TN: The Blair necessities (New Zealand, pt. 24)

(The original, with better formatting and a quite a few photos, is here.)

How dry I am

The road to Cromwell, which any Queenstown-based wine tourist will take again and again, is a study in browns. Dry tussock covers rocky, rust-colored hillsides and abandoned, dust-covered mining shacks in a long, undulating roller-coaster ride through Desiccationland, with only the sharp turquoise rush of the Kawarau River and an occasional brushstroke of greenery to break up the monochromism. Fascinating at first glance, sure, but by one’s sixth trip along this half-hour thrill ride the beauty has been replaced by a dull weariness, due also in part to the unrelenting difficulty of the drive.

At journey’s end, however, there is respite. Cromwell’s history is tied to mining, but it’s reputation is based on fruit. It used to be fruit of the eating kind – and in fact a giant multi-hued fruit sculpture greets visitors to the town in all its lurid glory – but that image is quickly being replaced by its position as the geographical and functional center of the exploding Central Otago wine industry. And indeed, fertile and well-watered plains do inhabit the immediate area, with fruit stands along the highway selling wide-ranging collections of rather extraordinary produce…though the customers, perhaps inexplicably, seem to be busloads of primarily Japanese tourists.

Grapes, however, have different needs. And thus, it’s back into the dry and desolate hills that one goes in search of vineyards. The Bannockburn area, just southwest of Cromwell and even drier-looking than the Queenstown-Cromwell road, features a rather striking number of cut-from-the-rocks wineries. And out near the end of one dusty country track is one of the best.

[Felton Road vineyard]The hole story

On our last visit to Felton Road, we’d simply dropped by the tasting room for a quick sniff’n’spit. But that’s a less than satisfactory way of assessing the winery, as their best bottlings sell out so quickly and invisibly that the casual visitor will hardly even be aware of their existence. This time, we arrive armed with an appointment, and are met by Blair Walter, the Felton Road winemaker. Walter is friendly, talkative, and casual, and like most winemakers with his philosophical bent, immediately leads us not into the cellar, but into the vineyards. As we walk, he gives an overview of the area and its history.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Central Otago is as young as it is explosive, but remains the province of smallholders with only 30-40 hectares of total plantings, and as of yet no large companies. “There will always be a lifestyle element to the winemaking,” notes Walter, whose employer has been in the vinous game only since 1992. Yet there are signs that all this explosive growth is finally slowing; while land purchased for $10,000 an hectare has recently sold for ten times that, new plantings are tapering off (though the continuing work of bulldozers and the presence of wire-tied stakes on dozens of nearby hillsides superficially indicates otherwise). And while there are always new players, most of the region’s recognizable names started their work at about the same time, are approximately the same age, and possess similar oenological and viticultural training. Walter himself has worked and studied all over the world, with a special focus on quality pinot noir locales in Oregon, California and Burgundy.

We stroll down a neatly-ordered row of vines, much more tightly-trained than the sprawling bush-type viticulture visibly practiced at many neighboring wineries, while Walter runs down his agricultural philosophy. There’s deep concern at Felton Road regarding issues of soil, mesoclimate, clone, rootstock, and proper site/grape integration, and to this end the property has been turned into somewhat of a polycultural laboratory (one vineyard, called Cornish Point, is almost entirely given over to a systematic study of clone/rootstock combinations and European-style row spacing). Cover crops are employed, though early plantings of chicory proved too aggressive, and replanting to grass, rye, and triticale proceeds apace. Walter also notes that it nearly impossible to grow grapes without irrigation in this area, due to exceedingly low rainfall (which, when it does arrive, tends to be sluiced away by the deep gullies that crisscross the region), and that trials combining grass cover crops and reduced irrigation only resulted in lower-quality grapes; nonetheless, as little irrigation as possible is practiced. The lack of rain is paired with a general lack of fog, which means rot is rare, and this allows the winery to practice organic viticulture in its mature blocks; younger vines sometimes receive herbicide treatments.

As we talk, we arrive at a deep rectangular hole in the midst of one row, a hazard that could prove fatal to an bleary early-morning vineyard worker on a tractor. I, myself, am inclined to edge away from it, but Walter quite literally climbs right in and starts pointing out features. This is a crater with a purpose: to show the surprisingly deep root penetration achieved by what are fairly young vines, and to simultaneously allow a little deep soil analysis along the way. The subsoil does look properly dismal and forbidding, with river sands atop clay, though Walter notes that there are surface differences between the different blocks: here, schist gravels, and across the driveway that bisects the estate, windblown loess.

