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Notes from New Zealand, 2011

text and photgraphs © 2011 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on New Zealand 2011.


mike Mike Weerisng (right, on his farm at feeding time) trained at the University of Dijon, then travelled around Europe as he says "working for my heroes." That included a stint with Marcel Deiss and Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace, and with Hubert de Montille, Domaine de la Pousse d'Or and Nicolas Potel in Burgundy. Eventually he settled in New Zealand, finding work as winemaker at Neudorf estate in Marlborough where he stayed for five years. During that time he began a search for a vineyard that would meet the very strict criteria he had set himself to grow Pinot Noir.

The search for Pinot Nirvana took Mike and his wife Claudia everywhere from Portugal to Australia, and he says that after an exhaustive search across NZ had turned up nothing, he was seriously considering purchasing land in Uruguay. "But that would have come with a divorce," he jokes. The discovery of a farm in a sleepy corner of North Canterbury changed all that.

Mike found the plot that would become Pyramid Valley in 2000, with "the perfect mix of soils, aspect and climate." They planted according to those strict criteria on the clay-covered limestone, at an intensive 12,000 plants per hectare spaced just one metre x 800mm apart. Mike says the clay gives "fatness, charm and weight," whilst the limestone gives "structure and precision." Everything here is foot- and hand-crushed, only wild yeasts found in each site are used for fermentation, and added nutrients, temperature control or stopping or encouraging the ferment unnaturally are anathema. From the start, Pyramid Valley has been a strictly biodynamic operation.

Though he never mentions the term 'natural wine', there is no doubt these wines meet all of the emerging criteria for this category. Minimal use of sulphur and not controlling temperatures are aspects of that, and there is no irrigation in these vineyards. Certainly the wines are far from the norm. His Earth Smoke Vineyard 2008 Pinot, tasted in a line-up of Pinots from the region, had a shockingly pale and cloudy appearance, and yet was delightful to drink. Other than that, I ask him what all of his demanding vineyard and winery practices bring to the wines. "The wines are very forward just before bottling, but after bottling under screwcap they taper down and become tighter, and stay that way for a year or so before opening up again. But really it's all about leaving the fruit out long enough so that it does not talk about the fruit when bottled, it talks about this site."

Earth Smoke, Angel Flower, Lion's Tooth and Field of Fire are the estate's home vineyards. Other wines are made from vineyards leased from growers in Canterbury and various other New Zealand regions, but Pyramid Valley have full responsibility for them, "turning the irrigation off and converting to biodynamics," according to Mike.

white wines

Pyramid Valley is imported by SWIG and Les Caves de Pyrene. See all wines on wine-searcher.

Pyramid Valley, Kerner Pinot Blanc 2009
From the Kerner vineyard in Waihopi Valley in Marlborough, very nice, subdued, herb and softly oatmeal nose, has that lovely umami savour and dryness, with quite a full, sweet palate, lots of tang and vibrancy, the 15g/l of residual sugar adding sweetness but it has a plump, vibrant personality. 91/100.

Pyramid Valley, Kerner Pinot Blanc 2007
Very attractive candied orange and tangerine peel lift to this, with a big ripe apple core, and very sweetly balanced fruit. Lots of tang again, and delicious. 91/100.

Pyramid Valley, Labeca Riesling 2005
Waipara fruit. An intriguing wine that when first made naturally fermented to only 8.5% alcohol, with 75g/l of residual sugar. Now this wine is 13.5% and only 7g/l, though absolutely nothing has changed. "The yeasts and soils are just so much healthier," says Mike. Lots of good sulphides, with herby and orange notes, and floral aspects coming through. The palate has delicious sweetness and a nectarine clarity and huge length. 91/100.

Pyramid Valley, Labeca Riesling 2007
Forty grams of residual sugar in this wine, which has a much more obvious lime character than the 2005, with a touch of pepper. The palate has lovely stylish balance but does not have the punch and character of the older wine. 89/100.

Pyramid Valley, Rose Riesling 2007
Marlborough fruit. Beautiful nose, the lime and stone married to a little greengage and this opens beautifully on the palate into a gloriously long finish. 92/100.

