The first report in a series focusing on New Zealand's Central Otago
The winery and The Elms vineyard
Road is one of the legendary names in New Zealand wine. They’re
the most famous of the Central Otago wineries, making some highly
regarded Pinot Noirs: an appropriate starting point for my first
experience of the region. I visited with assistant winemaker Todd
Stevens (below), as chief winemaker Blair Walter (who has
been at Felton Road since the 1997 vintage) was away on a Pinot Noir
boot camp. Todd was a great host, and showed me the various vineyard
[I caught up with Blair later in London, and I've added my notes
from that tasting to this article.]
history. Felton Road dates back to 1991, when Stewart Elms planted
the Elms Vineyard on Felton Road, in the Bannockburn district of
Central Otago. Current owner Nigel Greening first purchased Cornish
Point Vineyard in 1998 (an 8.6 hectare block), and then in 2000
purchased Felton Road with its the Elms Vineyard, which now has 14.6
hectares of vines.
entire estate is now run biodynamically. The heart of the range
consists of a series of five world-class Pinot Noirs: Cornish Point,
Block 3, Block 5, Calvert (a leased 10 hectare neighbouring vineyard
whose fruit is shared with Craggy Range and Pyramid Valley
Vineyards) and the regular Pinot Noir. They’re all worth seeking
out, and show their subtle differences in site very well. In
addition, three superb Rieslings and a couple of solid Chardonnays
make up this exciting range.
began my visit with a look at Cornish Point vineyard (above),
which is beautifully situated just across the water from the town of
Cromwell. It’s a spit of land sticking out into Lake Dunstan, and
its 14.6 hectares are split into 25 different blocks, with 18
combinations of rootstocks and clones of Pinot Noir. Cornish Point
Pinot Noir was released under its own label from 2033-2006, but from
2007 this has been a single-vineyard Felton Road wine. ‘There’s
a generosity to Cornish Point,’ says Todd. ‘It’s an important
vineyard, making a generous, attractive wine.’ The fruit that
doesn’t go into the single-vineyard bottling goes into the regular
Felton Road Pinot Noir, for which it is an important component.
we headed over to Calvert, a gently sloping, north facing vineyard
first planted in 1999, with two more planting phases in 2001 and
2003. The soils are deep silt loams, with moderately high fertility.
The vineyard is quite consistent, and because it is a bit lower down
than the Elms, it ripens sooner.
the fruit from this leased vineyard, managed by the Felton Road
team, is split three ways, with Calvert wines also being made by
Craggy Range and Pyramid Valley Vineyards. The three different wines
that result are an interesting case study in how three excellent
wineries each imprint their own stylistic influences on grapes from
the same site. Does the terroir come through in the wines, or is
winemaking the overriding influence?
we had a look at the Elms vineyard, which is the home block of
Felton Road, surrounding the winery building. It was planted over
two phases (blocks 1-9 1992-1994 and 10-13 in 2001). There are
currently 8.1 ha of Pinot Noir, 4.1 ha of Chardonnay and 2.2 ha of
Riesling, all matched to the specific soil types that best suit each
Walter, chief winemaker, presented these wines. '2009 is amazing for
us,' he says. We regard it as the best vintage we have ever seen.
2010 was also good, but it's hard to say whether it will be better
than 2010.' Blair also talked about his use of whole bunches in the
ferment. 'We typically put in a quarter whole bunch and destem the
rest of the bunches. And then when we punch down we don't go to the
bottom of the tank. After 28 days you can still pull out whole
bunches. They have fermented inside [the intact berries] and there
is still some sweetness that is pulled out.' He thinks this
remaining sweetness is important because it keeps fermentation
ticking along for a while. 'Burgundians typically chaptalise in
six-to-eight small additions. This results in a slightly stressed
fermentation producing more glycerol. This changes the texture and
adds some fruit sweetness. It surprises me that more people don't
use whole bunches.' Blair thinks the weakness of New Zealand Pinot
Noir is that often there is just pure fruit with something missing.
'We are lucky in Central Otago that we have that platform of fruit.
We can then go searching for more interesting characters.'
