Winemaker Profile : Michael Unwin

I was born and raised in the North Island of New Zealand in a small town called Levin. I devoted my teenage years to sailing and playing rugby and very little time to thinking about or drinking wine. Rugby was the reason for my first trip to Australia with a school team tour to Brisbane and Sydney.

Before studying horticulture at Lincoln University I fulfilled my 12-month practical work requirement by working in the (then booming) kiwifruit industry, which in the early eighties was experiencing a boom similar to the grape plantings in Australia in the late nineties.

I obtained my Diploma of Horticulture and Advanced Diploma in Horticultural Management in 1985. I set up a business harvesting tree ferns to sell to landscapers and garden centres for the purpose of earning money to get to Europe.

I arrived in Europe and soon found my way to the Mediterranean Sea and enjoying sailing and the Mediterranean way of life. I sailed and delivered yachts around the Adriatic Sea and sailed by way of Sardinia and Corsica to France. Once on France a friend and I cycled about 4,000 kilometres down to Biarritz and then up through Bordeaux.

We were lucky to be invited to stay at Chateau Loudene in the Medoc and I experienced my first feel of the life of vignerons and winemakers. From Bordeaux we cycled through the Loire Valley and on to Champagne where we found work as grape pickers for vigneron Rene Arrois.

I'm not sure if it was because I was a good grape picker or bad, but I soon was given more responsibility supervising the team of pickers and after working in the vineyards during the day would help in the winery in the evenings. So began the first of many vintages.

By remaining working for Champagne Rene Arrois during the busy period of the year for three years I was also able to travel throughout Europe and spent much of my time in Spain, Hungary, Germany, Italy and gradually realised that the wine industry had much to offer.

This was a wonderful period of my life and introduced me and convinced me of my career path but also allowed me to experience so well the wonderful French wine culture. My work mates in France thought it was a great thing to come from a town called "Le vin".

After delivering a yacht from Spain to the West Indies in 1989 I thought I might as well continue on my way to New Zealand and see what the new world wine industry was all about.

A job for the 199 vintage with the Giesen brothers near Christchurch led to becoming the assistant winemakers at Missions Vineyards in Hawkes Bay from 1989 to 1994. During my time with Mission I was able to take sabbatical leave to work vintages firstly as a cellar worker but later as a well paid consultant in such places as Bergerac, St Emilion and Cote du Rhone. Working alongside the French had a strong impression on me. Many of these people had been groomed from childhood to be leaders of their industry and their perceptions, knowledge and insight displayed this.

From people who were perhaps seventh generation on a single property I learned that wine is much more than getting everything technically correct. Correctness is not an end, it is the beginning, a platform on which to build a wine that is unique.

Whilst at mission I spent my evenings studying chemistry and microbiology so that in 1994 I was able to complete a Postgraduate Diploma in Oenology and Viticulture at Lincoln University.

From Lincoln University I went to a position as winemaker at Leasingham Wines in the Clare Valley for 1995 and 1996. During those couple of years Leasingham really had a renaissance. We won the Jimmy Watson Trophy and just about scooped the rest of the trophies around with our Shiraz. Of course you can't forget the wonderful Riesling vineyards that Leasingham was access to. The Clare Valley is a microcosm of the Australian wine industry and I was thrilled to be a part of it. Then I discovered Victoria.

I jumped at the chance to become the winemaker at Best's Wines in Great Western, Victoria. Best's wines was an amazing experience. Where else can you work with fruit yielded by one hundred and thirty year old vines? The 1997 Thomson Family Shiraz was chosen by James Halliday as his top equal red wine for 1999. We also pulled off a rare Pinot Noir Trophy for this part of the world at the Royal Melbourne Wine show in 2000.

What I found in Victoria was some of the greatest wine grapes I had ever seen. Although world renowned with a history as old as any wine region in Australia, Victoria presents unbelievable opportunities. I had to be a part of this.

Ararat is as the hears of some excellent viticultural locations. The Grampians and Pyrenees regions are on our doorstep. An hours drive takes to you Ballarat which along with coastal Victoria (Henty) which are two very exciting and virtually unknown cool climate regions bursting with potential. A two hour drive gets you to Coonawarra or Bendigo. This gives us a wonderful breadth of climate and terroir within our immediate vicinity. In collaboration with the Spence family we are pioneering the area on the foothills to the north west of the Grampians, results from this vineyards so far are truly outstanding.

I began to build my own winemaking business in 2000 with my partner Catherine Clark. We make wines from some wonderful vineyards in our area and the Coonawarra.

Wines produced for Lawrence Victor Estate

2001 Lawrence Victor Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2001 Lawrence Victor Estate Shiraz

2002 Lawrence Victor Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2002 Lawrence Victor Estate Shiraz