For New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc accounts for approximately 70% of the nation's total wine production: perfumed, summery, and somewhat predictable. In most cases, regardless of producer, you know more or less what you're getting. Fair enough. But here's the thing: if your experience so far with wines from New Zealand has stopped here, you're in for a real treat. This is an incredible, diverse wine growing country, worthy of further exploration, where a handful of small, naturally-minded producers are bucking the corporate trend and making truly special wines. Family-run Pyramid Valley Vineyards, located in Canterbury, is among the very best.
Husband and wife Mike and Claudia Weersing came to wine from very different backgrounds. Claudia was born in Germany, raised in the United States, and has a background in fashion design. Mike studied oenology and viticulture in Burgundy, at both the Lycée Viticole and Universite de Bourgogne, before apprenticing in some of the finest vineyards and cellars around Burgundy, Alsace, the Rhône Valley, and Languedoc-Roussillon, as well as parts of Germany, Spain, Australia, and Oregon. The two met in California and moved to New Zealand in 1996, searching for the perfect spot for their own vineyard, where they could apply their passion for biodynamic practices and low-intervention winemaking.
Four years later they found it in North Canterbury’s Pyramid Valley. Farmed biodynamically from its inception, their ‘home’ vineyard is planted in four miniscule blocks, each with a specific soil type. Viticulture is done entirely by hand and yields are kept low, all in order to better “record and transmit” the “voice” of each individual wine and vintage. In the cellar, each block and grape variety is vinified separately but identically to preserve the taste differences that reflect minute changes in soil and climate from different sections of the 2.2 hectare vineyard. Wines are fermented naturally with the help of a pied de cuve and the resulting wine is bottled without filtration and with little-to-no sulphur. What you get for the Weersings’ hard work are wines more redolent of the actual vineyard—vines, flowers, herbs, vegetables—than any others I’ve tasted in recent memory, an ideal example of what “wine people” mean by terroir. Taste the wines of Pyramid Valley and, like a mirror unfogging, all the advantages of natural wine suddenly become clear.
We’re blessed to have two of the Weersings’ wines currently in stock: an ’07 Marlborough Semillon from their Growers Collection, in which Claudia and Mike partner with admired colleagues to source biodynamic fruit, and a ’12 Pinot Noir from their home vineyard. The Semillon comes from the stony-soiled Hille Vineyard in Marlborough’s Brancott Valley, a tiny 1-hectare site farmed biodynamically with very low yields. The grapes were hand-picked in four stages, whole bunch pressed, and fermented in French oak (50% new). It’s an incredibly herbaceous expression of Semillon, with surprising notes of jalapeño followed by a cool but subtle salinity. The ‘Earth Smoke’ Pinot Noir, on the other hand, comes from a block of the home vineyard, also tended in the Weersing way—dense plantings, ethereal yields, and clay and limestone soil made diverse by flowers, herbs, animals, and human TLC. Grapes were de-stemmed by hand and lightly foot-stomped before settling on their skins for almost a month. They then see a final pressing before being moved to used French oak for a long, slow fermentation. The result is a wild, gamey Pinot Noir, with notes of black olive, soft and fleshy blackberry fruit, rainwater, and wet grape blossom. Though distantly reminiscent of Saint-Joseph or even a lighter-bodied Côte-Rotie, at the end of the day the ‘Earth Smoke’ is unique to its country, its region, its vineyard, its block, and the hands and efforts of its talented winemakers. It's something you have to taste for yourself.
My verdict? These are wines that must be enjoyed to be fully understood, bottles to open and savor for an afternoon or evening before putting them into words. Even then, of course, language can never fully capture experience. Maybe I need a few more hours of tasting myself...