conditions continually builds: resulting in wines which we believe are now showing increasing precision, finesse and sense of place.
Along with the biodynamic viticulture, there are some other fundamental principles that have contributed to Felton Road’s consistent quality that are worth mentioning. We have always been 100% estate grown and never purchased fruit. We see this as absolutely vital in our cool and unique growing environment. There is a modern and unique three level gravity flow winery with that treats the wines very gently, efficiently and respectfully. There are also four underground barrel cellars that provide the required space, temperature and humidity controlled conditions for the elevage; without having to rush wines to bottle. The wines have always been bottled onsite (very unique in Central Otago) with a bottling line that we now own. All of these ensure utmost respect to quality throughout the entire process.
Most of the attention to our Pinot Noirs has been traditionally to either Block 5 and/or Block 3. This has mainly been due to historical reasons: the Block 3 has been produced as a single vineyard wine since our first vintage in 1997, with the Block 5 added in 1999. They are produced in smaller quantities, usually around 6000-7000 bottles, have always been on very strict allocation and are priced higher (2016 vintage is $86). We introduced single vineyard bottlings from Calvert in 2006 and Cornish Point in 2007. We are now bottling around 11-13,000 bottles of each of these two wines and they are both priced at $65 for the 2016 vintage. The fifth Pinot Noir that we make is the Bannockburn ($54) which is a blend of our four vineyards and we produce around 50-64,000 bottles annually. All the wines receive exactly the same viticulture and winemaking. The only exception is for slightly more new oak for the Block 3 (high 30’s compared to 25-33% for the others) and usually around 3 months longer in barrel for the Calvert and Block 5.
One of the question’s we are beginning to ask ourselves is: what are our best sites? (our Grand Crus, if we may!).
The geology and soils of Bannockburn are very complex. There are 10 described soil types along the 3km length of Felton Road alone, and most are dramatically different: from pure, deep, angular schist gravels on the fans; to pockets of ancient clay lake bed sediments; to sandy alluvial gravels closer to the Kawarau River; to deep heavy silts; and fertile wind-blown loess loams; even manmade soils as a result of the gold mining in the late 1800’s. While there are no marine derived limestone soils found in Central Otago, our soils all contain high levels of dendritic lime: pure calcium carbonate that is derived from incomplete leaching due to our very low rainfall. Generally the soils of the lower lying areas are more homogenous with the compound slopes sometimes providing variation that can prove frustrating to farm.
Such is our growing understanding of what the different soils are providing us; just a few months ago we ripped out 0.44 ha of 25 year old Pinot Noir vines in Block 2. We recognise that on these deep schist gravel soils; that we can make far more interesting quality Chardonnay than the lighter and relatively inconsequential Pinot Noirs that result from these soils. Also helping the decision, was that the vines were vulnerable on their own roots and we also wanted to get some more Block 2 Chardonnay planted on phylloxera resistant rootstock.
Another example of our growing understanding and commitment to farming the best soils is that several years ago we had the chance to purchase 10 ha of plantable land just to the east of Block 5 – a veritable gold mine you could say! Digging several soil pits confirmed the soil map of the same schist gravels as Block 2, so we respectfully declined and opted to purchase 6 ha from the original Calvert property (less than 1km away). This new property named MacMuir contained very different, deep, heavy silt soils that we had had 10 years experience farming and making wines from the adjacent Calvert vineyard. These soils provide a wine character and texture we preferred over Pinot Noir on schist gravel. We were even able to decide on the property boundary after digging soil pits and determining where the soils became more shallow and gravelly.
Climate varies slightly across the Bannockburn sub-region from the winds that funnel up the Cromwell Gorge and temper our Cornish Point vineyard so that it doesn’t hold the summer heat for as long into the evening. But then its lakeside location (water on three sides), means it doesn’t get as cold in the evening as the other sites only 6 km away to the west on Felton Road. Altitude plays an effect with the lower lying sites like Cornish Point and Calvert (200-220m) – both being slightly warmer and usually ripening earlier than the higher elevation Elms Vineyard (250-330m), which also loses the sun earlier being situated close to the western hills.
Out of interest and as a way of comparison, there are currently 325 ha of vines planted in Bannockburn – about the same as the communes of Pommard or Nuits-St-Georges. The appellations of the Cote de Nuits have slightly less vineyard area over its compact and narrow 20 km length compared to Central Otago’s 1896 ha which spans up to 70km with over 1800 m of elevation gain between sub-regions. We are not aware of any other wine region in the world which has such dramatically geographically distinct sub-regions.
Up until now, Block 5 and Block 3 have been enjoying the older vine age (planted 1992/93, so 24 and 25 years old). Calvert and Cornish Point are now 16 and 17 years old. Our experience is showing that the difference in vine age between the Block 3 and 5, and Calvert and Cornish Point, is becoming less significant.
