Felton Road: the first 21 years

A retrospective of Central Otago's most famous producer

Can you believe it? Felton Road, the most well known winery in Central Otago, is now 21 years old. To celebrate, owner Nigel Greening and winemaker Blair Walter came to London to do a vertical tasting, with plenty of good chat. [For more on Felton Road, see my profile here.]

We began with a bit of a discussion about the 2017 vintage, because we were tasting four new releases from this year. Across New Zealand generally, this was a difficult vintage because of a couple of cyclones that hit as grapes were being picked. In Central Otago, it was a poor sort of summer with bad weather, but the fruit matured nicely and picking was at the normal time despite the erratic conditions. Fortunately, Central Otago avoided the harvest cyclones that affected other regions, and actually benefitted from the higher rainfall during the growing season (this is a very dry region). Thicker skins and smaller berries were a result of this patchy summer, and Blair was happy with the ripeness at picking. Quite early on in fermentation they realized that it was an opulent and deep-fruited vintage so they pulled back on the maceration. 'There's a savoury edge that we are starting to nail,' says Nigel, 'as opposed to just the sweet fruit.'

Nigel talked about their quest to avoid acidification, which is common in the region. 'In general in Central Otago there has been a need to acidify during ferments with Pinot Noir,' he shared. 'The acid tends to be unstable during ferments, so there has been a tradition for acidifying during ferments. The sweet fruit needs more acid to counterbalance it.' His view is that if they make the wines in a slightly more savoury style, then you don't need so much acidity loosen up a bit. 'We are on the tightrope now: I don't think we can go any further,' says Nigel. He is prepared to take some risks with higher pH but only to a point. 'Trust Allah but tether your camel,' is the way he puts it.

'As the vines are getting older, the fruit seems to be much better balanced and we are not seeing the need to adjust the pH,' says Blair. 'In the early days we used to see the pH rising quite a bit.' These days at Felton, vine age varies from 17 to 25 years.

All the wines we tasted here were screwcapped. They did trials from 2001-4 so they saw a lot of comparisons. Since the move to screwcap they have seen lots of positives, and Nigel says that he hasn't seen any negatives, but adds, 'You never know the babies that were never born.'

So these are my notes on the wines, as we tasted them. In general, it's really encouraging to see the way they have developed. In terms of style, there has been a gradual move over this period to pick the grapes earlier, as notions of optimal ripeness have changed. There's also been increasing vine age. Some of the older wines have evolved very nicely, but I think that the newer wines will evolve in a slightly more classical direction, and also deliver more added complexity with age rather than simply survive and taste nice still.

Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2017
Inviting floral nose with red cherries and plums, and a delicate sappy green edge adding nice framing. The palate has sweet cherries and a bit of spice, as well as subtle cedar and tar hints. Seductive and expressive with lovely fruit purity. 93/100

Felton Road Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2017
Lovely richness to the fruit: it's a very pretty, expressive, cherry-scented wine but there's also a compact core to the palate with good structure and nice spicy, berryish core. Well integrated green hints. 94/100

Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir 2017
This has a real vitality to it. Red cherries, berries and some spiciness, with good acidity. Fresh red cherries and plums with a nice raspberry brightness. Good structure and acidity, with lots of potential. Quite special. 95/100

Felton Road Chardonnay 2017
Wild ferment, no new oak, full solids, 5% new oak. Fresh but with power. Notes of figs, pineapple and spice. There's some creamy richness here and keen acidity. Needs time to integrate, but lots going on here. Very pineapple-dominated and slightly saline. 92/100

'In 2005, biodynamics was just starting to kick in: we were starting to get the vineyard into better balance,' says Blair. 'We still had the old idea of fruit balance, that we had to ripen out the greens.' 2005 was very cold; 2006 was hot; 2007 was cool and low yielding.

Block 3 is 10/5 clone. This was planted because it was available. It has become a flavour for that block. It's a lighter fruit palate with crushed herbs. 'We have come to celebrate these characters,' says Nigel. Block 5 is mainly UCD5.

