Douglas Renall has walked the vineyards, searched the cellars and talked with winemakers and vineyard managers to gather the fascinating insights shared in his new publication, 100 Great New Zealand Wineries.
Felton Road is Central Otago's most highly regarded winery, with wine lovers from around the world making the pilgrimage each year to Bannockburn.
The winery is located on high ground at the end of a driveway lined with grape vines. The cellar door looks out over the vineyard and Kawarau River towards the distant Pisa Range.
The first vintage arrived in 1997 and was the precursor to a prodigious rise to international success. In 2000 Felton Road winery was sold by Stuart Elms to British wine enthusiast Nigel Greening, whose mission is to make the best possible wines the Central Otago terroir can produce.
The biodynamically certified Felton Road vineyards are surrounded by high mountains and lie on gentle, north-facing slopes with deep loess soils. There are four vineyards, namely Elms, Cornish Point, Calvert and MacMuir.
The grapes sourced from all four are biodynamically and organically cultivated. Cover crops are planted between the rows to improve soil health and general biodiversity. Today the oldest vines are more than 25 years old, and the total vineyard area encompasses 32 hectares.
All the vineyards are managed by viticulturist Gareth King, who works with a dedicated team of locals and international interns.
The winery has a hands-off approach with a gravity-fed design, allowing the hand-harvested fruit to be transferred to vats and tanks without the use of pumps.
The chief winemaker is Blair Walter, whose methods include allowing wild yeasts to populate the ferments as well as allowing the wines to undergo wild malolactic fermentation and settle naturally. As a result no fining or filtration is used prior to bottling.
There are five beautifully crafted Pinot Noir wines produced at the winery, which go by the names Bannockburn Pinot Noir, Cornish Point, Block 3, Block 5 and Calvert. Each wine shows subtle differences reflecting its particular vineyard.
The Bannockburn Pinot Noir is made from fruit sourced from Cornish Point, Calvert and Elms vineyards. The wine is aged in French oak barrels for approximately a year. It typically displays a lifted nose of intense raspberry, dried herbs, leather and soft oak.
The palate is rich and multifaceted with fine-grained tannins, polished fruit and elegant oak as well as grip on the finish without excessive extraction. The Block 5 Pinot Noir spends more time in French oak barrels with a total of 16 months' elevage. Block 5 is seriously structured and made to age for the long term.
Block 3 is an elegantly poised wine with a seamless structure and deftly integrated tannins. It also will gain in complexity with time. The Calvert Pinot Noir is restrained in its youth, displaying a memorable mineral texture and ripe red fruits on the palate. With time, the nose opens up to a sophisticated pure Pinot.
The last of the Pinot Noirs is the Cornish Point, which is typically an open, rustic wine full of chewy dark chocolate and rich cherry compote along with layers of truffle, spice and cigar box. It is a silky wine and not overly tannic.
The Rieslings are superb, assuredly some of the finest examples of the variety found in Central Otago. The grapes for Felton Road's Dry Riesling are sourced from the Elms vineyard where they are hand-picked, whole -bunch pressed and fermented with indigenous yeasts to almost dryness.
The wine is aged on lees to build palate weight and to increase complexity prior to bottling. The Riesling is very aromatic with notes of kerosene, salted limes and licks of honey. It is medium-bodied and bone-dry with laser-like acidity and a satisfying mineral finish.
The Bannockburn Riesling is made with approximately 60-70g/L residual sugar and a finished alcohol level of 9.5%. The wine is beautifully balanced with elegant spiced pear, ripe peach and subtle marmalade nuances. The Block 1 Riesling is also fermented until 60-70g/L residual sugar is left. The wine is similar to the Bannockburn Riesling although with a leaner body and higher level of intensity.
The three Chardonnays are breathtaking wines that often fly under the radar. The Bannockburn Chardonnay is fermented in French oak barrels followed by 12 months' ageing on lees with batonnage.
The wine is like a slick Italian sports car with fine edges, well-proportioned oak, vibrant peach and nectarine characters, offset by an opulent, creamy palate. Both the Block 2 and the Block 6 Chardonnays are aged in barrel for an extensive amount of time (approximately 17 months) and have great minerality and focus.
Block 6 is a newcomer to the Felton Road range and is a tightly structured wine, popping with apricot, mandarin and butterscotch characters on the palate.
Winery Address: 319 Felton Road, Bannockburn Extract from 100 Great New Zealand Wineries, by Douglas Renall. Published by Bateman