John Hawkesby

John Hawkesby is a wine writer for Canvas Magazine.

Turning ambition into fine wine

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Blair Walter. Photo / Supplied
Blair Walter. Photo / Supplied

Among the many producers of New Zealand pinot noir, a handful stand out from the pack. One of those is Central Otago's Felton Road. It shines not just among New Zealand wines but all the emerging New World pinot superstars with significant ease - and without a lot of diva carry-on. Understatement and quiet confidence is part of its charm.

This is a producer that knows how to play to its considerable strengths. Its vineyards are planted on sheltered, north-facing slopes at the end of Bannockburn's Felton Rd; its soil profile contains a mix of minerals, sandy loams and clay; and there are enough warm, sunny days and cold nights to enhance the grape flavours - what the French would call "a perfect terroir".

The human factor adds another stellar dimension. Winemaker Blair Walter, measured, smart and open to any new ideas that will see Felton Road get even better, has been there since the beginning, in 1997. Viticulturist Gareth King arrived two years later and probably knows every vine by name. Owner Nigel Greening is a charismatic figure who, according to urban legend, loved the brand so much he had to own it - purchasing the winery in 2000.

It's the perfect trinity; an alliance of obsession, precision and flair producing great, consistent pinot noir.

"We're trying to capture the fruit at optimum maturity," says Walter. "Frankly, the viticulture is where it's at."

Only partly true. Great wine begins in the vineyard - that's a given - but sublime pinot noir, a most challenging varietal to get right, requires a winemaker who knows when to back off. "We're striving for wines that are sleeker, more elegant ... we're moving away from the bold and fruity [for] more transparency, more delicacy and [to be]not as boisterous."

The wines of Felton Road - from the most expensive and sought-after Block 3 and Block 5 pinots ($85-$90) to the $30 rieslings and chardonnays - are given equal treatment and respect.

As the Felton Road team are fond of saying, "We've settled down to a long game of turning precocious ambition into a classic fine wine ... enjoyment is the end of the journey but patience is the path."


2011 Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir $55
Entry level, but as the winemaker admits, in blind tastings he has confused it with the more expensive Block 3 and Block 5 Cornish Point and Calvert vineyards. Can't quite remember if he asked me not to mention this ...

2011 Felton Road Block 2 Chardonnay $36
It's not all about pinot noir. There are a couple of excellent Felton Road rieslings as well as this Old World Burgundian-leaning chardonnay. For people who like complexity and elegance over big oak and fruit bombs, this is worth seeking out - 75 per cent goes for export.

- NZ Herald

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