Felton Road makes marketing copy of its intention to produce site-revelatory wines, and so I ask Walter if the block-designated bottlings (one riesling, one or two chardonnays, and two pinots) come from specific subplots. He pauses to consider for a moment, then acknowledges that they do tend to come from predictable areas within vineyards, but that he’s “not yet ready to call the game,” especially because constant experimentation expands and contracts these areas on a yearly basis. Some vineyards have proven less than satisfactory due to simple mistakes in row alignment; “yeah, that one’s wrong” remarks our host, pointing across the property. Others have defined roles – Walter refers to the more dramatically-sloped vineyards at the estate’s upper edges as mostly providing “structure” – and still others await their eventual destiny as the viticultural experiments continue unabated. Walter believes that the very beginnings of terroir influences can be seen, and is certainly doing (in concert with viticulturist Gareth King) as much as anyone to field-research the issue, but also that it will take a long, long time before anyone in the region is ready to say much that’s definitive about what sites, clones, rootstocks, and methodologies seem best.

We leave the sunny warmth of the vineyard as the conversation turns to the current vintage; the poor fruit set in evidence elsewhere is once again on display here. Walter calls 2005 “late” and agrees that the set is poor, but says that the grapes left over should be concentrated, if somewhat rustic.

A pinot puzzle

Inside the winery, we assemble at a small table behind the tasting room for a brief sit-down examination of the wines, while discussion turns to matters of winemaking philosophy. Felton Road’s vineyards have what Walter describes as a tenuous hold on “ideal” ripeness, and both under- and overripeness are a constant concern. It’s the latter anxiety that most intrigues. Certainly the region is highly capable of producing blockbuster pinots to rival any New World behemoth, the evidence for which is on display at several other area wineries. But Walter isn’t so inclined, and proceeds to detail a litany of things that also don’t interest him: high-alcohol fruit bombs, overt oak, “heavy” winemaking, the philosophy of reserve wines, “Parker points,” heavily-crafted wines, fruity and upfront quaffers, and beverages made primarily to satisfy a price point. He has been encouraged by certain high-profile neighbors to double the price of his top pinots (one would presume so that said high-profile neighbors don’t appear to be the tallest poppies in the field, ripe for a good populist scything), and has flatly rejected the notion; he’s quite happy to sell wines for what he considers a fair price representative of their quality and demand, and sees no reason to have a boutique-priced “superstar” wine just to prove that he can produce one.

That said, the block bottlings – especially the pinots – do operate in what most people would identify as the “boutique” sphere. They’re sold primarily via a mailing list (which, inevitably, has a waiting list), though such things apparently work differently in New Zealand: people tend to make the list, stick with it for a few years, and then drop off, which means a high churn rate. This is an occasional blessing for Walter, who is unafraid of sacrificing quantity to preserve quality even if it makes a large portion of the aforementioned mailing list unhappy, but it does also reveal one important facet of the market for higher-end Kiwi product. “The top wines of the region, and of New Zealand, can’t be sold primarily by mailing list,” says Walter, comparing them to their American counterparts, “because in general, New Zealanders aren’t wealthy enough to support that many lists.” As a result, a full 60% of Felton Road’s sales are to overseas customers (mostly the UK, Australia, the USA, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore).

The costs of exporting, of course, leads to Felton Road’s pinots playing – at least in the USA – in a price range higher than a large percentage of the top California and Oregon pinots, not to mention a large portion of high-quality village and premier cru Burgundy. This brings up another fundamental quandary in the marketing of high-end New Zealand pinot: who does one sell it to? Lovers of ultra-ripe pinot have plenty of domestic sources with lower prices, and will likely be dissatisfied with the more elegant, restrained products of producers like Felton Road. On the other hand, devotées of elegant pinot tend to think of Burgundy first and foremost, more often than not to the near-exclusion of other regions. The pinots of Oregon are a better stylistic comparison, but there one sees one relatively small wine-producing region competing with another for a very small niche market. So where does New Zealand, and especially the highly-reputed Central Otago, fit in?

Walter and I talk about this for a good long while, to no good conclusion (though it would be inaccurate to say that Felton Road has trouble selling its wines). At the recent Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, with heavy international attendance and Jancis Robinson as a particularly enthusiastic guest of honor, affection for the best wines of the region was obvious. The key is to get that appreciation to the greater public. Walter is “intrigued” by the palates of several critics who seem to have a potential affinity for the style of wine he produces, and I immediately suggest that he should turn the attention of the region’s slowly-assembling cooperative marketing efforts towards Allen “Burghound” Meadows. Walter laughs, because Jancis apparently gave him the same suggestion at the 2005 Celebration. (It is with much amusement that I note, many months after this visit, that Meadows is the guest of honor at the 2006 version of this event. I hope he likes what he tastes.)

