Nigel Greening, the proprietor of Felton Road Wines and a self-proclaimed “failed musician,” decided to try his hand at winemaking after discovering it was possible to create wine without generations of knowledge.
“It became an opportunity to have something to pass on to my children,” he said.
Greening stated his favourite part of the job is tasting each wine as it evolves.
“It is a new child being born and growing up.”
He must be a proud dad, as his winery has achieved a position in the world’s 50 most admired wine brands five years in a row, currently number 14, which is the highest in New Zealand.
Greening has owned the winery for 22 years, but it was initially founded by Stewart Elms, a former hotelier and blackcurrant farmer who thought long and hard about what it might take to locate a unique piece of dirt.
At the end of Felton Road, the Elms Vineyard lies in a valley cut into the Bannockburn hills at the southern end of Cromwell Basin. Directly above the vineyard is Stewart Town and a large dam, where water was stored for sluicing the slopes of Bannockburn during the gold rush in 1862.
The gold miners left the valley untouched, most likely due to the deep benches of heavy soil unlikely to hold any gold. After the gold miners left, the slopes were used for sheep grazing until 1991, when Stewart Elms bought the property and planted vines in 1992.
European land has what viticulturists call terroir – the unique characteristics of a region and environmental factors that affect the flavour of a product.
“We just had dirt,” noted Greening.
However, Elms’ hard work resulted in choosing a rare and very distinct piece of land.
“He was looking for treasure on a blank map and found it.”
Although New Zealand doesn’t have terroir, Greening said the physical landscape of the vineyard influences all characteristics of Felton Road’s wines. From philosophy to sustainability and processing, “everything” influences the wine.
Felton Road follows an organic and biodynamic approach to winemaking.
“We seek to learn, above all else,” said Greening.
“We can only learn by minimising what we interfere with, so we are organic and biodynamic farmers who seek to allow the land to be what it will be while indulging us in our need to grow some grapes.”
The winery follows a similar principle. For every decision, “choose the solution which results in doing less. Make copious notes. Question everything. Taste widely in the world of wine.”
“We might be the only people who supply our vineyard microbiome to our nursery supplier,” said Greening.
This is a unique process, as it allows rootstock for future vines to be grown in the same ecosystem the vines will flourish in at the vineyard.
Felton Road is highly dedicated to its sustainability. From vineyard activities to consumption of office materials, every opportunity is monitored to ensure the company is being as sustainable as possible to maintain the land, support it, and help it persevere.
Wine has the unique ability to taste of a place. No one knows how it gets that “somewhereness” taste, so Felton Road assumes any external influence could be a hazard. By being organic, Felton Road eliminates the risk of chemicals affecting its “somewhereness”.
To maintain a sustainable vineyard, Felton Road uses processes including compost, biodynamics, stock, environmental biodiversity and responsibility, and pest control.
The winery is also very environmentally conscious. It focuses on waste minimisation and recycling, clean wastewater, energy efficiency and conscious packaging.
The entire vineyard and winery operation relies almost exclusively on one domestic sized wheelie bin for non-recyclable waste, emptied every fortnight. In 2019, the facility installed a 188-panel solar photovoltaic system that supplies most of the winery’s daily energy needs.
The company also uses sustainable packaging, with cardboard boxes made from recycled materials, which can be reused or recycled. It also changed to lightweight, recycled glass to save on shipping costs and manufacturing and recycling.
For those looking into their own wineries, Greening offers advice he remembers from his early years: “Rule number one? You can’t move a vineyard! Get the place right the first time.”
He encourages young vineyard and winery owners to “taste widely and become part of the world of wine in all its forms. The generosity of one’s peers and mentors is astonishing.”
Greening has had his fair share of great mentors.
“Dozens,” he claimed, “The wine world is uniquely collegiate and shares its experience with frankness and humility.”