Pyramid Valley Tasting with winemaker Mike Weersing

PYRAMID VALLEY TASTING WITH WINEMAKER MIKE WEERSING – Arlequin Wine Merchant, San Francisco, California (7/29/2010)


Mike Weersing

I’ve been hearing intriguing things about these wines, so this was a good opportunity to try most of the lineup, and to hear a little from the winemaker. As an example of the great press they have been receiving, Jon Bonne wrote the following about the Pyramid Valley Semillon for the San Francisco Chronicle: “Mike Weersing’s project is turning out some of the most characterful wines in New Zealand, but even for the staunchly geeky, this Semillon is more an erudite pleasure than anything. But its herbal, mysterious profile was so compelling that I ran out to buy a bunch.”

Mike and Claudia Weersing came to New Zealand in 1996, when Mike began making wine with Tim and Judy Finn at Neudorf Vineyards in Nelson. After a lengthy search to find a site for their own vineyard, they purchased a farm in the Pyramid Valley, near Waikari in the Canterbury Hills of New Zealand’s South Island, in 2000. Claudia manages the vineyards and is a self described “committed biodynamicist.” Mike studied oenology and viticulture in Burgundy, both at the Lycee Viticole in Beaune, and the Universite de Bourgogne in Dijon. He has worked in Europe for Hubert de Montille, Domaine de la Pousse d’Or, and Nicolas Potel in Burgundy; Jean-Michel Deiss and Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace; and Ernst Loosen in the Mosel. He has made wine in France and in Spain for Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon. He also had apprenticeships with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley of Australia, and with Russ Raney at Evesham Wood in Oregon’s Eola Hills. The couple’s vineyards have been planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, in clay-limestone soils on scarp slopes, at a density of 10,000 to 12,000 vines per hectare. Ninety-five percent of the vines are ungrafted and Mike claims he has found that those that are grafted onto American roostocks are the first to suffer drought. He also asserts that the roots of the ungrafted vines can penetrate the limestone whereas the grafted ones get to the limestone and stop burrowing down. Mike doesn’t worry about the threat of phylloxera, as this vineyard is quite isolated. The part of their vineyard that is planted on a north-facing slope they named Angel Flower, and the site that faces south-east is called Earth Smoke. Both Angel Flower and Earth Smoke are wildflowers commonly found in the area, and the beautifully designed labels feature drawings of both flowers. Angel Flower is actually a yarrow, and the basis of biodynamic preparation 502. The couple also use grapes from sites that they lease and manage themselves, having converted those parcels to biodynamic viticulture.

I came away with a sense that these are unusual wines, and that the California-born-and-raised winemaker is something of a kook, who goes to a great deal of effort (some of it of questionable utility, as in the case of their “vineyard yeast” regime described below) in producing these artisanal creations. He not only follows biodynamic principles, but seems to take some of them a lot further than usual–going way out of his way, for example, to avoid “contamination” of his grapes with ambient yeast in the winemaking facility–he wants to use only the Saccharomyces cerevisiae that happens to find its way to the grapes when they’re growing in the field. They attempt to ferment exclusively with yeasts cultured from each source vineyard, by picking a batch of grapes a few weeks early, and letting them begin fermentation in small vats in the vineyard, away from the winemaking facility, to get a “starter culture” going that will then be used to inoculate the rest of the grapes when they are picked. From what I know of winemaking yeast, however, ambient yeasts in the winemaking facility are still very likely to take over and be primarily involved in fermenting the wine to dryness, as studies have shown that there is actually very little of the necessary Saccharomyces cerevisiae, essential to the fermentation of wine, present in any vineyard. Malos are similarly natural, and the wines often ferment for many months. They claim their malos usually require at least a year to complete. Movements of the wine–pressing, topping, racking–are timed to “propitious stages of the lunar calendar.” They also use no sulphur at harvest, no enzymes, and no refrigeration or heating, and the grapes are hand destemmed.

What’s the result of this meticulous and arguably fussy insistence on extreme biodynamic viticulture and “natural” winemaking? For the details, see my comments on the individual wines below.

Whites


All three of these whites were intriguing and unusual in flavor. Each of them was quite concentrated too. I found the Semillon the most memorable of the lot, and it could be quite enjoyable with the right kind of food pairing, but I rated it only an 88 because of its aggressiveness and flavor characteristics that are not, in my view, very varietally typical.

  • 2007 Pyramid Valley Pinot Blanc Kerner Estate – New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough
    Bright light lemon yellow color; ripe peach, nectarine nose with green herb notes; tight, oily textured, herbal, peach, camphor palate; medium finish (88 pts.)
  • 2007 Pyramid Valley Riesling Rose Vineyard – New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough
    Bright light lemon yellow color; light petrol, green fruit nose with a sense of turpentine; concentrated, bright lime, mineral, green fruit palate with some acidity; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2006 Pyramid Valley Sémillon Hille Vineyard – New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough, Brancott Valley
    Light lemon yellow color with clear meniscus; very herbal, witch hazel, green herb nose; oily textured, herbal, lemon thyme, rosemary, lemon oil, mineral palate; medium finish (picked in 4 passes over one and a half months) (88 pts.)

Entry-level Pinots

These Pinots from vineyards that the Weersings lease and biodynamically farm are tasty enough; the Eaton is quite tight yet. Both show the influence of fine French oak, the Riverbrook is rather low in acidity.

  • 2008 Pyramid Valley Pinot Noir Riverbrook Vineyard – New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough
    Dark raspberry red color; big cherry, raspberry black raspberry, vanilla nose; plush, ripe raspberry, tart cherry, hibiscus palate with lowish acidity; medium finish 90+ pts. (90 pts.)
  • 2007 Pyramid Valley Pinot Noir Eaton Family Vineyard – New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough, Omaka Valley
    Medium raspberry red color; big, candied cherry, French oak, caramel nose; tight, ripe cherry, raspberry, French oak caramel palate with some acidity, needs 2-3 years to integrate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)

Top Pinots

These are the Pinots from the Weersings’ own vineyards. The Angel Flower is the most impressive and complex, with good acidity and an unusual sense of salinity on the nose, as well as some sous bois, or forest floor characteristics. The Earth Smoke is slightly less concentrated than the Angel Flower, but is also complex and exhibits sous bois. Very interesting wines that should take on even more dimension with a few years of age.

  • 2008 Pyramid Valley Pinot Noir Angel Flower – New Zealand, South Island, Otago, Central Otago
    Light medium raspberry red color with clear meniscus; raspberry, cherry and sous bois nose with a sense of salinity; tart cranberry, tart red fruit, cinnamon, hibiscus, tart cherry palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (92 pts.)
  • 2008 Pyramid Valley Pinot Noir Earth Smoke – New Zealand, South Island, Canterbury
    Light medium raspberry red color with pale meniscus; roses, baked cherry, raspberry nose laced with French oak; tasty, strawberry, ripe cherry, raspberry, mineral palate with depth and a touch of sous bois and green herb; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)

Cab Franc

This wine wasn’t on the program, but they had a bottle available and I asked for a taste. This was a very ripe and not particularly distinguished version of Cabernet Franc. It’s tight now, and may be a little more interesting a few years down the road, but I found it the least impressive of the Weersings’ reds.

  • 2007 Pyramid Valley Cabernet Franc Howell Family – New Zealand, North Island, Hawkes Bay
    Medium dark red violet color; ripe red fruit, red plum, berry nose; plush, ripe, red plum, berry, vanilla palate, a little tight with light acidity, needs 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 88+ pts. (88 pts.)
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