Go as far back in human storytelling as you like, the myth of the evil twin or the dark child and the light child can be found. The lore of the mirror image, the inverted personality has manifest famously in all our imaginations, from Cain and Abel to Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
I think we all have a side of ourselves that balances out our normal personality, a side that is as different from our outward faces as night is to day. That side may show its face only once in a blue moon, but I think it lurks there in all of us.
From a purely geological and topological perspective, if Burgundy, France had a mirror image, it might just be a wine region named Central Otago. In so many ways it is the inverse of Burgundy, but perhaps most obviously starting with the fact that it sits at roughly the latitude at which Burgundy might sit if Atlas himself upended the world, and the Northern Hemisphere went spinning south. Sitting at nearly 45 degrees south latitude, it is the southernmost winegrowing region in the world, challenged only by Patagonia, Argentina which has only started to creep into the low forties in the last few years. But beyond its inverse latitudinal relationship, Otago is as rugged as Burgundy is quaint. Instead of well manicured and well populated ancient villages sitting on limestone made from ancient geological sea beds, Otago offers a raw, near infant (geologically speaking) landscape of harsh, high desert with newly eroded soils, dangerously large temperature shifts, and more sheep than people. It may in fact be a true statement to suggest that some vineyards in Burgundy have been tended since before the first human being ever set foot on the islands of New Zealand.
While seafaring Maori may have discovered New Zealand only 800 years ago, winemakers have discovered it only much more recently. The oldest vines in the country are merely 25 or so years old, and as one of the oldest established producers in Central Otago, Felton Road Winery’s vineyards were first planted in 1993.
Felton Road recently celebrated its 10th harvest, and simultaneously, its first harvest that is fully Biodynamic. Winemaker Blair Walter and vineyard manager Gareth King have cautiously and gradually moved towards biodynamic viticulture and winemaking after many years of being organic. Like many devotees of Biodynamics, Walter explains the move simply: “We just get better results.”
When we spent the morning walking through the frigid rain soaked estate vineyards a few weeks ago Walter confides that both organic farming and Biodynamics have never been difficult for the winery to achieve. Even if they weren’t focused on farming sustainably, for instance, they would never need to use pesticides anyway. “The climate and the place just don’t require it. We’ve never had bug problems,” says Walter. It was actually a lot harder to find the goats they wanted to graze the vineyards.
The lack of goats in a sheep focused country notwithstanding, It’s not hard to believe that pests aren’t a problem, as we stand in the scraggily vegetated golden and reddish loess and gravel soils that make up the gullies and benchlands of the Bannockburn region. While it’s about 49 degrees fahrenheit this morning, this isn’t an uncommon temperature at any time of the year, and some days by the time the sun goes down the mercury will have topped out at above 100 degrees. Such massive diurnal shifts are usually only found in the high deserts of the world, of which Bannockburn might be considered the lowest. Indeed, the landscape immediately reminded me of Utah with its sandy and claylike soils stained rust and orange from the metal content that was responsible for the dozens of abandoned miners shacks we drove by on our way here.
Blair Walter has been making Felton Road’s wines since 1997, shortly after their first vintage. His previous winemaking career posts have included properties in Oregon, Burgundy, Australia, and Napa, notably at Newton Vineyard and Luna Vineyards along with the legendary John Kongsgaard. At Felton Road he oversees a production of around 13,000 cases of wine, most of which is Pinot Noir, with a smaller amount of Chardonnay, and relatively tiny amounts of Riesling, all processed in a custom gravity-flow winemaking facility built to his specifications.
Winemaking is done, per the traditions of Biodynamicism, fully by hand, from the harvesting to the daily punchdowns and stirring of the lees. The wines have always been made with full native yeast fermentations of lightly pressed whole clusters of berries, and none of the wines, save the Rieslings, see any filtration beyond the painstaking barrel racking processes after being left on their gross lees for some time.
The wines are all made from estate fruit — a combination of land completely owned by the winery as well as a couple of vineyards that are shared with neighboring wineries, notably Mt. Difficulty. Felton Road is especially proud of its vineyards, not just for the recent move to full Biodynamics but for their painstaking construction when first put in — a dizzying match of rootstocks and clonal combinations based on microclimates and soil variations within the vineyards. A map of these combinations on the wall of the winery’s office/impromptu tasting room looks like a detailed patchwork quilt.
Felton Road produces several Pinot Noirs, including two vineyard designate wines, an unoaked chardonnay from their Elms vineyard, an oaked Chardonnay, and both a dry and off-dry Riesling. We got a chance to taste the current releases of all the wines as well as some barrel samples of the 2006 vintage, which was acclaimed as near perfect conditions in the region.
It’s worth noting that 2005 was an extremely dicey vintage in the area with a lot of fruit lost due to rain and frost during flowering. This resulted in significantly reduced yields, though it seems that some winemakers were able to take that in stride and make decent, even excellent wines.