Due to the generally low annual rainfall and low relative humidity, variation in rainfall in Central Otago does not play a major role in vintage variation. It varies from the average of 18% less to 27% more (224 to 347mm during the 7 months of the growing season). In fact, the wines we usually like most usually come from our wetter seasons and interestingly from a wetter end to the season (February and March). To follow are our harvest dates for the last several vintages which highlights the fact that we experience little variation in overall growing season heat summation. It’s the variation of actually when we receive the warmer and cooler periods that influences wine style and charater.
I have focussed the wine selection more on our recent releases, as these are wines and stories that we feel are more interesting and significant to share. Great wine is, more than anything, about patience. Enjoyment is the end of the journey, but patience is the path.
Arrival: Felton Road 2012 Chardonnay Block 2
- 2016 Felton Road Pinot Noir Cornish Point – our 20th vintage
- 2015 Felton Road Pinot Noir Cornish Point
- 2014 Felton Road Pinot Noir Cornish Point
- 2014 Felton Road Pinot Noir Calvert
- 2013 Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3
- 2012 Felton Road Pinot Noir Calvert
- 2012 Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 5
- 2010 Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 5
- 2008 Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 5
- 2003 Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 5
To finish: 2007 Felton Road Riesling Block 1
2012 Felton Road Block 2 Chardonnay – This was a great start to the tasting. Off schist soils down 3+ metres. Whole bunch ferment. Brilliant clear gold colour. Sleek, citrus, mineral. Like a Chablis. Grapefruit pith & flinty. Aging beautifully. Flavours of feijoa and nettle. To hold and savour.
2016 Felton Road Cornish Point Pinot Noir – A hot year. Picked early, with low acidity in the vineyard. Dark carmine colour. Fruity/fruit forward. Like a Gamay. There was an underlying slightly savoury character, with primary lusciousness, but simple, shallow. Fruity flavours of strawberries. A jammy, hot finish. Hard to find a lot of good things to say about this wine. Think Beaujolais. However, a site ripe for terroir expression and individuality.
2015 Felton Road Cornish Point Pinot Noir – Dark carmine colour. A lovely perfume to this wine. It’s finer, less fruity; a dense core, more earthy and savoury than the first examples. Black fruits. Luscious (obv the Cornish Point expression showing through). Brusque, and spicy. Lovely extract.
2014 Felton Road Cornish Point Pinot Noir – Dark carmine brownish colour. I’m seeing an evolution to this wine. Perfumed. Hine, light fruit. A delicacy and poise that I like very much. There is a richness here with dark cherries, spice, and persistence Hot finish. An interesting wine. Three stars, and marked as my Wine of the Flight (WOF)
2014 Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir –Dark carmine browning colour. Dense fruit on nose. Muscular. There was oak, malo, cardboard, herbal characters. Lighter that the Cornish Point wines, lean, with herbal and celery takes. To drink, I took red fruits, cherries, savouriness, concentration, and silky tannins. Nice.
2013 Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir – Dark carmine colour. The first of the noted ‘Block’ wines. Fine, dense, lifted nose, with spic. Very attractive, Gorgeous deep fruit weight and profile to drink. Such heft, and spice. Long. Dark cherries. I say again, muscular, broader, and also chunky. Softened with lavender notes. Three stars again!
2012 Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir –Dark carmine browning colour. Perfumed roses, rich, sweet and savoury. Slight varnish note. Lean, light, warm, and dry in the mouth, spice finish. Persistent.
2012 Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir – Dark carmine browning colour. Warm and savoury nose, elegant and poised, clean, dark, complex and complete. A long wine. A lovely pinot ‘tickle’, with fine grained tannins, showing elegance and purity. Two stars.
2010 Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir – Dark carmine browning colour. Beautifully dusty and dappled, exhibiting primary characters of fruit and secondary development of lanolin and herbs. At a new level. Monumental. Sweet entry on palate, really deleicious. Lovely acidity and fruit. Red cherries, highly extractive. Very long. Lovely heat on the finish. Sumptuous, complete. Three stars. A candidate for WOF.
2008 Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir – Dark carmine browning colour. Gorgeous development: savoury, rich, earthy, leathery. Violets. Lively acidity, great fruit weight and power, minerality, and a bright lifted finish for this older wine. Two stars. Another candidate for WOF. My Wine of the Night (WOTN). It was so sumptuous!
2003 Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir – Dark carmine browning colour. Most developed of the flight, secondary tending tertiary – almost port-like. Dark violets, dried fruits, figs, involving complexity. Nicely integrated on palate, with good acidity, red and black cherries, earthy and brambly, light tannins, terpenes. Very interesting. Held up fantastically. Two stars.
2007 Felton Road Block 1 Riesling – Pale green gold colour. 10% alcohol. A lovely fragrance: apples, very clean. Slight terpene note. Sweet and cordial-ly to taste. There was a complimentary and contrasting freshness and complexity about the wine that gave a lot of interest. Balanced. Fantastic.
I took a few of the wines home in Gladwrap to have another look at my kitchen table. It was really good to enjoy them at leisure.
Thanks to Blair Walter and the Society for putting on such an enjoyable and informative evening.