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Visiting New Zealand's wine regions 
Part 17: Pyramid Valley Vineyards

Website: www.pyramidvalley.co.nz
Mike & Claudia Weersing, 548 Pyramid Valley Road, RD Waikari 7491, North Canterbury, New Zealand
Phone: +64 (0) 3 314 2006   Fax: +64 (0) 3 314 2060

Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley

It was mid-afternoon when I left Daniel Schuster Wines to head into the Canterbury hills in search of a producer who had been recommended to me by James Millton – Pyramid Valley Vineyards. It was to be one of the most remarkable and enjoyable visits I’ve yet made as a wine writer, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have some really good ones in my short career.

PVV is in the middle of nowhere, stuck in an expanse of farmland spread across rolling hills. I arrived to be greeted by Mike and Claudia Weersing. We got chatting, and before long they invited me to stay the night – which was hugely kind of them, because I didn’t have anything sorted. They also phoned my next appointment, Marcel Giesen at nearby Bell Hill, to rearrange it for the following morning.

Then I headed off with Mike to look at the vineyards. The video I shot is below, and it includes Mike's comments on the special site they are farming.

First, some background. Mike and Claudia are from the USA, and Mike – an articulate, thoughtful and highly educated dude, studied art history and literature, and left his home town in the California redwoods to head for the bright lights of Manhattan. There, he worked in art history and publishing, but this turned out not to be his vocation. ‘I love literature, but not the business’, says Mike. ‘I love art, but I’m not and artist, and I love music, but I don’t like the music business’. 

He followed a girl he loved to Georgia, and she graduated from veterinary school there. Mike loved living in rural Georgia. 'My brief time in Manhattan taught me that I wasn't cut out to be a city boy', he recalls.It was when he spent time with Josh Jensen at Calera in California, that Mike realized wine was actually quite interesting.

‘I liked the idea of working outside, with seasons, not a 9-5 job’, he says. He began a journey that was to lead him to New Zealand. It was Pinot that most excited him, and he did a harvest in Oregon with Evesham Wood. Mike then studied oenology and viticulture in Burgundy, and then built up a remarkable CV, working for a star-studded cast of producers (including de Montille, Potel, Pousse d’Or, Kreydenweiss, Deiss and Loosen).

In 1996 Mike and Claudia moved to New Zealand, where Mike worked as a winemaker with Neudorf in Nelson, but their desire was to begin a project of their own. For a couple of seasons, they spent every weekend in winter and spring prospecting for the right vineyard for growing world class Pinot Noir. Mike had a specific idea in his head of what the perfect terroir would look like: clay with limestone, with a marginal climate that was more continental than the average New Zealand wine growing region. This is important, because the vine has to make a vegetative to reproductive shift at the right time in the season. Continued vegetative growth results in a big leaf area that keeps on pumping sugar into the developing grapes late on, resulting in a harvest with a high brix level at maturity.

After a protracted search period, Mike and Claudia discovered their dream site, in the Pyramid Valley, near Waikari in North Canterbury, in 2000. The hills around here have quite a bit of limestone, but limestone alone isn’t what Mike was looking for. He was after the soil of the great vineyards of Burgundy, which consist of a layer of clay merging into with limestone. The limestone gives structure to Pinot Noir, while the clay gives flesh. Too much limestone, and the vines encounter problems with chlorosis (iron deficiency, resulting in pale yellow leaves). 'The French call this clay-lime complex "argilo-calcaire"', says Mike, 'and their simple observation (made over something like 1200 years) is that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to be at their best, require the mix - neither only clay nor only lime at the surface, but a marriage of the two.' He says that the bedrock isn't so important, although fractured limestone or chalk are perfect, because they release excess moisture, but retain sufficient water for the vine to drink evenly, without
irrigation, throughout the growing season.

On their property, they have planted four small vineyards at a high density of 10-12 000 vines per hectare. These are remarkable: the vines are packed in, in narrow rows, with single guyot training at about a foot off the ground. These vineyards, known collectively as the ‘home vineyards’ are planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and are known by the colloquial names of the predominant weed species in each.

There’s the ‘Earth Smoke’ Pinot Noir vineyard, which is named after fumitory; ‘Angel Flower’ Pinot Noir vineyard named after yarrow (the basis of biodynamic preparation 502); ‘Lion's Tooth’ Chardonnay vineyard, named after dandelion (from the French dent de lion; used in biodynamic preparation 506); and the ‘Field of Fire’ Chardonnay vineyard named after a grass called twitch or quack. The boundaries of these vineyards are irregular, respecting the nature of the variation in the soils underneath them. There’s a deep integrity to the Weersing’s approach here.

As well as being passionate about terroir, the Weersings are committed to biodynamics, and from the outset their vineyards have been managed biodynamically – and for the first two years, totally by hand, without the help of tractors. While they have been waiting for the home vineyards to come into production, they have begun with a range of wines from other vineyards, called the Growers Collection.

