Kiwi vigneron grafts at the pursuit of a lifetime
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.’’