If you are making Chablis you will probably have several generations of the family to consult and 1000s of different expressions to try, across different terroirs, altitudes and in different vintages. For Felton Road’s Blair Walter, making Chardonnay in Central Otago has no such history. Unfairly overlooked, because of Otago’s excellence in making Pinot Noir, the region is slowly developing its own distinctive style, argues Anne Krebiehl MW.
Felton Road’s Bannockburn, Block 2 and Block 6 Chardonnay are all taste-tested by Krebiehl
It is with Pinot Noir that Central Otago made its reputation. However, away from the spotlight, Chardonnay shows serious potential: in its own, convincing and authentic style.
While winemakers the world over can churn out Chardonnay in readily understood, often interchangeable, international idioms, i.e. steely & unoaked, oaked & buttery, flinty & reduced, truly original Chardonnay styles in the New World are rare. Yet, Blair Walter at Felton Road has managed to get real Central Otago expression. Those who know the Felton Road Chardonnays of the past will realise what a stylistic journey this has been.
Some context first: With its 1,904ha of vineyard Central Otago produces just 5% of New Zealand’s wine and almost 80% of that is Pinot Noir. Chardonnay represents just 8.33% of New Zealand’s vineyard and in Central Otago its 55ha represent just 2.89% of plantings. Surprising statistics if you consider that wherever Pinot Noir performs well, Chardonnay is not far behind. No wonder then, that Central Otago Chardonnay is not really on our radars.
Walter cites a number of reasons for the stylistic changes. He says that the vines are getting older and that the effects of biodynamic farming are fully taking hold. “I didn’t want to push the vines to something they weren’t. By 2015 the vines had been farmed biodynamically for 13 years, it really was different,” he emphasises and notes that the effect is full physiological ripeness at lower sugar levels. “This naturally leads to an earlier harvest which, in turn, means greater definition,” he says. “Finesse and subtlety are easier to achieve this way,” noting that if they just picked earlier for the sake of it, “it would be clumsier.”
“Being biodynamic you think more holistically, you have so much more respect for your land, you don’t want to have contrived winemaking,” Walter says. Yet one feels that the stylistic shift is not just down to getting more inherently balanced fruit but also an evolution on Walter’s part. His sentences stumble as he tries to explain: “I’m really excited with the direction our Chard has been taking. Having the confidence to be more hands-off, to have confidence in the expression of a site for a New World grower, to take it to places where conventionalism would not take it, do you know what I mean?”
He continues: “If you take Chablis, for example, I don’t know how many generations have been making these wines but they at least can talk to their fathers and perhaps grandfathers – and they can taste their wines. And they can also look at their neighbours who went down another track. I feel privileged I have 22 vintages, I’ve had 22 vintages to figure things out. Now I am willing to go down a track and I think this is Central Otago.” Whatever Central Otago Chardonnay is, this certainly is Felton Road – purely, honestly and deliciously so.
Felton Road Bannockburn Chardonnay, 2017
Fleshy fruit and the earthy richness of a high-solid ferment are apparent but also an edge of something green and fresh. Hints of flint and smoke are softened by lactic roundness. The palate shows burgeoning stone fruit as well as great precision and freshness. This spent 13 months in barrel of which just 4% was new oak, the rest are barrels of up to 18 years of age. In fact, 70% of the barrels are older than five years.
Felton Road Chardonnay Block 2, 2017
From 25-year-old vines, again that earthy richness but also intense stone fruit, confit lemon and something heady and fresh – it exists somewhere between bergamot and rhubarb. The palate has the inherent richness of Central Otago, a streak of warmth cooled by pristine freshness. Walter notes that the fulsome fruit expression is also down to the Mendoza clone. Its 17 months in barrel give it texture but no toasty notes at all.
Felton Road Chardonnay Block 6, 2017
Just like Block 2 this is on Lochar Gravels, but this is a steeper site. Walter says its windiness makes for smaller berries and a little more subdued fruit expression. This is a sleek number with wonderful intensity and drive. Its acidity feels as sharp as a steely knife blade flashing under blue skies in Central Otago’s blazing sunlight. Not for the fainthearted but for lovers of energy and zest.
 All data from https://www.nzwine.com/en/our-regions/central-otago/ and NZ Winegrowers Inc Annual Report 2018