Felton Road wine tasting with Nigel Greening
Walkers and climbers know that the rise ahead very seldom indicates the summit – it is normally just another hill to be surmounted on the way to the peak. A similar mindset seems to underpin the ethos at Felton Road. Despite producing one of New Zealand’s finest wines, they see each vintage, each tweeking of the process as just another step on a long journey. In some ways, this is a highly scientific approach, one that constantly questions whether each action is as successful, efficient or economic as it could be. And yet Felton Road, with its Pinot Noirs from three different vineyards, is often seen as one of New Zealand’s most terroir-driven producers. A wonderful example of how a respect for the natural advantages of a given vineyard is not incompatible with the possibilities afforded by modern technology.
Felton Road is based in Bannockburn in the heart of Central Otago, a warm area well suited to producing healthy grapes without much disease. They are best known for their Pinot Noir, which tends to be quite soft in Otago, so they generally blend in their press wine and also ferment with stems, a traditional Burgundy technique when the winemaker feels the wine requires more structure. They also produce high quality Chardonnay, which Nigel Greening thinks produces much finer wines than Pinot Gris, the grape that currently enjoys so much popularity with other NZ producers. Last but not least, they produce some excellent Riesling, which Greening refers to as the estate’s Gin and Tonic because it shares a similar balance of acids and sugars!
Felton Road’s wines are exceptional and the tasting demonstrated not only increasing finesse and elegance in recent vintages of Bannockburn Pinot Noir but also the excitement of the 2012 Pinots that will soon hit the market. But for me the highlight of the tasting was the ability of Greening to impart relatively technical detail in a way that even I felt I could understand. Three outcomes in particular have stayed with me:
After veraison (the stage when red grapes change colour from green to red), there is actually no change to the ripeness of the tannins in the grape skins. When we talk about “ripeness” of tannins, we actually refer to the changing ratio of skin tannins to seed tannins and the increasing lignifications of the seeds. This was new to me – I had always thought seed tannins and skin tannins ripened at the same rate.
Central Otago has very high Ultra Violet levels, so the grapes protect themselves by turning a deeper colour. In turn, this explains why Central Otago Pinot Noir often has a deeper colour than other Pinots.
In Central Otago, the nights are cool, less than 10°C, so the seeds actually stop ripening. But photosynthesis continues unimpeded during the day, as does the accumulation of sugars in the grape. This explains why Central Otago Pinot Noir can be high in alcohol but can still suffer from unripeness on the palate.
One final snippet…….in case you see pictures of harvest at Felton Road and conclude that the local terroir must support the growth of facial hair, you are half right: it is a tradition at Felton Road that no male cellar hands can shave for the duration of harvest.