New Zealand is a country that is still discovering its vinous identity. While much further along than British Columbia, Kiwi wineries are still experimenting and discovering what works best and where. There are many very good wines available beyond the traditional Sauvignon Blanc, including some stellar Pinot Noirs and Syrahs, and a few Chardonnays. However, there are still few wines that take it to the next level, those wines and wineries that define the greatness of a place.
California, for all its failings, has several of these sorts of wineries and is ahead of most everywhere else in the New World in this respect. While this profile has certainly introduced me to many very good wines that I did not realize were being made in New Zealand, it has also presented to me a country that has yet to discover its defining moment. Or at least so I thought until now.
An American in … New Zealand?
Two Americans, Mike and Claudia Weersing, founded Pyramid Valley in 1996, arriving in New Zealand after Mike studied winemaking in Burgundy and apprenticed with various stints at Hubert de Montille, Domaine de la Pousse d’Or, Nicholas Potel, Jean Michel-Deiss, Ernst Loosen, Randall Graham, Evesham Wood, and James Halliday (at Coldstream Hills). For those not in the know, these represent some of the top winemakers in Burgundy, Alsace, Germany, California, Oregon and Australia. Not only that, but most of these winemakers are proponents of biodynamics and minimalist winemaking.
While searching for the ideal vineyard site on which to found their winery, the Weersings initially started making wines by leasing vineyard land from some top growers across New Zealand. These wines represent their “growers” series of wines, which are interesting in themselves, though clearly represent a voyage of experimentation rather than the realization of a vision.
Mike Weersing is clearly a fanatical man. He spent years looking for his ideal vineyard site and ultimately found it in the middle of nowhere in central New Zealand (Canterburry) where not many (if any?) others are making wine. He has planted 95% of his vines with ungrafted rootstock and claims that the own rooted vines burrow deeper into the limestone soils than the grafted vines. His vineyards are on sites that have never seen the use of chemical pesticides or other human made intrusions on ‘nature’. The wines made from these vineyards are the “Home Vineyard” wines, as opposed to the “Growers Collection” of wines made from other vineyard sources.
These wines are also fully biodynamic, and the Weersings take this philosophy to its extremes, harvesting in relation to the phases of the moon and even attempting to isolate yeasts that live on the grapes from those that are indigenous to the cellar itself. In fact, Mike is going all out to try to get the saccharomyces yeast that live on the grapes to be the only yeast used in the fermentation. As such, sometimes the fermentations can take over a year to complete (which is why the 2008 Pinot’s were bottled after the 2009’s). Some claim this is lunacy and that yeasts that live in the cellar are not only impossible to exclude but are necessary to complete fermentation as the saccharomyces yeasts will always be insufficient to complete the process. Nonetheless, it is clear that Mike is taking fanatical attention to detail to another level.
This attention to detail reminds me of some conversations I was lucky to have with Allen Meadows where he opined that Biodynamicists produced better wine on average more because they were obsessed with details rather than anything relating to the lunar cycle. I think this must be true with the Pyramid wines as well, because it seems to be that this obsessed with detail and perfection is precisely the reason why the Weersings have avoided all the flaws commonly associated with both biodynamic and ‘natural’ wines, for surely the Home Vineyard wines are from both camps.
The Home Vineyard wines from Pyramid Valley are unequivocally the best examples of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from New Zealand, and they compete with the absolute best examples from all over the New World. These are wines with unparallelled purity and finesse and with exceptional expression, balance and length.
I tasted both the Pyramid Valley Earth Smoke Pinot Noir 2009, which poured a beautiful cloudy light red (apparently the wine wouldn’t settle and the Weersings do not fine or filter), and the Pyramid Valley Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay 2009, which I had trouble distinguishing from a top notch Corton.
The Pinot had a Burgundian elegance on the nose with spice, light berry fruits, earth and savour. The 10% whole cluster fermentation clearly added spicy and earthy elements from the stems. This is a dense, rich Pinot Noir without heavyness or alcohol (it is 13.8%). Yet this is creamy, rich and very very smooth. Possessing one of the longest finishes I’ve experienced from a New World Pinot, the Earth Smoke completes with an earthy and mineral twist that makes this the most complete Pinot I have tasted in this New Zealand Spotlight.
Ditto for the Chardonnay, which is perhaps a more classic example of pure Burgundian cool-climate Chardonnay than are the Pinot Noirs (which truly are their own entity). The Lion’s Tooth offers mineral, stone and lemon on the nose, but it does so with exceptional expression and purity. In a blind, I would put money on experienced tasters picking this as a Burgundy. I found it similar to Mikulski’s Mersaults, which is an exceptional compliment since Mikulski is one of my favourite winemakers in Burgundy.
On the palate this was very elegant and long with exceptionally pure fruit. This is more balanced in oak, alcohol and acid than many more expensive Burgundy whites. Lemon, apricot, hazlenut and long minerality round out this exciting wine, which is amongst the very best New World Chardonnays I have tasted. This is even more elegant than many many white Burgundies.
Both wines are extremely impressive and both wines deserve:
$70 for the Earth Smoke Pinot Noir at Marquis Wine Cellar
$65 for the Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay at Marquis Wine Cellar