Overall I found Felton Road’s wines to be excellent, and while there are one or two other producers in the country who might equal them, in my experience, none of them surpass Felton Road in quality or personality.
2006 Felton Road Dry Riesling, Bannockburn, Central Otago
Pale gold in color, this wine has a lively nose of pink grapefruit aromas mixed with a mineral-chalky scent that lends intrigue to its juicy start. In the mouth it is a rush of lemon zest citrus flavor buoyed on a wave of fantastic bright acidity that makes the mouth sit up and take notice as more mineral notes emerge across the palate through to a nice finish. Score: 9. Cost: $25. Where to Buy?
2006 Felton Road Off-dry Riesling, Bannockburn, Central Otago
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has a light honeyed nose of apple and pear aromas. In the mouth it is light and dances on the palate with lovely apple and light citrus flavors made juicy by good acidity and perfectly balanced, with a more persistent finish than might be expected given the freshness of its flavors. Score: 9. Cost: $25. Where to Buy?
2006 Felton Road Elms Chardonnay, Bannockburn, Central Otago
Pale yellow-gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of wet slate and petrichor (the way the world smells just after a rain). On the palate the wine is an interesting combination of mineral, specifically limestone qualities and unripe apple and pear fruit flavors intertwined by great acids. Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $30. Where to Buy?
2005 Felton Road Chardonnay, Bannockburn, Central Otago
Yellow gold in color, this wine has a classic nose of cold cream and buttercream pastry aromas. In the mouth it has an interesting light salinity that makes perfect sense with the flavors of crushed shells and limestone that along with the excellent, steely acids give this wine a Chablis-like quality. A light apple and citrus juice fruit flavor creeps in towards the back of the palate making for a lovely, dynamic drinking experience and the best New Zealand Chardonnay I’ve tasted. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $32. Where to Buy?
2005 (Felton Road) Cornish Point Pinot Noir, Bannockburn, Central Otago
This wine, a second label of sorts for the vineyard, is dark garnet in the glass, and smells of rhubarb compote with hints of cranberry. In the mouth it it has a light green stemmyness that somewhat prejudices me against the pleasant raspberry, dried cranberry, and light herbal qualities it shows later on the palate, albeit somewhat shortly, as it misses some presence on the back palate and in the finish, though not so egregiously as to dismiss it out of hand. Good, certainly, but not great. Score: 8.5. Cost: $35. Where to Buy?
2005 Felton Road Pinot Noir, Bannockburn, Central Otago
A cloudy, medium garnet color in the glass, this wine has a rich, spicy nose of deep red fruit of the plum and cranberry varieties. In the mouth it has a gorgeous silky texture and volume on the tongue with great acidity and primary flavors of fresh and dried cranberries , dried cherries, and a significant and resonant flavor of earth that penetrates and echoes through the lovely finish. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $45. Where to Buy?
2005 Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir, Bannockburn, Central Otago
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a deep earthy nose of black raspberry and slightly smoky dirt, like a campfire doused by the rain. In the mouth it continues to sing in the key of “dirt” with a lovely depth and satiny feel on the tongue. Core flavors of cranberry and raspberry emerge from the earth like a boat out of the fog and make a beeline through the long finish. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $60. Where to Buy?
2005 Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir, Bannockburn, Central Otago
Medium garnet in color this wine has an intoxicating nose that hangs suspended like a spider web pulled tight between aromas of earth on the one hand, dried cranberries, thyme, and lavender on another, and distinct petrichor, on the other. OK, so that’s three hands, but if I had three hands I’d use all of them to grab this glass as the flavors of this wine resonate like a clearly rung bell on a quiet morning. Bright dried cherry and plum fruit with seamless mineral and light herbal qualities vault across the palate like acrobats. Not to mix metaphors or anything. I wouldn’t want to mix anything with this wine, frankly, just to sit quietly and enjoy. Score: 9.5. Cost: $60. Where to Buy?
BARREL TASTING NOTES
We also got the chance to sample the following wines out of barrel:
2006 Chardonnay (old barrel)
2006 Chardonnay (new barrel)
2006 Lot 6 Chardonnay
2006 Pinot Noir, fully destemmed
2006 Pinot Noir
2006 Block 3 Pinot Noir
2006 Block 5 Pinot Noir
They are early in their evolution, and will be cellared in barrel for some time more, but it is clear that they will be tremendous. The Chardonnay was harder to judge as it is still finishing (slowly) its secondary (malolactic) fermentation but I rate it in the low 9 point range on my scale. The Pinots were more complete and clearly tremendous. The Block 3 and Block 5 are stupendous wines with a sinewy, restrained power that was gorgeous, with smoky tones and fantastic textures that hinted at strong mid 9 point range. It wasn’t hard to see why Watson has basically eschewed complete destemming of his fruit — the destemmed barrel (of which he always makes one just as a data point) didn’t have nearly the flavor or complexity of the other wines.