Inside Felton Road

Jeni Port meets Nigel Greening, the ad man who turned Felton Road into one of the hottest wine properties in the cool climate area of Otago, New Zealand.

Felton Road Wines, Central Otago
Felton Road Wines, Central Otago

It was Day One of a new beginning for Felton Road wines. 

The year was 2000. New owner Nigel Greening, a shaggy-haired Brit with an arresting lisp, whose background wasn’t in wine but in putting the special effects glitz into big time events like the UK Millennium, met with winemaker Blair Walter over a beer. “What size does this winery have to be to be viable?” asked Greening.

“Ten thousand cases,” replied the young winemaker. That figure, he added, was wholly dependent on Felton Road being able to sell 10,000 cases of Pinot Noir at a very good price.

The thought seems to please him. For a man whose only wine experience up to that day was drinking the stuff – which admittedly included quality Pinots from Burgundy – the business side of running a winery appears to have come to him surprisingly early and, to an outsider at least, fairly easily.

By the time the beer was finished the two had set their future path. They would only grow the business by purchasing vineyards; there would be no bought-in fruit, no cheaper second label doing the hard slog as a money earner, and everything would grow organically.

Their morning together amounted to some of the most productive beer-drinking ever recorded in the history of New Zealand winemaking. Yet Felton Road was barely a blip on the Pinot Noir drinker’s horizon back in 2000. Neither was the region where it was based, Central Otago. Greening and Blair Walter had their work cut out.

A paradox

Central Otago is one of the coolest places on earth where vines can be planted and still survive, which means dealing with an interesting winegrowing phenomenon. Despite being the southernmost wine region in the world, Central Otago Pinots sport some of the world’s highest alcohols, at 14.5% abv and higher.

Greening, playing detective, was able to shed light on why it happens and why it’s not about to change. His research was ignited in 2013 when he read a wine science paper that revealed that at 10 degrees Celsius a vine’s respiration starts to drop, while at lower temperatures it becomes dormant. “It’s almost always below 10 degrees Celsius at night in Central Otago, even in summer,” says Greening, relaying his feeling of excitement when he read it. Grapes build up sugar during the day in the lead up to harvest, but lie dormant and don’t consume sugar at night once the temperature drops to 10 degrees and below. Sugar in grapes is the precursor to alcohol in finished wine. “Suddenly we thought, um that’s interesting,” he says. “That would be a very good reason why we’d have higher sugars when we are in a cooler climate than anybody else.”

He tested the theory in 2016 when the nights were unusually warm. It worked. Alcohols dropped by one per cent. “We nailed it. But we can’t do anything about it because the only way we can address it is by getting warmer nights,” says Greening. “And we don’t want warmer nights because they damage the aromatics and flavours. I’d rather take the alcohol.”

He wrote a paper on the subject, one of many that provides entertaining reading and insight into the man available at the Felton Road website on everything from biodynamics, African Boer goats, falcons, screwcaps and more. It captures just a few of the subjects that engage Greening’s million-miles-an-hour mind, at any one moment in time.

The Felton Road property itself is probably the poshest wine address in New Zealand wine, as well as one of the longest, too, with straight stretches of bitumen running around the Bannockburn terrain, although interrupted by the odd wiggly bit. 

Felton Road Wines lies at the centre of one of the longest stretches, on the home Elms Vineyard. It’s a 14.7 ha sweep of vines divided into 13 blocks determined by soil type. It’s a quiet, semi-isolated spot in a wine region that is fast filling up with vineyards, cherry farms and housing developments. The Elms Vineyard is home to the producer’s Block 3 and Block 5 Pinot Noirs, the winery, the newly renovated cellar door (visitors by appointment), Jancis the cat and winemaker Blair Walter. The much-awarded Block Pinots, together with Block 1 Riesling and Blocks 2 and 6 Chardonnays, are in such demand that they can only be purchased by joining the Felton Road mailing list, and, there’s a waiting list for new customers. It’s a nice problem to have. 

Into a new venture

But how did a highly successful London advertising director become a world-beating producer of Pinot Noir?

Pinot Noir found him. In 1998, Greening was using Central Otago as a home base for his work in Asia. He says he was looking for a sea change. Two events saw the grape get a hook into him. The first, tantalisingly, came with the news that Central Otago winery, Dry Gully, had won a major wine show trophy with its very first Pinot. He went to see the owner of Dry Gully, who turned out to be someone who had never grown a grape before. “It struck me that I didn’t have to have decades of experience to get this thing right,” Greening remembers. How hard could it be?

