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Felton Road Finesse

By July 6, 2013No Comments
Felton Road is one of the great wine producers of New Zealand, making world-class Pinot Noir, exceptionally fine Riesling and increasingly superb Chardonnay. Based in Bannockburn, the annual output is small, tiny in global terms, with around 12,000-14,000 cases of wine produced from less than 200 tonnes of grapes harvested annually. The proportion is approx. 70% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay and 10% Riesling, and all of it is allocated carefully to eager markets around the world.

The Search Greater Finesse
Winemaker Blair Walter spends much of his time, as does proprietor Nigel Greening, supporting the sales with visits, tastings and dinners when he’s not at the vineyard and winery. These trips are invaluable for him, as he spends time with the people who are recommending the Felton Road wines to the end consumer. It is the thoughts of the consumer and the gatekeepers, such as sommeliers and key buyers, that concern him the most, as these people make the final choice to buy the Felton Road wines – or not – as the case may be, and he knows it is crucial to understand what they see as wines which are better, similar or lesser than his own, and if the style of the Felton Road wines is what is desirable. How does Felton Road Pinot Noir compare alongside a Rousseau Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru ‘Clos St Jacques’? Or the Felton Road ‘Block 2’ Chardonnay with a Dauvissat Chablis 1er Cru ‘La Foret’, or the Felton Road Bannockburn Riesling alongside a Dr Loosen Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett? At the level that Felton Road is recognised, it is such benchmark wines that they will be compared with.

Blair Walter – Felton Road Winemaker

Blair had just come back on the Friday, from a six week trip from France with his wife Erin, and then straight into a visit by me on the Saturday. (No rest for the wicked?) His mission was a fact finding one on how the Felton Road wines were perceived and how they stood alongside other wines in the same ‘category’. The message he got on this trip and on previous trips was that finesse with subtle complexities and textures made the style of the best wines. This trip confirmed that Felton Road must make wines that are even more refined than they have been. With Chardonnay and Pinot Noir especially, avoidance of any sign of over ripeness and any sign of excess winemaker input, such as oaking is essential for his wines to foot it with the world’s best. This way, the vineyard will be able to be seen in the wines, and the wines will be more detailed. This is the path that Felton Road is working on, and it’s a work in progress. There’s no way that Felton Road will rest on any laurels. www.feltonroad.com

Tasting 2013 Chardonnay Barrel Samples
Blair took us through a tasting of 2013 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir barrel samples. It was fascinating to hear him show his preference for samples made from fruit picked very early. Wines that I enjoyed for their richness and ripeness seemed less favoured by Blair. In all the wines which were picked earlier that he showed, there was no lack of weight or depth. There was no indication of unripeness either. By the end of the tasting, I began to appreciate his search for finesse through earlier picking. It’s a matter of making the judgement call between what’s ripe and what’s not. This is harder than it sounds, of course. The work of viticulturist Gareth King, and the biodynamic regimes at Felton Road were important factors in being able to make clear distinctions and decisions to make wines that will take them further. Here are my impressions of the wines tasted:

Interestingly, Felton Road Chardonnay accounts for approx. 27% of the production of that variety in Central Otago. The inroads Blair and his team have made with the variety is exciting. First up were a number of samples that will end up as ‘Bannockburn’ Chardonnay. A ‘Cornish Point’ Chardonnay 2013, from clone 95, very crisp, fine and minerally with citrus fruit flavours, revealing hints of creaminess in the glass. Then a ‘Block 6’Chardonnay 2013, also clone 95. Full, savoury, with punchy citrus and mealy fruit flavours, all driven by excellent acidity providing linearity to balance the richness. This was followed by a ‘Block 8’ Chardonnay 2013 from the new clone 548. Crisp, steely and acidic, with delicate floral notes, but appropriately ripe for Blair. I felt it flirted with the cooler end fruit spectrum. And a ‘Calvert’ Chardonnay 2013, elegant and lemony, juxtaposing richness with lively acidity, the result being a wine of real tension and energy.

Then a couple of samples destined for the ‘Block 2’ Chardonnay 2013 blend. A first-pick of 21 y.o. Mendoza clone, leesy, flinty with citrussy fruit along with green tropical fruit notes, the flavours carried by acidity. Then a third-pick of Mendoza clone, riper and richer, with more weight, softer in acidity, but with an underlying steeliness still present.

