We are not allowed to visit wineries when we are on holiday. That’s the rule. It’s not my rule, it’s Amanda’s, but I am happy to go along with it. I see enough wineries in my day job. And Amanda’s interest in wineries only stretches so far.
But all good rules should have exceptions. Like the time we took a 36 hour side-trip to visit Bodegas Colomé in Argentina – until just recently the owner of the highest altitude vines in the world. And even better than the winery was the mind-expanding James Turrell Gallery next door. In the middle of nowhere. At 2,300 metres above sea-level.
Or when we visited Capri’s only wine producer who grows a hectare of vines on arial trellises 20 feet above the vegetables and olive trees because of the sheer lack of space on the tiny Italian island.
But those belong to another story.
Amanda and I have just returned from a wonderful holiday having spent 2 weeks touring around New Zealand.
I’m here on a wine trip, both before and after our holiday, so I have other opportunities to be fully immersed in the finest wines from New Zealand. Figuratively at least.
So, who to visit in New Zealand, who will be able to hold Amanda’s interest for a couple of hours, and enhance our understanding of the region we are travelling in?
It has been a long-held dream of mine to visit Felton Road in Central Otago.
I’ve heard Nigel Greening speak a couple of times – in fact he spoke on a panel that I compered at the Cool Climate Wine Symposium.
It adds a little to the mystique that he looks a bit like a nutty professor, with wild, fly-away grey hair – think Doc from Back to the Future.
He speaks with both passion and self-deprecation – an endearing combination that, for all its modesty, belies a seriousness and clarity of purpose.
Felton Road was originally planted back in 1992 by a man called Stuart Elms, and Nigel got to know them in 1998 when he moved to Central Otago, and began to explore the idea of making his own wines. He bought and planted a vineyard at Cornish Point, and was looking around at where he might make the wine, when he had a call to tip him off that Felton Road might be up for sale. He couldn’t believe his luck, and immediately made an offer. Without much warning he moved his family out to New Zealand to become winemakers.
His background as the organiser of large staged events, both in the music industry, and later for large corporates (he worked for many years for the likes of BMW) brought Nigel both sufficient funds to take a punt on an unproven winery in an unproven region, and also a savvy marketing head.
Felton’s quietly spoken winemaker Blair Walters radiates calm bonhomie, and is the anchor to Greening’s sail, while long-standing vineyard manager Gareth King is the one who works the biodynamic magic.
‘I don’t really believe in the Harry Potter stuff’ says Nigel, grinning engagingly – ‘but it seems to work – and besides, all of our interns just love it. On the days where we are preparing a treatment, everyone gets up early and sets up the dynamising barrels before dawn. A couple of people cook breakfast for everyone, and they all walk around with huge smiles on their faces’.
One thing leads to another at Felton Road.
The ten interns that they attract every year to study biodynamics (drawn from a pool over over 100 applicants) are frequently the children of small Pinot producers from around the world. The interns love being at Felton, and many apply to stay on for a second year. And when they head back to their countries of origin, they become brand ambassador for Felton, helping to ensure that it is always seen as the international reference for Otago Pinot in some very exalted circles.
Nigel is not really a rule-follower, or really even a rule-maker. But he is an innovator, and is forever spotting connections, and finding ways to make a virtue out of what life brings.
Here’s a couple of examples:
The bushes of wild roses brought to Otago by the Chinese gold miners in the Gold Rush of the 1870s now cover all of the hillsides above the vineyards (and indeed almost all the hillsides in Otago). So Nigel bought a herd of African Boer goats to keep the rosebushes at bay. This means more pasture for the highland cows (which provide horns and manure for the biodynamics) and the young male goats need to be culled, providing a very welcome source of delicious locally sourced meat to keep everyone fed.
And the rabbit population needs to be kept under control, which means shooting them periodically. But leaving out rabbit carcasses every few days at the edge of the vineyards attracts the Harriers which circle the vines looking for the next feed. Which helps deter the birds which can besiege a ripening vineyard….
All of this makes a great story, and Nigel is a great story-teller.
It is hard to be sure whether the creativity is all Nigel’s or Blair’s, or Gareth’s but it is a hallmark of the Felton Road way, and marks them out as true leaders, and chief ringleader of the collaborative ethic in this region of otherwise self-reliant pioneers. Blair modestly claims that ‘in this region, we all help each other out with whatever problem we may have’, when what he really means is that when the other winemakers have a problem, they bring it to him.
Two hours, and a short tasting later, we climb back into the camper van full of enthusiasm, and make plans, on Nigel’s advice to explore the local trout river the following day.
At this rate, on our next holiday, I may even be allowed to visit two wineries.