“We all just have to think back 150 years ago, it’s how all farming was done. There weren’t agricultural chemicals, so this notion of calling chemical agriculture ‘conventional’, I think is going to switch in years to come, and organic and biodynamic farming will be called conventional, while the other is going to be called chemical”.
Blair Walter from Felton Road is a pragmatist when it comes to biodynamic farming methods on the 32 hectares of vineyard they own and manage in Bannockburn, just 45 minutes drive east of Queenstown, in the persistently breathtaking Central Otago region of New Zealand.
“We’re certainly not biodynamic fundamentalists, like some wineries are, because there’s parts of it that we don’t understand, and find a bit sort of, ‘foo foo’, and ‘Harry Potter goes farming”, says Blair on Felton Road’s approach to BD. “Some of it does sound a bit witch doctory, but we know it can’t be harming the vineyard, because some of it makes sense, such as some preparations that increase the microbial activity of the soil”.
Felton Road was founded by Stuwart Elms in 1991, after he acquired the land, now called The Elms Vineyard, on Felton road in Bannockburn. The road to ‘conventional’ organic/biodynamic viticulture began in 2002, and by 2005, under the ownership of English pinot-file, Nigel Greening, Felton Road had converted to 100% biodynamic viticulture.
“What we’re noticing, because of the farming, whether that’s through biodynamic farming (or not)… is that the vineyards are getting healthier”, explains Blair.
Blair says by “eliminating soluble fertilisers, which blur the expression of your site, because you’re more or less feeding the vines junk food” you can better express the unique characteristics of the vineyard(s), and regionality of the wines you grow.
There is huge variability around the Central Otago, in terms of soil types, ranging from deep silt loams, tertiary clays, quartz sands and schist gravels, and all seem to be making good quality wines. But, despite this, due to the relatively youthful place that the Central Otago is, in terms of winegrowing, much of the unique flavour and textual characters come from the climate.
“It is the climate, rather than the soils, that has the biggest influence on what defines Central Otago wine”, says Rudi Bauer, when I visited him at Quartz Reef, earlier in the year, and Blair Walter agrees; ” it is a little difficult to pinpoint it down to soils, because there is huge variability around Central Otago, even in Felton Road, there would be over 10 different soil types”. So, what are some of the effects that the climate has on the fruits of the Central Otago?
“Our climate is extremely unique”, says Blair, “I don’t know if there would be few in the world that would get close, just because of our southerly latitude, making (the Central Otago) the most southerly wine region in the world, at 45° degrees south”. It is the dryest, hottest, and coldest region in New Zealand, recording the coldest winter temperatures, and hottest day time temperatures. “We don’t hold the heat for long, but we get quite intense heat spikes in the summer, from 33-38 degrees Celsius”, says Blair.
This huge diurnal temperature variation of the Central Otago, and at the Felton Road vineyards, “seals in a lot of the varietal intensity”, says Blair, “and is one of the reasons why Central Otago pinot’s are so dark fruited, with deep colours. A lot of winemakers think that we’re obsessed with deep rich colour, and with making heavy handed pinot’s, but that’s just what happens here naturally”.
The cold night time temperatures provide the Felton Road fruit with very good, and very high levels, of natural acidity. Lower rainfall means that the fruit can hang on the vine for longer, and so Blair can wait to get that ripe fruit flavour, while the intense UV from the clear skies above creates a vibrant fruit character, which Blair calls, “Central Otago intensity”.
“We do get the fruit sweetness that the longer hang time provides, courtesy of the cool nights”, says Blair with, “glycerol and oilyness through the mid palate, and a vein of acidity running through the wine, giving it vibrancy and definition”.
The complexity and balance that is achieved through these favorable conditions is emphasised by Blair’s ‘nothing added, nothing taken away’ approach to winemaking.
“We’ve never fined or filtered a pinot noir”, says Blair, “they’re always just racked carefully out of barrel to tank, sulphured then bottled from the same tank, so there is nothing added, and never a filtration”. But, Blair doesn’t describe his wines as belonging to the natural wine camp because he understands the important role sulphur dioxide (SO2) plays in making sure the wine stays fresh and stable before consumption.
“My ultimate aim is to make wines with only the minimum amount of sulphur”, says Blair, “I certainly wouldn’t forego SO2 additions because I’ve just seen so many of those natural wines fall over and look a little bruised and tired, and little bit ugly in the bottle”
“Some natural wines might be drinkable with the absence of SO2, but it’s unreliable as to which ones are and which ones aren’t”, says Blair. “We just add a relatively small amount to keep it sufficiently stable, so that they do look (and taste) like proper wines. All the rest of it”, continues Blair, “is pretty darn natural, if you consider organic and biodynamic winegrowing, and then nothing added during the winemaking process, no fining, no filtering… no mucking about”, he says.
In an effort to carry on the notion of sustainability and care for the environment, Felton Road have recently changed their bottles for the 2012 vintage into a ‘Burgundy light-weight’ bottle, which is 23% less glass weight than the previous bottles they used; as Blair explains, “the research shows that 60% of the carbon cost of getting a bottle of wine to a dinner table is actually in the glass bottle, so being able to reduce the glass weight of our wines is pretty significant”. This is quite significant, when you consider the kinds of lavish packaging many other fine wine producers use to ship, and showcase their product to the consumer.
Blair’s ultimate aim, though, through “finesse, precision, and accuracy”, and using “understated and less overt” wine growing techniques”, is to “grow the most interesting pinot, chardonnay, and riesling that we can, with every wine being able to express itself the best way it can”.
“The unique thing I have to offer the drinkers of Felton Road wines is the taste of our vineyard”, concludes Blair.
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D// – The Wine Idealist