2009 he averaged around 28% stems. Most fermenters have between 10%
and 35% stems. They used to do one fermenter with just whole bunches
(including the stems, of course) each year, but have now given up.
'For us it is too much,' he says. 'It is interesting but the wine
becomes too herbal - it is like a hessian sack character.' But he is
keen on using some stems. 'I believe it gives us an edge to
transform one-dimensional fruity aromas and flavours, but also
texturally: we get more chewy, chocolatey tannins.'
stems, people expect the wines to become angular. I find the
opposite. Destemmed wines taste more angular. A lot of people don't
have the courage [to use stems]; they aren't willing to tolerate
earthiness and herbal characters in the wine.'
Road Chardonnay 2009
Complex, aromatic, toasty nose is fine and complex with some refined
toastiness and a bit of citrus. Real purity. The palate is fresh and
toasty with lovely elegant fine citrus fruit and subtle nuttiness.
Road Medium Riesling 2009
Sweet limey nose with lots of fruit character. The palate is
off-dry, fresh and textured with with smooth, sweet liminess and a
hint of spicy complexity. 91/100
Road Pinot Noir Bannockburn 2009
Beautifully aromatic sweet cherry fruit nose is lively, fine and
spicy with real elegance. The palate shows ripe but restrained
cherry fruit with good structure and nice savoury bite. 93/100
Road Pinot Noir Block 3 2009
Thrillingly elegant nose with spicy aromatics and expresive red
cherry fruit. The palate balances ripeness and elegance with pure,
mineralic spicy cherry fruit. So pure and elegant, yet also
Road Cornish Point Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 Highly aromatic with some sweet cherry fruit and a hint of
herbiness. The palate is sweetly fruited and fresh with a touch of
plumminess as well as good acidity. Lovely wine. 94/100
Road Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 Quite ripe with mineral and iodine notes as well as fresh cherry
fruit. Fresh and quite intense with sappy, spicy, mineral notes and
good acidity. 94/100
Road Pinot Noir 2003 Sweet and spicy with rich, fudgy, spicy notes under the ripe,
sweet fruit. Showing some evolution with sweet cherry fruit on the
palate and some spiciness. Age seems to make this taste sweeter.
Road Block 3 Pinot Noir 2003 Sweet, spicy and a bit herby with warmth on the nose. The palate
is rich, spicy and elegant with a hint of earth to the sweet fruit.
at the winery in January 2010:
Road Pinot Noir 2008 A blend from all three vineyard sites: The Elms, Cornish Point
and Calvert. Aged in 30% new oak for just under a year. Lovely
elegant nose is forward, rich but balanced with spicy dark cherry
flavours and some subtle meaty notes. The palate has lovely density
and elegance, combining power with restraint, together with some
earthy complexity. 93/100
Road Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2008 15 months in oak. Lovely smooth, pure, elegant berryish nose
with some really fine pure cherry fruit. Great sweet fruit purity.
The palate is beautifully elegant and expressive with fine sweet
cherry fruit underpinned by some minerality, with spicy notes too.
Fantastic elegance here: really fine. 95/100
Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2008 This spends 15 months in oak, 30% of which is new. There’s a
subtle spicy, meaty wildness to the nose here, with hints of iodine
and some minerality. The palate is fresh and expressive: bright but
taut with nice minerality and some earthiness. Quite old world in
style, and beautiful. 95/100
Road Block 3 Pinot Noir 2008 15 months in oak. Beautiful aromatics: smooth, pure cherry and
berry fruit with some floral notes and a hint of herbiness. Again, a
hint of iodine. Nice concentration and structure on the palate, with
lovely focus and some nice weight. Finishes silky: a really
expressive wine. 94/100
Road Block 5 Pinot Noir 2008 This is right next to Block 3, but the main difference is that
Block 5 has more clay in the soil. It spends 18 months in oak.
Focused, taut nose is pure and aromatic with some spicy minerality
and some non-fruit complexity. The palate is dense with firm
structure underpinning the rich, dark cherry and berry fruits and a
hint of herbiness. Well structured, this has promise for the future
but is currently less seductive than the others. 94/100