It is an international wine brand that also happens to be the name of a road in Bannockburn, Central Otago. Together with winemaker Blair Walters, Stewart Elms put Felton Road on the world wine map.
His family had been New Zealand hoteliers for four generations in Dunedin and, without planning it, working in the family business provided Stewart Elms with the ideal mix of knowledge and experience to start a small, elite vineyard and winery. He and his wife managed the City Hotel for sixteen years, a tenure which coincided with the period of import licensing for wines and spirits. They obtained a wholesale licence and for the decade between 1966 and 1976 imported wine from a variety of countries, France being the most important. Buying and selling wine became a significant part of their business and their life included trips to Europe. In 1976 they leased the hotel and wine and spirits part of the family enterprise and began looking for land.
Eventually they bought a farm at Palmerston, about 60 kilometres north of Dunedin, on which a farm manager looked after the stock and Stewart the crops. These included 60 acres of blackcurrants – ‘which was really my first introduction to horticulture’. They soon had a contract to supply Beecham, the marketers of Ribena, and farmed their land for 17 years before again changing direction when Stewart noticed that Lincoln University had started a wine science programme. In 1990 he enrolled in this one-year postgraduate programme in horticultural science:
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I thought I’d better find out about this grape-growing business before I attempted it – you really want to know what you want to grow before you decide where you’re going to buy the bit of land.
The DSIR had just published a soil map of the Bannockburn locality and Cossens’ maps of temperatures expressed as degree-days were also available:
Blackcurrants were a pure coincidence – whereas growing grapes was something I wanted to do. So I learned about it and then chose the land where I thought I could grow Pinot. I really just overlaid the heat accumulation data over the soil map and put a mark with a pin where it looked to be. And essentially we thought it was almost identical to what the climatic situation was in Beaune. Not as wet, but climatically very much the same sort of temperature curve.
His comparison with Burgundy is accurate, although average monthly temperatures in the growing season are about 1.5°C higher in much of the Cote d’Or. Cossens’ work had established the similarity between the temperature regimes in Central Otago and those of the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune. Within Central, Cossens had also demonstrated that Bannockburn was the locality with the warmest growing season, even though his data spanned only a short period (Table 8.4).
In the summer of 1991, Stewart decided to have his first look at the Bannockburn land on Felton Road. When he arrived, the owner was cutting hay. By chance, Stewart knew him from Dunedin, and he agreed to sell him a total of 49.5 hectares, even being prepared to modify the subdivision boundaries to include part of a shingle fan of Lochar soils that looked suitable for vines. ‘So it was the only bit of land I looked at, you know. We had no hesitation in proceeding with it.’
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