In Block 5 the loess becomes clay.span style="mso-spacerun: yes">& 

Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 2005
highly aromatic with some attractive green sappy hints, a touch of malt and some savoury blood and iodine characters. There's still plenty of fruit here: it's sweet strawberry and raspberry, but with nice savoury, spicy, herbal characters too. Warm and enticing with nice complexity. 94/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 2006
Sweetly aromatic with pure raspberry and cherry fruit, some good structure, and the first signs of spicy development. Lovely purity: this is still nicely tight with grippy fruit and good structure. Fruit forward and with a compact mid-palate, this still has a way to go. Impressive stuff. 95/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 2007
Very fine and floral on the nose. Enticing aromatic red cherries with almost perfect purity and balance. Lovely acidity on the palate with supple red cherries and plums, some silky texture and a delicate leafy green hint in the background. Drinking perfectly now with some distance to go. 96/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 2008
Some richness and breadth on the nose, which displays sweet red fruits with a hint of black cherry. The palate has some warmth and very enticing, ripe, rich berry fruits with some bass notes. Good structure and acidity. Ripe and quite bold in style, with a touch of sweet malty development. Beginning to dry out just a little? 93/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 2009
Sweet, supple, fleshy and pretty, with red fruit aromatics, some floral overtones and some richness. The palate is bright and focused showing attractive sweet fruits. Nice structure with firm tannins and good acidity. Still quite primary and grippy. Good depth to this: potential for further development. 94/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 2010
Fleshy, bright and expressive with red cherries, plums and good structure: there's a definite sweetness to the fruit, and a silky texture. Very pretty and with a touch of sweetness to the fruit. Shows quite a primary character. 95/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 5 2011
Sweetly aromatic. Fine herbs, spices and sweet red berries. The palate has some freshness but also substance: structured red cherry with some raspberry and cranberry brightness, and crushed herb complexity. This is proper, grown-up Pinot that's developing beautifully. 95/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Cornish Point 2012
There's a sweet green edge to the berry fruits on the nose. Enticing with some liqueur-like richness. Some tea notes. The palate is smooth, ripe, pure and fleshy. Seductive and sweetly fruited. Nicely textured and weighted with a fresh finish. Distinctive and lovely. 94/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 5 2013
Sweet aromas of red cherries and fine herbs, with just a touch of sappy greenness. Pure and fleshy on the palate with sweet red cherry fruit and a silky texture, with fine-grained tannins and good acidity. Pure, structured and fresh with lots of potential. Quite generous. Beautiful. 96/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Bannockburn 2014
Green herbs and some tea notes here add complexity to the sweetly fruited nose. The palate is fleshy and ripe, but with good balancing structure. Sweet red cherries and plums with some black cherry richness. Lovely balance here, even though it is quite rich. 94/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Calvert 2015
Such a sweet, seductive nose of red fruits, crushed herbs and black tea. The palate is bright and vivid, but also ripe. Nice balance of the sweet and savoury, with the sweet fruit countered nicely by cedar, herbs and tea-like complexity. Approachable but serious. 96/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Cornish Point 2016
Fresh and compact, yet seductive. Smooth, textural, sweet red cherry fruit with a hint of strawberry. Supple and elegant with some non-fruit complexity. Lighter but profound, with beautiful balance. Has an ethereal quality, but despite the approachability now you feel this is still holding something back. Has layers. 96/100

The Block 2 and Block 6 Chardonnay is all Mendoza clone, as are all the great Chardonnays in NZ. It is traced back to a single cutting from a lady in Mendoza, Argentina, but the actual source of it – where she took the cutting from, is not certain. This is under investigation, so the answer may soon be known.

Felton Road Chardonnay Block 6 2015
Refined and bright with sweet lemon, pear and pineapple fruit. Nice tension here: a core of compact, sweet fruit, framed by nice acidity. Pure and primary. 93/100

Felton Road Chardonnay Block 2 2014
Slight pithy, herby edge to the sweet citrus and pear fruit. Some white peach with nice acidity and a mineral edge. Has richness and density with a bit of pineapple, too. Sweet and sour. 92/100

Felton Road Chardonnay Block 2 2013
This is fresh, bright and quite mineral with nice purity. Lemony with some pear richness and a bit of almond. Has richness allied to freshness. 93/100

Felton Road Chardonnay Block 2 2012
Bracing and lively with keen lemony acidity and fine notes of bread and toast, as well as some pineapple sweet and sour character. Impactful and expressive. 92/100

Felton Road Chardonnay Block 2 2010
Still quite fresh and pure with pineapple and lemon fruit. Linear and fruit driven with good acidity. Subtle hint of caramel in the background, and some pithy notes, too. 91/100

Felton Road Chardonnay Block 2 2007
Compact and still fresh with clean citrus and pear fruit. So youthful for an 11 year old wine, but hasn't developed much in the way of complexity. Pithy on the finish with a twist of bitterness. 90/100

See also:

A profile of Felton Road, based on two visits
Visiting Central Otago

Wines tasted/span> 09/18

Article published September 2018 
Find these wines with /span>wine-searcher.com


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