◆ Village Cellars & Felton Road background Yoshiko Nakamura tells the story: “Our first visit to Felton Road to see if we could distribute their wines in Japan was made on our one and only ski trip to NZ with our children. We left the girls at the ski slope and drove to Felton Road. Young Blair showed us around the vineyards and said that the vineyards and winery were on the market and that the new owner would be choosing the distributors. Happily, Nigel and Blair chose VC to represent Felton Road in Japan. Hurrying back to the ski slope to join our girls, we were stopped for speeding by a cheerful policeman who issued us a ticket and advised us that we could ignore paying the fine, but if we did so we would be in trouble if we were stopped on a subsequent trip to NZ! The fine was worth the visit so we paid, and we have been back many times over the past 17 years with no further encounters. ◆ The Felton Road personalities Blair Walter (winemaker, left) and Nigel Greening (owner, right)■ Blair Walter --Raised on a farm in the Waikato in the New Zealand's North Island, Blair's early loves were agriculture and flying (in addition to being a farmer, his father was also a top-dressing pilot). Eschewing the only career path for pilots through the air force, he studied agriculture at Lincoln University, where post-graduate his growing interest in wine saw him accepted into the new one-year diploma in winemaking and viticulture. The youngest in the class, his lab partner was Stewart Elms, a mature-age student who was expanding on his deep interest in wine. Promising to keep in touch with their studies completed, Stewart's research for ideal winegrowing sites led him to Bannockburn in Central Otago, where he bought land and began planting vineyards at Felton Road in 1992.Blair meanwhile, worked vintages around the world, in New Zealand, Australia, Napa Valley, Oregon and Burgundy. As Stewart's vineyards came into production, he contacted Blair, who joined him on the ground level of setting up the winery and the business. Blair has been at Felton Road ever since, applying the many lessons he learnt around the world to perfecting the making of fine wine. Outside the winery, Blair finally got his pilot's license when he turned 40, and applies his interest in all things mechanical to restoring a Messerschmitt bubble car that was his family's first car, long relegated to resting in the barn in the Waikato. ■ Nigel Greening --As Blair puts it succinctly, Nigel is “The man who loved the wine so much, he bought the winery."So how did this marketing specialist from England end up at the opposite end of the world in its southern-most wine region? Felton Road is the coming together of two of Nigel's passions, wine and New Zealand, which through endless colorful stories saw him move to New Zealand, do a deep dive into the winemaking and viticulture, culminating in 1998 in buying land and started developing a vineyard at Cornish Point, applying the lessons learnt by Stewart Elms up at Felton Road. In 2000, when he heard that Stewart was looking to sell, he took the short cut to full production, buying Felton Road and combined it with Cornish Point. His extraordinary patience and vision are at the heart of the Felton Road's meteoric rise. ◆ Setting the scene In 1987 the first commercial wine, a Riesling, was produced in Central Otago. In the early days the pioneers planted a diversity of clones and rootstocks of different varietals, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and Shiraz among others. By the time Stewart Elms began planting in 1992, it was becoming clear that Pinot Noir was the most suitable varietal for the terroir, and he planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.Blair -- When I started in Central Otago in 1996 there were only 200hectares of vineyards under cultivation. 20 years later there are 2000hectares. There are still new vineyards being planted, but the small pockets of Grand Cru sites and obvious terroir have all been snapped up. In the region, 80% is Pinot Noir followed by Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay, and small plantings of various other varietals. ”Nigel -- On the evening that I took over ownership in 2000, I sat down with Blair over a few beers and on a piece of paper we drew up a 10-yearplan for Felton Road, of what we wanted to do and be in 10 years' time. The winery had to be an appropriate size to be economic, yet small enough that we could still handcraft wine. We settled on a 400 barrel/12,000 case capacity. 10 years on we sat down again and incredibly, Blair pulled out the same piece of paper. We felt we had achieved our objectives, and didn't need to change the plan for the next 10 years. Just roll it over.