Pyramid Valley, Rose Riesling 2008
Fabulously aromatic, fabulously toasty and exotic, with a beautiful kerosene background note and slippery, beautifully sweet palate cut by that grippy, phenolic finish. Lovely clarity and length here, lemon rind and orange grip and freshness. 91-92/100.

Pyramid Valley, Rose Riesling 2009
Much drier and more restrained, with a big core of lime and minerals that streaks through the mid-palate, a stony, ungiving, precision, but with a wonderfully focused, stony length. 92/100.

Pyramid Valley, Hille Late Harvest Semillon 2008
A touch of green, leafy herbs and fine lemony fruit, a touch of guava Botrytis. The palate has delightful composure and fine lemony fruit buttressed by some smoky, tea-leaf finesse. Fine tangerine acidity pushes through. 90/100

Pyramid Valley, Field of Fire Chardonnay 2009
450 and 500-litre barrels for ferment. Gorgeous nose of oatmeal and gentle Brazil nuts, a lovely green fig streak with some vegetal notes. The palate has lovely richness allied to precision, with a big mineral, pithy lemon dryness, the medium-bodied, limpid texture very appealing. Unfined, unfiltered, very low sulphur. 91/100.

Pyramid Valley, Lion's Tooth Chardonnay 2009
Tighter, more mineral and focused, has that umami streak with a little toasty, reductive and mineral character. Intense on the palate, with a mouth-filling extract that is lemony and dry, with beautiful rounded, almost vanilla notes - but not oak, just a smooth, composed suppleness to the fruit and acidity. Brilliant length. 93/100.

red wines

Pyramid Valley, Calvert Pinot Noir 2008
From Central Otago, Felton Road farm it and the fruit is split into three parcels that go to Felton Road, Pyramid Valley and Craggy Range. Beautifully soft, medium, with meaty and gamy notes, a lovely floral and kirsch-like top note and the palate has great clarity too. There's a softening edge of sweet vanilla, and still a precision to the acidity and tannin of the finish. 91/100.

Pyramid Valley, Eaton Pinot Noir 2007
Marlborough fruit. Beautifully soft, with deliciously appealing cranberry and gently fudgy aromas, with a real sense of strawberry cream sweetness and delicacy. The palate has a beautiful clarity and stillness about the mid-palate, a glacial pool of that soft, pure fruit, the soft tannins and the gentle balance of the acidity. Last vintage from this vineyard which was sold to Spy Valley. 93/100.

Pyramid Valley, Earth Smoke Pinot Noir 2008
From one of the home Pinot plots, extremely pale colour, verging on tawny at the rim, and a touch cloudy too. Fantastically soft, coffee and leafy, truffly damp undergrowth. The palate has very soft structure, delightfully delicate and pure, the wine definitely feeling mature and as if it has considerable age. 90/100.

Pyramid Valley, Angel Flower Pinot Noir 2009
North facing, limestone. Lots of whole berry fermentation. Pale coloured again. Wonderfully rich truffle and sous-bois quality, with earth and ripe red berries. There's coffee and strawberry, and there's a mineral saltiness that gives this lovely grip and tension. 92/100.

Pyramid Valley, Earth Smoke Pinot Noir 2009
Earth smoke has more clay over limestone. Very pale and orangy and quite hazy. The nose has definite streak of minerality, with fantastically complex herbal, leathery, with a bit of tight, almost liquoricy edge. On the palate this has a delightfully lean, focused palate. There's a lemony clarity to the fruit, and nicely judged acidity which along with really tight tannins. Finesseful and long, though lacks a touch of the plump charm of the Eaton from Marlborough for example. 92/100.

Pyramid Valley, Angel Flower Pinot Noir 2010 (barrel sample)
Mike foot crushed part of this - around 20% - which along with a bigger year with more tannin, has really fixed that colour problem. Masses of fruit, with a big black fruit character and really deep aromas that have a lovely smoky, swirling minerality. Highly promising. 93/100.

Pyramid Valley, Earth Smoke Pinot Noir 2010 (barrel sample)
Lovely dense, tight, focused minerality with a dense and glossy kirsch-like cherry and red plum-skin, but terrific juiciness. Lovely tight, focused finish, with terrific length. This will be a beautiful wine. 93/100.

See all Pyramid Valley wines on wine-searcher.

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