Bannockburn is a former gold mining town located 60 kilometers east of Queenstown, New Zealand. A different kind of gold is being harvested in the hills these days: premium wine grapes. The Southern Alps mountain range creates stunning backdrops at every turn of the Kawarau River, which runs the course of the Central Otago wine region. With the mountains blocking wet coastal weather, consistent warm, dry summers bestow ideal conditions to nurture the vines.
Buttressed against the arid schist hills is an acclaimed winery named Felton Road. British expat Nigel Greening acquired Felton Road Wines after a successful career in advertising. A job with BMW brought him to New Zealand in 1997, and the local Pinot Noir spoke to his love of red Burgundy. Greening caught the “wine bug”. He soon purchased a vineyard called Cornish Point, and in 2000 purchased the adjacent vineyard - Felton Road.
Almost immediately, Greening decided to convert to organic farming methods. They achieved Demeter certification in 2010, the highest level of biodynamic viticulture credentials. Meticulous vineyard management produces the highest quality fruit, a necessity with a challenging variety like Pinot Noir. The quality of the crop allows winemaker Blair Walter to craft remarkable Pinot Noir with low-intervention techniques. The magnificent terroir of Bannockburn shows through because they use native yeast and wild malolactic bacterial fermentation, add minimal sulfur dioxide, and bottle the wines unfined and unfiltered. Assistant Winemaker Mike Wolfenden says “Our wines are wines of site. Applying similar ‘hands-off’ winemaking techniques across the board allows for site-expression rather than winemaking to define our wines.”
Felton Road annually produces five distinct Pinot Noirs, three Rieslings, three Chardonnays, and a Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, totalling a mere 11,000 cases. Among those, they’ve earned the most acclaim from their vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs. These red wines, in particular, exhibit the influence of terroir which the winemakers strive to preserve. The current release 2014 Felton Road Block 5 is one of the best Pinot Noir wines I’ve ever tasted. It displays floral, vanilla, and cherry aromas with elegant soft tannins. The 2014 Calvert Pinot Noir is quite distinct from the Block 5, powered by raspberries, earth, spice, and stronger tannins. I dare you to find a bottle of Pinot that is more fine, balanced, and smooth as those from Felton Road. Despite the small production and remote location, the Calvert, Block 5, and Block 3 Pinot Noirs have repeatedly made the Top 100 lists of global wine publications. Prominent critic James Suckling ranked the 2015 Block 3 at number 42 on his list of the top 100 wines of 2016. It outranked any red Burgundy.
Zoe, who guided our tasting, was exceedingly hospitable and informative. She showed us maps of the vineyard blocks, explained the soil types, and gave us a few extra special wines to taste. The cellar door itself is a picturesque double-gabled house with a large flower-draped porch with a view surveying the Felton Road estate vineyards. Overall, the casual and personal experience is everything an authentic wine tasting should be.
This winery, tucked back off the eponymous gravel Felton Road, is worth going out of your way to visit when in New Zealand. It's also worth scouring high-end restaurant menus and the internet to try to procure a bottle of the very limited release single-block wines. If not, good luck waiting on the mailing list for years to acquire them.
Visit Felton Road online
Distributed by the Craft + Estate division of The Winebow Group