Kiwi vi­gneron grafts at the pur­suit of a life­time

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

IT is the duty of mak­ers of great wines to adopt the role of the dis­sat­is­fied Socrates, and not that of the sat­is­fied (un­think­ing) pig. It is the eter­nal chal­lenge to pro­duce a greater wine in the com­ing vin­tage than any that have pre­ceded it. Na­ture can in­ter­vene and frus­trate the wine­maker but they should be proud that they han­dled a dif­fi­cult grow­ing sea­son bet­ter than they did in ear­lier poor years, or max­imised the po­ten­tial of a great sea­son.

If this is true of all grape va­ri­eties and wines, it is dou­bly so for the most tem­per­a­men­tal of all, pinot noir. It can be a thor­oughly per­verse mistress at the best of times: it has caused me to ob­serve more than once that it is the stuff of which all good sui­cides are made. As it moves from hand-har­vested grapes to fer­men­ta­tion, to bar­rel mat­u­ra­tion to bot­tle, then bot­tle age, there are al­ter­nat­ing mo­ments of de­spair and ex­hil­a­ra­tion.

Blair Wal­ter, who has made Fel­ton Road’s wines since day one and has 10 vin­tages (1997 to ’ 06) in bot­tle, is cer­tainly So­cratic in his out­look. Al­most overnight he gained an awe­some rep­u­ta­tion for this Cen­tral Otago, New Zealand win­ery.

Yet 10 years later he says: ‘‘ While I can’t say I’m not pleased with the wines we have made, the pass­ing of 10 years has cre­ated an ever-in­creas­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion of just how far there is for us to go . . . I have come to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of ex­press­ing our place, of find­ing a con­sis­tency in the wines that is more than a wine­maker’s sig­na­ture.’’

Fel­ton Road owns two vine­yards, Elms and Cor­nish Point (22ha in to­tal), and leases the 10ha ad­join­ing Calvert vine­yard. While each is pre­dom­i­nantly planted to pinot noir, Fel­ton Road also makes stylish chardon­nays and bril­liant ries­lings. There are three ries­lings in all, the la­belling us­ing a some­what Del­phic sys­tem unique to NZ. The first is Dry Ries­ling, the sec­ond sim­ply Ries­ling and the third Ries­ling Block 1.

From this you are meant to un­der­stand they are in as­cend­ing or­der of sweet­ness, the big­gest jump com­ing be­tween Dry Ries­ling and Ries­ling. It is the lat­ter wine ($35, 95 points) that sets my mouth tin­gling with its mag­i­cal lime sher­bet mix of sweet­ness and acid­ity, mim­ick­ing the best kabi­netts of the Mosel Val­ley of Ger­many.

But pinot noir is the main game, with 18 com­bi­na­tions of clones and root­stocks, each matched to spe­cific block pro­files (or ter­roirs). Th­ese are all hand-picked and sep­a­rately fer­mented and ma­tured, giv­ing what Wal­ter says is a ‘‘ ver­i­ta­ble lab­o­ra­tory of pinot noir and its pos­si­bil­i­ties’’.

The wine­mak­ing is de­cep­tively sim­ple: grav­ity flow through the three-level win­ery; wild yeast fer­men­ta­tion; open-top fer­menters; pre and post­fer­men­ta­tion mac­er­a­tion; and punch­downs vary­ing in fre­quency in each 24-hour pe­riod de­ter­mined by the amount of ex­trac­tion de­sired.

With a to­tal vin­tage make of three ries­lings, chardon­nay, vin gris (a rose vari­ant made from juice run-off from the pinot noir be­fore fer­men­ta­tion has com­menced) and four or five pinot noirs, the amount of any one wine is not great. When you take into ac­count en­thu­si­as­tic de­mand from Aus­tralia, the US and Bri­tain to the needs of the do­mes­tic mar­ket in NZ, it is lit­tle won­der Aus­tralian im­porters Red + White make as many en­e­mies as they do friends when al­lo­cat­ing their share of the cake.

Sally McGill, na­tional mar­ket­ing man­ager of Red + White, went on a work­ing hol­i­day to NZ in 1998 look­ing for suit­able wines to im­port. By sheer luck her first port of call was Wal­ter at Fel­ton Road. Her work was over and the hol­i­day be­gan.

Wal­ter has the last word. In 2002, he started on the road to or­ganic and then bio­dy­namic vine­yard man­age­ment, a move com­pleted in 2006. That was the year he re­garded as a turn­ing point, a year in which sat­is­fac­tion gained an edge over dis­sat­is­fac­tion. Now comes the long, slow process of the vines reach­ing full ma­tu­rity.

‘‘ It hum­bles us when we re­alise this is about a life­time of evo­lu­tion, not the next vin­tage. It is not in­signif­i­cant that a pinot noir vine has about the same life span as a hu­man.’’

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