When people talk about ‘prestigious’ wineries, you expect these to be long-established producers, steeped in history, run by generation after generation. But with a country like New Zealand, this isn’t necessarily the case. You have probably heard of, or indeed tasted, the unique style of a great New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that has developed a large worldwide following. However, these grapes only make up fifty percent of the country’s vineyards. So what else is the New Zealand wine industry doing right?
Well, I can go some of the way in answering this question by talking about a producer called Felton Road. Situated in the region of Central Otago on the South Island of the country since 1991, this is now considered to be New Zealand’s most prestigious wine estate, producing world class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. But what is Felton Road doing that others aren’t?
Since 2000, when the estate was bought be Nigel Greening, the grapes have been grown using biodynamic methods. So what exactly does this involve? First off, you have start with an adherence to organic viticulture, and that means no or very little chemical interference with the grapes. Many top quality wine producers throughout the world are now adopting this method, with organic certification bringing extra kudos with increasingly knowledgeable consumers too.
But the minds behind Felton Road have taken this one step further by adopting biodynamic practices. This is a philosophy that treats the land as a living organism in its own right, and requires the grower to use a set of very particular soil preparations advocated by the scientist and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner in 1924. In practical terms, this could also mean introducing livestock to the vineyard, planting additional crops between the vines and making your own compost. Many criticise these methods for being too ‘spiritual’ and non-scientific, but the fact that many top European and new world winemakers are using them to produce fantastic bottles can perhaps silence sceptics in this respect.
Nigel Greening and winemaker Blair Walter cite their reasoning behind these practices as giving something back to the land: vines are not a natural thing to grow, so what can they do for the land in return? Whereas organic methods, although they have a positive message, are all about restrictions, biodynamic practices think about what you can do for the earth and what positive impact you can make.
But there are other factors that have contributed to the great Felton Road name. The location of the vineyards in the sub-region of Bannockburn provide almost ideal conditions for growing perfect Pinot Noir grapes – warm days and cool nights make for a slow ripening season that retains the essential acidity and the concentration of fruit flavours in the grapes. And the area is blessed with few rain setbacks that, in turn, result in few problems with fungal disease.
Felton Road goes about its sustainable and ecological business without banging the environmental drum too much – for these winemaker’s it’s all about making the best wine possible and for them, this involves treating their land with the greatest respect.
Carlo Pandian is a wine geek and urban gardener based in London. He is happy to share with the readers of Wine Experts Guide the great production of Nigel Greening of Felton Road. When he’s not online, Carlo enjoys cycling in the countryside and hanging around food and wine festivals. Connect with him @carlopandian.