He launched into a serious round of self-education to find out, devouring texts on wine growing and wine making -- a favourite author was French agronomist Claude Bourguignon. He bought a lot of wine, too, and became the single, biggest customer at Felton Road, founded in 1992 by Stuart Elms. Then came a meeting with winemaker Rudi Bauer, who had stepped in to make the Dry Gully Pinot when the winery’s winemaker died during vintage. Bauer suggested Greening contact pioneering wine man Alan Brady, founder of Gibbston Valley Wines, who planted vines in 1981 in the region to “prove they would grow.” Brady became Greening’s mentor, adviser, friend. “Alan was immediately very positive,” says Greening. “He was happy to team with me.” Now, Greening was well and truly hooked, line and sinker.

The two found a particularly good site, a 7.6 ha apricot orchard almost entirely surrounded by water, at Cornish Point. It was bought for the then record price of NZ$30,000 ($20,580) per hectare, the land was cleared, the vines were ordered and a viticulturist employed. Cornish Point was all set to go when out of the blue the viticulturist phoned Greening in the UK to tell him that there was a rumour that Felton Road was up for sale.

Greening jumped straight on a plane, but not before persuading Brady to visit Felton Road’s owner and get him to postpone making any decision. Greening landed in Central Otago with 36 hours to seal the deal. And the price? “It was the maximum I could afford on this planet,” says Greening. “It was off the scale.”

The business side

From the start, Greening combined a high-minded approach to where he wanted Felton Road wines to be seen – “Any city, any restaurant, where fans of great wine can be found” – with a hard-nosed business plan. Importantly, there would be no salaried management or sales team.

“Blair and I share all the tasks,” he says. “He is winemaker, general manager, sales manager and conducts half the market visits. I do the other half of the market visits, supply any marketing input needed and any strategic thought.”

The fact that 75% of Felton Road’s production ends up off-shore is another deliberate tactic. Between 2001 and 2005 the company expanded into 25 markets. At the time, Central Otago Pinot Noir was making a name for itself and Greening jumped in feet first. “We were spreading our production so thin it became almost silly, but we knew that there was over a thousand hectares of young vines coming into production in the region in the next few years,” he says. “We had to build a presence and a distribution network.” By the time of the 2008 global financial crisis, Felton Road was well placed in 40 markets and, adds Greening, “a global name.” 

The company came out of the crisis in good shape. Indeed, Greening claims that Felton Road has been profitable every year since it started “proper trading” in 1998. “Key to this was not being greedy with our pricing of the wines,” he adds. In Central Otago terms, flagship Pinots Block 3 (NZ$101.00, $68.89)) and Block 5 (NZ$111.00, $75.71) are among the most expensive to come from the region. However, Greening estimates that there are 20 Pinots from other regions in New Zealand that are more expensive.

These days, one of Nigel Greening’s fondest jobs at the winery he owns is deciding what’s on the menu for lunch.  He’s a visitor, turning up once a year or so, around vintage. He likes it that way. He’s even self-published his first cookbook, “Felton Road Vintage Food: Recipes from Panini Noir.”

“Part of his success is he inspires us,” explains Blair Walter, a man blessed with a perennially sunny disposition and smile who clearly considers his boss a close friend. “His brain goes at a million miles an hour, focussing on the big picture. He never tells us what to do. He doesn’t breathe down our necks. He’s the owner, I run the show.”

This, as it turns out, is entirely intentional. It is at the heart of Greening’s business philosophy. “My background in the production industry. Your whole job is to take people and nurture them and get them to do the best they can do. That’s my training, that’s what I’m good at.” He says what he didn’t understand is how good a winemaker Blair Water is.

Felton Road uses no sales gimmicks. It has never taken an advertisement to promote itself or its wines, and doesn’t do deals with supermarket chains. It sells wine in 40 countries and never under cork. It’s screwcap or no sale. “We don’t ever set out to copy anyone,” says Walter, mid-pour on the Felton Road Block 1 2016 Riesling, a wine with the winemaker’s trademark textural signature and the vineyard’s intensity in fruit flavour. His boss, he adds, sets the tone.

In between maintaining side interests in fixing things, making furniture, cooking (he’s going through his Asian period at the moment) and playing guitar (he’s a big jazz fan), Greening offers an absorbing study in the making of a thoroughly modern New Zealand wine producer who, in 17 years on the job, no longer feels compelled to draw any wine comparisons -- quality-wise or anything else -- with the Old World.

 “If you go back 10 years we would have been looking over our shoulders at Burgundy, and looking to see how we could make better wine,” says Greening. “The biggest change now is we don’t look over our shoulder at anybody.”  



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