Take a walk down Felton Road

Take a walk down Felton Road

Published by Francis Elms on 27th May 2021

Take a walk down Felton Road 

Felton Road - Cornish Point Vineyard - Bannockburn - New Zealand

[Photo Credit: Felton Road – Cornish Point Vineyard]

It’s a very long way to New Zealand from the UK and, if we’re ever allowed back into the country, I’d really like to go back to see what’s changed over the last 20+ years.

1999 was the year I got to visit with a small group of wine enthusiasts. The “tour guide” was, at the time, the only New Zealand Master of Wine, so visits were very special and we got to meet people who normally didn’t receive guests who were “mere tourists”. Exclusive! Unfortunately, the trip only took us as far south as the Marlborough region on the South Island. Plenty of Sauvignon Blanc, but the Pinot Noir tasted was mainly used to make sparkling wines rather than the fledgling, Burgundian styles that were starting to emerge from young vineyards in Central Otago. 1990’s Marlborough Pinot Noir just wasn’t for me!

Misha's Vineyard - Pinot Noir Grapes - Central Otago

[Photo Credit: Misha’s Vineyard - Central Otago Pinot Noir Grapes]

Larry McKenna working the Pinot Noir at Escarpment - Martinborough

[Photo Credit: Escarpment Vineyard - Larry McKenna wearing his infamous shorts!]

On the southern tip of the North Island, just outside of Wellington, I did get to go to Neil McCallum’s Dry River, Clive Paton’s Ata Rangi and Larry McKenna’s Martinborough Vineyard, all of whom produced excellent wines, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris (and even Gewurztraminer), but still didn’t quite hit the spot, that magical, instant feeling of great Pinot Noir . You know it when it happens. It’s different for everyone, so my recommendations wouldn’t necessarily suit your tastes. Personally, I prefer the wines of Palliser Estate and Schubert (both from Martinborough), but even these wines are very different from each other.

Rippon Vineyard - Lake Wanaka - Central Otago

[Photo Credit: Andy Katz – Rippon Vineyard on Lake Wanaka]

Moving south (Latitude 45°S equivalent to Patagonia in South America), to Queenstown, at the bottom of New Zealand, the nearby Central Otago region was starting to produce wines to rival those of Burgundy, itself. Old gold-mining sites and orchards have become the success story of New Zealand viticulture in the Bannockburn area and Rippon, on the shores of Lake Wanaka, was one of the first producers in the region. More followed and, today, there is ten times the amount of land planted to vines than in the nineties. Wines you might well have come across more recently are those from Sam Neill’s (he of Jurassic Park fame) Two Paddocks, plus Valli & Burn Cottage. Amazingly, only 5% of New Zealand’s wine production comes from Central Otago. Just 1500ha are planted to Pinot Noir, but that equates to over three-quarters of all the plantings in Otago.

Felton Road - "The Elms" vineyard in winter

[Photo Credit: Felton Road – “The Elms” vineyard in winter]

Climatically, Central Otago is generally dry, windy and cool, but often reaches 30°C during the summer, but still drops back to single digit figures overnight. This diurnal range retains acidity and keeps freshness in the grapes. That’s a good thing! Snow is common during the winter in the vineyards. Sunshine, with high UV levels, produces grapes with characteristically thick skins, giving high colour and tannin in Pinot Noir grown here.

Felton Road - Winery and the surrounding “The Elms” vineyard

[Photo Credit: Felton Road - Winery and the surrounding “The Elms” vineyard]

I’ve tasted Felton Road in the UK with Nigel Greening, the new owner who, at the time, was still selling his “Cornish Point” as a separate label. Now it’s a single vineyard wine within the Felton Road range. He purchased the property in 2000 from a certain Mr Elms who may, or may not, be related to the author of this rambling text!

I’m sure if I did an ancestry search I could find a good claim to the main (Elms) vineyard at Felton Road, but it’s too late now; Nigel bought it and my “very distant” New Zealand relatives have no knowledge of me…an opportunity lost.

Established by Stewart Elms, in the early nineties, the above photo shows the winery buildings and the surrounding, home-block “The Elms” vineyard. Felton Road’s famous Block 3 & Block 5 wines come from this vineyard and the vines there are now 20 years’ old. Another 15 years and they’ll be labelled as “Old Vines”, so there’s still plenty of time for even greater improvement in the Pinot Noir from Felton Road.

