Back Linden & The Lockdown, episode 3: Felton Road Wines

Published on 21 April, 2020


© Linden Wilkie, 21st April, 2020

Today I twisted the tops of three bottles of mature(ing) Felton Road, and offer some personal thoughts on this estate, and these wines.

The Felton Rd website itself is a pretty rich resource, and for a bit more of the background, read Margaret Rand’s superb piece on owner Nigel Greening, for The World of Fine Wine, and NZ wine writer Bob Campbell’s ‘five questions’ interview with him.

New Zealand, like many places, is currently at its highest alert level (4), and in lockdown, dealing with Covid-19. Because of the “go early, go hard” approach here, it appears this country has dodged the bullet, for now.

But it is also harvest time. Most people must stay home, save lives. But what’s it like if you are trying to get your annual grape harvest in? Back on 28th March I asked Felton Road’s winemaker Blair Walter about level 4 during harvest.

LW: When did harvest begin, and when do you think you'll have the last of the fruit in?

BW: Started at Cornish Point on March 20 (finished at Cornish Point on the 27th, so now one quarter in). It’s been very cool over the last two weeks, so great news for those who believe in hang time. The Riesling will be last to harvest this year and perhaps not until late April. With the cooler weather it has stretched the ripening out considerably. Last year we picked the entire 32 hectares and three varieties in 11 days over a range of 12.

LW: What is quality looking like? And size of crop? 

BW: Quality is looking great, and size is perfectly normal, so far. Chardonnay will be down because of the poor flowering, but amazingly, our Pinot noir survived the awful December weather.

LW: Are there particular restrictions during the lockdown that apply to how you operate? 

BW: We have created a winery bubble with our three younger team members living at the winery and completely isolated. My assistant Mike and I and our respective families are also isolated and within the “winery bubble”. Fortunately our harvest chef is on site and in our bubble!

LW: What will be the main challenges when work is primarily in the winery? Will you have to make some compromises?

BW: We don’t foresee any problems. Myself and Mike carry a letter in our cars to say we work at a business that is allowed to operate – the roads are eerily quiet! Interestingly, we can’t taste the fruit in the bins once they have been received at the winery as the bunches have been touched by 40 pickers who are outside our bubble. This is not a problem as we have already tasted the fruit in the vineyard to make the decision to pick. But it is usually nice to taste it in the bins to have that one last taste, confirm that picking decision and bank that fruit perception to memory in order to be able to relate it to future wine quality. We’ll just have to remember back to the fruit in the vineyards. We don’t expect any other challenges and believe we have all other possible contingencies in place (eg. Emergency refrigeration and electrical repairs, external labs and couriers are still operating….)

Burn Cottage, who I featured in the last Linden & The Lockdown, reports all the Pinot Noir is now harvested, but the Riesling and Grüner Veltliner is due to be picked early next week. A Couple of weeks ago, Andy Crozier reported:

At the moment we’ve got some very strict MPI guidelines that we have to follow to ensure we can keep our status as an essential business and as you can imagine it’s meant that the “normal” practices have had to be adapted to ensure the 2 metre zone is being adhered to and that the teams are split into their respective bubbles etc. For example, the sorting of the grapes at the winery is happening at a slightly slower pace as the sorting benches are of such a length that we can’t get the normal number of people along them to sort. However as things have been a little bit behind and the crops are lower than normal, it’s meant we are doing smaller picks and this is working in our favour with the sorting.

So, here’s hoping that there are some silver linings to 2020, in the form of good grape harvests around the world. It seems that in Central Otago this is the case at least.

Meantime, in addition to these three mature(ing) Felton Road beauties, Julia and I have been working our way steadily through our annual NZ allocation of Felton Rds, just recently delivered. We anticipate – sadly! – having no 2018s left within a few days. A pity not to see some of them blossom in the cellar…. but there is no Wilkie-Brickell cellar here where we are in lockdown, so needs must! And the wines taste great!

But hopefully this week a little shipment from Hong Kong will arrive and I will have some other wines to talk about soon. So, stay tuned.

“Cheers” to you, wherever you are, and thanks for watching.