With the demand for New Zealand wine at an all-time high, it appears logical to pursue higher and more controlled yields through the use of pesticides and herbicides. However, when you step on to a Felton Road property, the earth appears rough with native plants dotting the landscape and hawks circling the skies, which is contrarian to many well-manicured picturesque vineyards of Napa Valley or Tuscany. The Felton Road vineyard landscape mirrors the surrounding environment and the biodynamic mission that was set forth at its inception.
University of Otago
Felton Road Wines were one of the first major names in the industry to come out of Central Otago, but they have stayed relatively small, with a zero-growth policy since 2001 (10-15,000 cases a year), to hold to their mission statement of “being too small to be big”. Keeping production to these numbers has allowed for an immaculate level of control of the processes and products, as well as adherence to the following Sustainable Development Goals (SDG):
Blair Walters enjoying some of the native plantings behind the Felton Road winery
As cliche as it sounds, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As Blair Walter stated, the beauty of Felton Road is as much as the land provides for vineyards, the vineyards provide to the land. Felton Road is a self-sufficient energy loop that one can taste in its numerous award-winning wines, see in the natural vines and terrain, and feel as you wander the property.
For Blair Walter and Nigel Greening, the owner, the mission has been clear since 2000 when Nigel purchased his first block of land in Bannockburn. Blair Walters summed this up by saying "we want the idea of ‘somewhere-elseness’ to be transformed into ‘somewhereness’," meaning the land stays true to its natural state as much as possible, and there is minimal outside intervention. This involved acting as a thoughtful and rational analyzer, which takes time, energy, and effort but almost always leads to a better result. With this mindset, Felton Road has created a unique niche in the market, with a size that produces less landfill waste than the average home and a product worthy of international accolades.
Since the turn of the millennium, Felton Road has added three more properties and is steadily maintaining its 10-15,000 case a year goal. Since 2002, the vineyards have been managed organically and biodynamically, and in 2010 all four vineyards were awarded full Demeter certification. Demeter’s “biodynamic” certification requires biodiversity and ecosystem preservation, soil husbandry, livestock integration, the prohibition of genetically engineered organisms (Demeter Association, 2007). In viewing the farm as a living “holistic organism”, this certification verifies the fulfillment of the standards on behalf of the farmers, which in turn guarantees high-quality food products to the consumers. This is rewarded by consumers paying a higher price for food certified with the “Demeter” label ranging from 10-30% at an average (Demeter, 2003).
Minimal intervention is taken in the winemaking practices of Felton Road. Simple things like wild yeast are added, but little to no fining or filtration is done aligning again with the idea of 'somewhereness', allowing the individual vineyard characters to shine in the final product. Since the first vintage in 1997, Felton Road has acquired a formidable worldwide reputation.
From a relatively modest beginning, Felton Road has become a business that competes in the most premium levels of its industry. Their team has grown, but the core employees have been in place for two decades, allowing for the organization to mature along with the vines. This was highlighted in 2018 when Wine Spectator, one of the world’s leading authorities on wine, announced Felton Road had been named the #12 wine on their list of the “Top 100 Wines” (Campbell, 2019).
Routinely scoring 92 points or above, their wine is described as “typical dark earthiness and sous-bois notes, black cherry fruit and hints of mocha. It's medium-bodied and plump in the mouth, with plenty of flesh, supple tannins, and a long, softly dusty finish tinged with clove, cinnamon, and cocoa” (Czerwinski, 2018). Reviews from experts around the world all share a commonality, that the wine from Felton Road embodies the region and even more specifically the individual vineyard. At this level of quality and recognition, Felton Road wines are often considered to be of wine-cellar quality, meaning collectors and aficionados from around the world buy this wine to keep in private collections for years allowing bottles to age for a decade or more.
About 98% of New Zealand’s vineyards are a part of the Sustainable Winegrowing scheme. Felton Road is seen as one of the progressive producers setting an even higher standard for themselves than what is proscribed by the Sustainable Winegrowing scheme. To spread this knowledge, Felton Road participates in a trainee cultural exchange program to help the next generation of New Zealand winemakers learn and share practices in a vastly different environment around the world.
A 50-strong herd of goats grazes the land, keeping the Sweet Briar that grows prolifically at bay while their cattle provide fertilizer and horns for the biodynamic practices of Felton Road. To keep the wine true to the individual vineyard, almost all of the fertilizer is grown or collected from the properties themselves. Native flora and fauna have been a big part of the mission, both inside and outside of the vineyard boundaries. Felton Road has worked with the local council and trusts to plant native flowers, nectar, berries, and shelter that has supported indigenous birds, lizards, and insects. To combat the biggest threat to the vines, rabbits, and birds, Felton Road helped raise and release three New Zealand falcons (Karearea) which adds to the local ecology. After many years they can still be seen circling the property and surrounding hills, admiring the progress Felton Road Wines has made as a business and in protecting their natural environment.
Blair Walter, Winemaker
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Bannockburn, Otago, NZ
Business Website: https://feltonroad.com/
Year Founded: 1991
Number of Employees: 11 to 50
Felton Road Wines Ltd has been ahead of the curve at nearly every step. Their Pinot Noir was not only one of the first from the region but they saw the value in organic production and became certified organic years before the trend became mainstream. Although for Felton Road, it is not about the trends. Blair Walters, the head winemaker, views their property as a part of the biodynamic ecosystem that encompasses the people, plants, and animals that call the properties home. Felton Road has created an environmentally and economically sustainable system that surpasses expectations. This focus has not only aligned Felton Road with three of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, it has also produced award-winning wine that is highly sought after around the world. Felton Road has shown that it is possible to flourish as a business while coexisting with the environment.