McArthur Ridge’s sight set on a bright future
“The previous owners left the legacy of a stunning vineyard set up to the highest standards. We see our next steps as a changing of the guard, with big aspirations to grow the brand internationally. We are actively looking for distributors in Australia, Asia, United Kingdom and USA.”
Emma Jenkins MW
When James McArthur first stepped foot in Central Otago, some 150 years ago, one wonders if he could ever have imagined that the scrubby, barren patch of land he laid claim to would go on to become one of the southern hemisphere’s biggest pinot noir vineyards. In 1870, when McArthur settled in the Waikerikeri Valley on what would become McArthur Road on the outskirts of Alexandra, Central Otago had just experienced a major gold rush and the region was booming. McArthur dedicated himself to farming, he was well-respected in the community and in time became Chairman of the Dunstan Hospital Board in 1897; the McArthur name and family is still well-known throughout the region to this day. James McArthur’s improvements to the land he farmed set it up well for decades to come and, once consistent water access was secured for the site in the late 1990s, the scene was set for its next role as part of Central Otago’s second goldrush – this time with grapes.
Alexandra is the somewhat hidden gem of Central Otago, away from the hustle and bustle of Queenstown, and a little further off the beaten track from the vineyards of the Gibbston Valley, Cromwell Basin and Wanaka sub-regions. It holds records for New Zealand’s hottest and coldest recorded temperatures and its landscape is beautiful if unforgiving with its arid terrain and dramatic schist outcrops. Alexandra’s fruit has long been known for its aromatic expressiveness and intensity; most of its vineyards and wineries are tiny family-run holdings. The present day 800ha McArthur Ridge property was established in 2001, conceived initially with the intention of developing a lifestyle complex comprising a premium pinot noir vineyard, resort hotel, international golf course and over 1000 homes spread across the property. The vineyard was planted in 2001 and had doubled in size by 2003 with further plantings in 2007. The original developers spared no expense setting up the vineyard in a meticulous manner, including a state-of-the-art overhead sprinkler frost protection system that protects the vines from Alexandra’s harshest frosts. Unfortunately, not long into the development of McArthur Ridge the GFC hit and with a key investor needing to withdraw, the wider project was put on hold. The vineyard instead began operation as a contract grape grower.
In 2017, under new ownership, McArthur Ridge began the next phase of its life. Managing Director Jason Dellaca, whose global distribution and marketing company Brandhouse now owns 70% of McArthur Ridge, speaks enthusiastically about his vision for the vineyard and its wines. He notes, “The previous owners left the legacy of a stunning vineyard set up to the highest standards. We see our next steps as a changing of the guard, with big aspirations to grow the brand internationally.” Wines are now made by veteran Central Otago winemaker Matt Connell, and the portfolio includes three pinot noirs alongside a rosé and pinot gris. The Brass Knocker Pinot Noir is McArthur Ridge’s entry-level, fruit-focused wine, with its lighter body and gentle hint of oak it is designed to be approachable for enjoyable early-drinking. Its bigger brother is the Southern Tor, which spends 8-9 months in oak and is made in a classic richly fruited style, aiming to capture the appeal of the archetypal Central Otago pinot style. There is also a Reserve wine, similar to the Southern Tor in winemaking though with a higher percentage of new oak but made from select parcels of fruit in the vineyard and a further barrel selection in the winery. In the works is also a prestige cuvée of very small volumes – Dellaca and McConnell are currently finetuning its details. McArthur Ridge also makes a fleshy aromatic Pinot Rosé called Lilico and a dry, fruit-rich pinot gris called Falls Dam, the fruit for which is sourced from the Cromwell Basin. At present the vineyard is planted in the vast majority with pinot noir but there is also a small, newly planted block of chardonnay, with plans for release of a wine in 2022/2023. McConnell is enthusiastic about the wines and their potential, commenting, “McArthur Ridge is a very exciting site. As the largest vineyard in Central it has a huge range of aspects, a great mix of clones and a very proactive vineyard team. To me it’s a vineyard that has a massive amount going for it and it’s up to me to help unlock it. The wines tend to be in a more ‘Burgundian framework with a Central Otago twist’… they are complex with layers of flavours and not just fruit power”.
The vineyard has been managed from the start by Murray Petrie, who keeps a watchful eye over the 110ha of vines under his care. As a member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, McArthur Ridge is focused on meticulous data gathering and monitoring. Dellaca says, “We always aspire to exceed the [SWNZ] standard – ‘close enough’ is not good enough”. As well as advancing its work in reducing its carbon footprint and undertaking wetland restoration around the vineyard to improve local flora and fauna habitats, McArthur Ridge has plans for future work aiding a breeding programme for New Zealand’s only native falcon, the karearea.
As one of the region’s largest pinot noir growers, McArthur Ridge still sells some fruit to other producers but with detailed plans to expand the wines’ export sales, this aspect is likely to take an increasingly back step to its own label. At present the wines are found extensively throughout New Zealand in both supermarkets, online retail and traditional independent merchants. While the brand currently has a smaller presence in Australia, Dellaca says he is seeking to change this, commenting “we are actively looking for distributors in Australia, Asia UK and USA”. With the accolades starting to pile up (alongside the Winestate success in this issue’s pinot noir tasting see page 52, the 2020 Brass Knocker Pinot Noir has just taken a top gong at a large New Zealand wine show), the future looks bright for McArthur Ridge.