The four vineyards of Felton Road - The Elms - Calvert - Cornish Point - MacMuir

Currently, there are four vineyards: The Elms (1991), Calvert, Cornish Point and MacMuir (2012).

Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2019

A blend, using fruit from all four, is sold as “Bannockburn”, and is the most widely distributed Pinot Noir from Felton Road. 

Frazier’s can offer some 2019 vintage here for £41/bottle . Such a delicious wine!

Great colour and concentration with a distinctive purple rim and hue. On the nose - dark fruited, quite intense and complex with aromas of raspberry and dark cherry, pure black currant then layers of brown spices. No mistaking the energy. The minerality message is quite strong with silty crushed rock suggestions. There’s a fine savoury core alongside the fruit with dried herb and whisper of thyme. On the palate - youthful, tense, loaded with energy and vibrato, fruit flavours reflect the nose, a nut and toasty wood layer then medium+ acidity and polished tannin textures.

Rated 96/100 by

Chardonnay and Riesling are grown for making white wines. In the right vintages these can be up there with the reds, but Pinot Noir is king, year after year!

For some of us (WF – a.k.a. the boss!), the chance to visit New Zealand came up “pre-pandemic”, and a full north-south trip was undertaken with visits to Radburnd Cellars (Hawke’s Bay), Greenhough Vineyard (Nelson), Jackson Estate (Marlborough), Domain Road (Central Otago) and Felton Road (Central Otago).

WF in New Zealand

[Photo: WF in New Zealand]

These days, New Zealand wine production is all about sustainability, whether it’s organic, biodynamic, or even “natural”. More and more growers and winemakers are looking for the best quality of fruit for their wines and a healthy ecosystem in the vineyard is a good way to encourage just that.

Felton Road has been run along organic and biodynamic lines since 2002 and the resulting wines have been described according to Robert Parker, in The Wine Advocate, as:

“Felton Road’s Pinot Noirs are breakthrough efforts in New Zealand and compete with the finest wines being made in California, Oregon and Burgundy’s Cote D’Or.”

Praise, indeed!

Biodynamics in action at Felton Road

Vineyard and winemaking procedures are conducted according to the lunar calendar with days being classed as “Fruit”, “Flower”, “Root” and “Leaf”. Naturally made biodynamic compost is added to various preparations and applied to the vineyard on the required days. Microbial balance is enhanced in the soil by the use of these preparations and absolutely no artificial fertiliser, pesticide, or herbicide is allowed. It’s all about balance and harmony and most people agree that the wines are better for it! Biodiversity is encouraged in the vineyard with cover crops such as mustard seed and phacelia planted between the rows of vines. This encourages beneficial insects into the vineyard and also makes the vines work harder to obtain water and nutrients from the soil as they are competing with the cover crop plants. The vines have to go deeper and pick up minerals giving the wine a “sense of place”. I could go on, but, thankfully, I won’t!

Nigel’s team at Felton Road know what they’re doing and the wines speak for themselves.

The team at Felton Road - Nigel Greening (Owner) - Blair Walter (Winemaker) - Gareth King (Viticulturist)

[The top three at Felton Road: Owner, Nigel; Winemaker, Blair, and Viticulturist, Gareth.]

And finally, now’s the chance to buy some of these highly rated bottles of Pinot Noir which usually retail for between £40 & £60 each. The “Block” wines, which are rarely available on the market, would be considerably more expensive at around £85 - £100 a bottle each.

Frazier’s have put together some new “Discovery Cases” featuring the very best of New Zealand.

You really are getting some of the highest quality wines in these selections. Check out the reviews !

Frazier's New Zealand "Discovery Case" Six-Bottle Wine Selections

1/ Buy New Zealand Discovery Ultimate Red (£242 per six bottle case) A selection of fantastic Pinot Noir including Bannockburn, Calvert and Cornish Point bottlings from Felton Road!

2/ Buy New Zealand Discovery Platinum (£170 per six bottle case) A selection of wonderful Chardonnay

3/ Buy New Zealand Discovery Gold (£100 per six bottle case) A selection of great Sauvignon Blanc

Happy drinking and, hopefully, travelling!

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