‘The idea is to make wines from sites and varieties that interest us, or styles that people aren’t making’, explains Mike. ‘We go to a grower and say that we’d like to lease an acre or two. We pay per acre and then do the work ourselves, just renting some of the vineyard. We change the spray program, alter the pruning, turn the irrigation off: it’s great for us to have control over fruit and great for them because they see another way of doing things’. 

The wines are made in a commercial facility, so a week before harvest, Mike takes some grapes, sieves the juice and ferments it. The ferment is tracked, and once it builds up a good population of yeasts, Mike uses it as a pied de cuve, introducing to the freshly harvested grapes a large population of healthy yeast. Mike reports that each vineyard pied de cuve looks different, like a meadow with lots of different kinds of yeast. ‘If you do a pied de cuve every year, each year you have a different population based on that year’, he explains. ‘You get the yeast population of that season.’ He adds that, ‘I have a creeping horror of the way people want to minimize vintage variation: if it isn’t there the wine has been airbrushed. It might as well be beer or coca cola’. 

So what about the wines? I think they are incredibly good. The Growers Collection wines are all really interesting and I recommend them all. I tried only samples of the two home block Pinot Noirs; since my visit the wines have been released: I was absolutely stunned by the samples I tried.

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Growers Collection Kerner Estate Pinot Blanc 2006 Marlborough
This has a nutty nose with a minerally, bready, appley character. Quite pure. The palate is fresh with lovely acidity and a pleasing mealy, broad, bready, fruity notes. Lovely focus and acidity here. This took 11 months to finish fermenting, which presumably contributes to its interesting textural characters. 91/100

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Growers Collection Hille Vineyard Semillon 2006 Marlborough
Amazing green herbal blast on the nose: very pure and fresh with striking savoury, green herby character. The palate is crisp and very fresh with lemony fruit and herbiness, as well as high acidity. ‘I think it will be better in time’, says Mike Weersing, and I agree. 92/100

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Growers Collection Hille Vineyard Semillon 2005 Marlborough
Fresh, complex, intense limey nose with a herby edge and some smoky notes. The palate is complex and full with mouthwateringly intense herby flavours. Complex and intense, with lovely poise: this should be close to immortal. Semillon ripens over a long period, and the key to working with it (according to Mike Weersing) is managing this ripeness: he has to pick the vineyard a few times. 94/100

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Growers Collection Lebecca Vineyard Riesling 2006 Marlborough
Mike Weersing didn’t want to predicate the style of this wine: he just hand-picked, got a vineyard pied de cuve going and then the wine stopped itself at Spätlese/Auslese level in 2005, and Spätlese level in this 2006. Interesting chalky, minerally nose with some struck match reductive notes and sweet honeyed, limey fruit. The palate is tangy and fruity with high acidity and nice sweetness. 90/100

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Growers Collection Lebecca Vineyard Riesling 2005 Marlborough
Tangy, minerally and grapefruity/limey nose is precise and a bit smoky. The palate shows lovely ripe fruit and some interesting minerally, flinty reductive characters. Complex and delicious. 92/100

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Growers Collection Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006 Bannockburn, Central Otago
This vineyard, owned by the Calvert family, is shared by Pyramid Valley, Felton Road (who manage it, biodynamically) and Craggy Range, all of whom make wines from it. This wine is very stylish with lovely focus and savoury depth. Bright red and black cherry fruit nose is vibrantly fruity and nicely poised. The palate is juicy and fresh with lovely poise and vibrant berry fruit. There’s some sappy herbiness in the background, as well as good tannic structure. Intense and fruit dominated. 93/10

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Growers Collection Eaton Family Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006 Marlborough
Aromatic, sappy, berry fruit nose that’s typically Marlborough. The palate shows delicious juicy, vibrant berry fruit with high acidity and a savoury edge. Fresh and savoury with nice presence, and just a hint of attractive greenness. 92/100

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Angelflower Pinot Noir 2006 (sample of final blend)
The first release from the PVV home block vineyards, with just 30 cases made. Wonderfully aromatic, with deep, sweet red berry fruits and some spicy depth. Very intense. The palate is bold and long and pure with a lovely spicy intensity to the savoury fruit. Lots of tannic structure here: a thrillingly intense, brilliantly poised wine. 94–96/10

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Earthsmoke Pinot Noir 2006 (sample of final blend)
First release, 70 cases made. Fantastic, slightly unusual nose showing subtle herby notes with a bright cherry character. The palate shows taut, fresh cherry, red berry and herb notes with real focus. There’s fantastic elegance here waiting to emerge: I suspect this will be astonishingly good with focused elegance in a year or two. This is profound. 94–96/100

Wines tasted 11/07  
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