For his second ever vintage, James McElrea headed to Chile. He hopped off the bus in the middle of nowhere, rocked up to the gates of Vina Valdivieso and had a team of Chileans under him asking what to do. The only problem was, he didn’t speak a word of Spanish. “I was wondering what I had got myself in for,” he remembers. “It was great!”
As a teenager finishing school in Auckland, he had decided to pursue the new Bachelor of Viticulture and Oenology at Lincoln University. “It was real sink or swim stuff, putting a city kind into an agricultural uni, but I loved it,” McElrea told Restaurant and Café. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was a ticket to ride the world and work and travel my way through it.” After seven years and over 30 vintages around Australia, Europe and South America, he found himself in Central Otago, where he worked under Dan and Sarah-Kate Dineen of Maude Wines.
Mount Michael Wines was founded in 1994 and, for such a tiny producer, has a great deal of history and commands an enviable following. The Lowburn winery was purchased by Anna Robbie in 2015, and McElrea joined the very small team (Robbie, McElrea and sales manager Robyn Edgar) a year later.
The vineyard itself is a nine-hectare site with a gentle slope which allows frost to run off, preventing it from setting in. “That, and the way it basks in the sun for most of the day, makes it a great microclimate for growing,” explained McElrea. “We now also source some Pinot Noir fruit from Bendigo, which creates a lovely opportunity to explore the region in part through the glass.”
McElrea describes his wines primarily as clean and clear, as well as luscious, elegant, refined and textural with a hint of finesse – “I want to make wines that are precise, textural and vivid.” Tasting a sense of place is central to his winemaking philosophy, as is interfering as little as possible.
Mount Michael, for the past seven years, has produced three varietals; Pinot Gris, Pinot Rosé and Pinot Noir. When the season permits and the wine is exceptional, McElrea creates ‘Bessies’s Block,’ the reserve Pinot Noir. Bessie’s Block is named after the original owner’s terrier dog, which would frequently flush out birds and pests from between the vines.
“It’s an exciting challenge, taking what has been an exceptionally well-kept secret and sharing it with both the New Zealand market and further afield,” said McElrea. “We intend to fiercely protect the quality of the wine we produce, promote our region as best we can and hopefully the combination of the two will create great business growth.”
Mount Michael doesn’t have a cellar door, nor does Robbie have any intention of opening one, so brand promotion must be done on the road. Making Mount Michael wines available in as many venues as possible, particularly those with an emphasis on boutique brands, is a central part of the business. Mainly, McElrea explained, “the people that we most enjoy sharing our wines with are those that have a genuine interest in our region, engaged with our wines and appreciate the boutique nature of our offering.”
Outside of wine, McElrea makes the most of his stunning surrounds, skiing and hiking around the mountains and lakes of Central Otago, visiting restaurants and artisan producers – “Tasting new flavours and seeing people push the boundaries to create something new,” he said.
Despite being winemaker at a boutique label which offers personal wine-tasting-helicopter-tours, a luxury on-site guest lodge and a delightful West Highland Terrier named Winedog Oscar, McElrea is remarkably grounded when it comes to wine appreciation. “I want to remove any sense of superiority or elitism,” he said. “There is good wine to be discovered at almost every price point, and it's made to be explored and enjoyed by everyone.”