Barrels of 2013 Felton Road Pinot Noir

Tasting 2013 Pinot Noir Barrel Samples
Onto Pinot Noir, the 2013 wines will be approx. 30% whole bunch, and Blair commented that perhaps there could have been a finer touch with less punching down. Firstly looking at samples from barrels to go to the ‘Bannockburn’ blend. A ‘Cornish Point’ Pinot Noir 2013, the last pick of 10/5 clone. Soft, dense red fruits, lush and accessible, deemed not quite what Blair sees as ideal. Then a ‘Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2013 sample with clones 5 and 6, much firmer, with savoury and brackish herbal notes. Quite firm and deeply structured with concentration, line and drive. A ‘Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2013 from Abel clone was much darker, with savoury black fruit aromas and flavours and black florals. This had a real core and concentration, but also richness. The whole bunch input seemed more obvious.

Blair then offered Pinot Noir samples from a range of interesting barrels. Starting with an ‘Elms Vineyard’ Pinot Noir 2013 from Blocks 1 and 2, clones 5 and 10/5. Very fine with savoury red floral fruit, quite elegant with a soft, fleshy fullness, the flavours seeming to become darker in the glass. A ‘Baby Blocks’ Pinot Noir 2013, from young vine Abel on 3309 from Block 3 and Block 5. Very tight and elegant, quite crisp and firm. Though less generous, this had linear drive and excellent acidity. The wine will probably go towards the ‘Bannockburn’ blend. Also destined for the ‘Bannockburn’ blend was the ‘Block 11’ Pinot Noir 2013, a mix of 667 and 777, and 100% whole bunch. Initially shy on bouquet, waves of gentle, ripe, dark fruits showing lovely vibrancy. Yet soft and finely textured, the whole bunch unobtrusive indeed. A wine picked early, a ‘Calvert’ Pinot Noir 2013, a blend of clones 6 and 115, marked by bacony oak and a hint of reduction, but fruity and lush on palate, and with fine, soft, flowery tannins and bright acidity.

The final Pinot Noir samples were for ‘Block 3’ and ‘Block 5’. A clone 10/5 ‘Block 3’ Pinot Noir 2013, possessing dark berry fruits with savoury herbs and good density, nearly brooding with it, but an undercurrent of lively acid and liquorice. Another component of ‘Block 3’ Pinot Noir 2013 was even better, showing dense black fruits, but sweet and racy, the wine possessing “mineral tension” and considerable precision. A ‘Block 5’ Pinot Noir 2013 from clones 5 and 6, full, layered with dark berry fruits and dark herbs, distinctly savoury and complex with density. Another ‘Block 5’ Pinot Noir 2013 barrel, with 70% clone 5 and 30% 10/5, with great freshness and tension allied to minerals and richness. A touch of reduction, but clearly with potential.

Tasting Some 2012 and 2011 Felton Road Wines
It was a good exercise to look at some finished of the 2011 wines released last year and newly released 2012s, especially just after tasting the 2013 barrel samples. The ‘Bannockburn’ Chardonnay 2012 has a lovely citrus and minerally richness, the oak just there in support. The acidity spot on, enhancing the lusciousness. In comparison, the ‘Bannockburn’ Chardonnay 2011 distinctly flinty, leesy and complex. Not quite as rich as the 2012, but with excellent linearity and tight drive. Then going onto the ‘Block 2’ Chardonnay 2011, showing greater finesse than both the ‘Bannockburn’ wines, combining attributes of both – the richness and succulence of fruit, but also the reductive complexities with mealy expression as in classical white burgundy. It seems the 2012s are sweeter in fruitiness and the 2011s more sinewy.

Tasting two 2012 Pinot Noirs, one can see the step up in individuality between the tiers. The ‘Bannockburn’ Pinot Noir 2012 an elegant wine with ripe, dark fruits, succulence, balanced by excellent acidity, this has tension and finesse. The ‘Cornish Point’ Pinot Noir 2012 more structured and firm, but correspondingly richer, with greater detail and layers, black fruits merging with minerals and smoke, spices and whole bunch savoury herbs. Would Blair have made the same wine knowing what he knows now? Would he have picked even earlier for more finesse and clarity of vineyard expression? As sensationally good as this wine is, I suspect he would have.

Liquid Gold – 2012 Felton Road wine
That’s got to supply the world!

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