When I made my first wine trip to New Zealand, around 15 years ago, Central Otago was a fledgling viticultural area – the first commercial vintage there was in 1987 – and it was undergoing something of a pinot-fueled land rush. Newer sub-regions, like Bendigo, were covered in baby vines as new vineyards were developed.
Now Central Otago, one of the world’s southernmost wine regions, is well-established, with more than 4,800 acres of vines. More than three-quarters of that vineyard land is pinot noir. That’s still tiny, of course; by comparison, Napa County has nearly 10 times that acreage planted.
Central, as the locals call it, is spectacular, with mountains and lakes and brilliant skies. The viticultural region encompasses several areas, each with slightly different soils and microclimates. But in general, Central Otago has a continental climate, with extremes of daily and seasonal temperatures. That results in pinots that are ripe and bold, but with a wonderful freshness because of the cold nights.
I have fond memories of that early visit, especially my time at Felton Road, where my husband and I slept in an apartment over the tractor barn. Felton Road has grown considerably since then and now encompasses about 80 acres spread across four properties in Bannockburn, one of the warmest, driest parts of Central. The team was working with biodynamic principles at the time of my visit and is now fully certified.
Blair Walter, Felton Road’s longtime winemaker, celebrated the winery’s 20th vintage a few months ago by bringing the 2016 releases to a tasting in San Francisco. (This article is long overdue: One of my New Year’s resolutions is to finally write about subjects that have been languishing in my notebook.)
The 2016 vintage, Walter said, had very warm conditions leading up to harvest. The grapes get shorter hang time and less UV radiation during warm years, compared with cooler years, when the additional hang time leads to more richness and flavor development, he added.
Still, I found the 2016 pinots to have a lot of tension and freshness; the chardonnays are zippy and bright. “Our pinots have to be relevant in the international context,” Walter said, because about 75 percent of the production is exported. “People are coming at our wines with a Burgundy palate.” It’s taken awhile to reach that level of refinement; Walter describes some of the earlier pinots as “a little riper and chunkier.”
The 2016 Bannockburn Pinot Noir ($40) is quite floral, with racy red fruit and supple texture. The 2016 Cornish Point Pinot Noir ($50) adds a hint of forest floor, while the 2016 Calvert Pinot Noir ($55) is a little plumper. The 2016 Block 3 Pinot Noir ($70) is more structured, with red fruit and floral overtones. And the 2016 Block 5 Pinot Noir ($70) is the whole package: rich yet lively, with red fruit, some forest floor notes and firm structure.
Felton Road is the biggest chardonnay producer in Central Otago, at about 2,000 to 2,500 cases a year. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to make world-class chardonnay, too,” Walter said.
As is the case with the pinot noir, the style of the chardonnays has also been evolving. Since 2002, Walter said, the chardonnays see no more than 15 percent new oak, because he thinks oak masks their zingy character.
The 2016 Bannockburn Chardonnay ($40) displays zippy grapefruit with a touch of astringency on the finish, while the 2016 Block 2 Chardonnay ($45) is very fresh and lemony, with a long finish.
We also tasted some older vintages. Among the chardonnays, the 2015 Block 2 was really impressive, with some nice richness but also a lot of freshness and energy; the 2008 Block 2 was still amazingly fresh. There were pinots from a number of vintages. I was particularly taken with the plump, dark 2014 Cornish Point and the rich, spicy 2011 and 2009 Block 5. The 2006 Block 5 was still very youthful, with a slight leafy note. The oldest pinot we sampled was the 2003 Block 3, which is showing some maturity and meaty notes, but still has ample fruit.
Felton Road also makes excellent riesling. The 2016 Bannockburn Riesling ($25) is off-dry and offers flavors of lime and spiced apple, along with plenty of acidity to offset the sweetness.