A sip off the old Block

After all this conversation, we finally get down to the business of tasting. Owner Nigel Greening briefly bustles into the room just as we’re commencing; he’s sweating profusely and quite obviously in the middle of no fewer than a dozen tasks. He chats very briefly (though amiably), then bustles out with an empty box and a chattering phone in tow. Walter seems fairly uninterested in talking about cellar processes, primarily because there aren’t any of any special note: grapes are destemmed, gravity is employed where possible, hand-plunging is practiced, and fining and filtration are eschewed. But really, the wines are as non-interventionist as one could wish while still working “clean,” and – as our tour up to this point has made abundantly clear – his real focus is on what’s going on in the vineyard.

We start with a trio of 2004 rieslings. The vintage featured a wet spring, but the rest was “pretty decent,” with high sugars due to late picking. Walter ultimately concludes that it was “not spectacular,” though on the following evidence I’m forced to wonder how much better his best riesling can get.

Felton Road 2004 “Dry” Riesling (Central Otago) – 12.5% alcohol, from a bottle that’s been open for three days, and is probably better for it; wind-blown dust and dried apple skin aromas with white plum skin and juicy acidity. Quite strong and vivid, with clear aging potential.

Felton Road 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – 9.5% alcohol, and very slightly off-dry. Shyer on the nose, showing fine-grained sand, a smooth but flattish palate, and a very long finish tart with lemon and Granny Smith apple. Solid and ageable, but not as good as the dry version – or maybe it just needs to be open for a few days.

Felton Road 2004 Riesling “Block 1” (Central Otago) – Fuller-bodied than both previous bottles, and rich with a blend of powerfully ripe red apples and excellent acidity countered by light sweetness, then finishing long, full-bodied, and balanced. Terrific.

Matters may well change here over the medium-term, for the estate’s riesling vines will be grafted from Geisenheim to Allan Scott clones in the near future. Nonetheless, this is an entirely solid lineup of rieslings, from a region that probably doesn’t devote as much attention to this grape as it should (instead wasting endless time on largely indifferent pinot gris and the ever-ubiquitous chardonnay). And speaking of which…

Felton Road 2004 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Mendoza clone, from stainless steel. Nut oils and rotten orange with a strange, slightly oxidized and stale finish.

Felton Road 2003 “Barrel Fermented” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Clove, spiced tangerine and nectarine with denser stone fruit and pear on the palate. A better wine, and perhaps more evidence that most chardonnay really does benefit from a certain measure of wood.

Walter would like more riesling & chardonnay, though expansion on the red front will be limited: currently around 6000 cases of pinot are produced, and only a bit of growth (to around 8000 cases) is under consideration. Personally, I’d rather he reversed those estimates. I’ve never found the chardonnays here to be uniquely compelling, though that’s not to say that they aren’t sometimes good. It’s just that nothing is being said with this cliché grape that isn’t said just as well elsewhere, even within New Zealand.

Felton Road 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Richly-flavored, with strawberry, light tannin and smoky graphite in beautiful balance. Elegant, long and luscious; both pure and expressive yet intense enough to be clearly of its place.

Felton Road 2003 Pinot Noir Block 3 (Central Otago) – A stronger nose, showing more exotic Asian-influenced aromas…especially including star anise. More structured than the regular bottling, with both smooth tannin and firm acidity, lots of earth and an intriguing bitter orange seed note. Complex and long, with great ageability.

Felton Road 2004 Pinot Noir (tank sample) (Central Otago) – Ten days from being bottled, and just barely done with its malolactic fermentation, showing sweet red fruit, plum, and slightly hard tannin.

Pinot is unquestionably the star of the Felton Road portfolio, and the Block bottlings (3 and 5) richly deserve their sought-after status. They are clear candidates for the pinnacle of New Zealand pinot noir production, though they stake this claim at one extreme end – the elegant and delicate, and dare one say “Burgundian” end (though all such descriptors are, of necessity, relative and contextual) – and there are many who might consider the wines to lack force and concentration versus their preferred paradigm. But while there might be many other possible expressions of this most responsive of black grapes that will draw justifiable praise, even from me, I cannot in good conscience say that I know of a better New Zealand pinot noir.

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