◆ 25 years in the vineyard Blair explains: “In New Zealand at that time (Felton Road was established) there were a wide range of well-considered clones and root stock commercially available, and Stewart experimented with what worked. As there was no phylloxera in Otago at that time, several clones were grown on their own rootstock. Over the years we have very good and interesting clonal diversity –you could say that there are two we Favour over others, two wouldn't plant again, and 6 to 8 other clones that add to the complexity. It's like listening to a symphony orchestra playing – if you limit yourself to the two favorite clones, you still end up with only the woodwind section, no matter how well they play. So, the wider mix gives you the depth, complexity and subtlety. For us a farm property is a living ecosystem, and we work in a way that inconsistent with our values and style. Organic is simply something that wean and should be doing. For the high-quality wines, we are aspiring to make, it is the only way. It is not something we advertise. Rather, it is something that wine lovers expect of us – they are genuinely surprised when they find out some famous vineyard or other is not biodynamic. Howe approach it is we see Steiner (i.e., biodynamics) as a tool in the cupboard, that enables us to take a more active and positive approach, adding to our care of the vineyard environment.Naturally, the character of the fruit has changed over the 25 years since the first vines were planted, our knowledge of the vineyards and how to express it has deepened. I would characterize it as comfortable growing. When the vineyards were first planted, it was a new and harsh environment for grapes, with glacially fed rivers, a dry climate, extended sunshine hours inmix-summer, cool nights in the harvest season, and the vines were imposed on this landscape. Now they are settled into a comfortable role in the landscape, and we can engage in a conversation with the vine. It is seen in a change in the wines over time, this comfort is expressed in subtle characters, detail, and accuracy, reflective of the place.Generally, New Zealand fruit is intense, showing strong varietal characteristics and the impact of cool nights, and are sometimes seen as too fruity. As theine matures they become less fruity, and with good farming you get a greater expression of place, of minerality. It shows through in fruit and wines that are detailed, complex, with finesse, much like more expensive Burgundies. It is not only us – the other vineyards in the region that were planted 15 to 25 years ago show the same growing complexity in their wines. Elms vineyardCornish PointCalvert◆ 20 years in the winery In setting up the winery, we looked to be very gentle in both handling of the fruit and intervention in the winemaking, applying best practices from my experiences working and enjoying great wines around the world to bring out the quality and personality of the fruit, always striving to showcase the complexity of the terroir and age of the vines.From each area I learnt a lot. In Burgundy, many of the wineries had been in the family for generations, and they just did things the way they always had. Hey practiced a traditional hands-off approach in the winery, a simple respectful approach to winemaking. In the New World wine regions, they were establishing themselves from scratch, so were tackling the same challenges we would at Felton Road. Oregon in particular was the biggest influence, as many of the wineries were of a very similar size, producing 10-15,000 cases a year. Over the years, we have only made subtle changes in the winery. We rely 100% on natural yeast for fermentation, and have done so for 13years now. A healthy house yeast with a unique must is part of what makes us different. For Pinot Noirs we use 30% new oak. Since we started making wines, we have only worked with one oak supplier for 21 years, the Damy household in the heart of Burgundy. This consistency is important for our house style. We use a medium toast that is soft and subtle. Just last November I sat down to dinner with them in Burgundy. They know what we like and it is a good long-term relationship. For a well-made Chardonnay, oak is the enemy. We use only old oak to allow the minerality and saltiness of the terroir captured in the fruit to show through. The resulting fruit is lush, appealing and fruity when young, developing nuances of spice and aromatics as the vines age. Today we produce 70%Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay, 10% Riesling, Dry and an Off-dry. Pinot Noir fermentBattonage◆ Climate change in Central Otago"One of the key associations with global warming is highly changeable weather, but that has always been the case in Central Otago, so for us its isomer of the same. The base temperature has risen over the years, and it is reflected throughout the growing cycle. The winters aren't as cold as they used to be, seen in the locals who remember the local hydro dams freezing in decades gone by. The ice skating and curling in winter isn't what it used to be. So, bud burst is earlier, and harvest 2-3 weeks earlier, which is a good thing, because we are having less marginal vintages. In fact, this year was a cold year with yields down 30%, is the first short harvest we have experienced since 2007. It was the culmination of a year with poor flowering and fruit set, and unsettled weather mid-summer.◆ The accolades continueAmong the many accolades Felton Road has received, just this year they were named Number 13 Most Admired Wine Brand in the World by Drinks International who polled more than 200 of the world's top masters of wine, sommeliers, commercial wine buyers, educators and journalists. Nigel and Blair say they are bewildered and humbled by the selection, as they are by farther smallest brand, and the most recently established winery to make this prestigious list.