Mike Weersing is an exceptional winemaker who makes great wines at Pyramid Valley vineyard in New Zealand, as a tasting this week reconfirmed.
In 2011 Weersing told me he spent four years travelling the world looking for the ideal vineyard site. He found it in the Waikari region of North Canterbury, about an hour’s drive north of Christchurch, the main city on the south island.
Weersing introduced bio-dynamic grape-growing methods from the launch of his vineyard in 2000. He studied winemaking and viticulture in Burgundy, initially at the Wine School (Lycee Viticole) in Beaune, the town in the centre of Burgundy. He then went to the University of Burgundy in Dijon before working with some of Europe’s best winemakers such as Hubert de Montille and Nicolas Potel in Burgundy, Ernst Loosen in Germany and Jean-Michel Deiss in Alsace.
He has also made wine for Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards in the United States, and with James Halliday when Halliday owned Coldstream Hills in Australia’s Yarra Valley.
“Wine to us is a genie. Our job is to coax it from its rock bottle. Every gesture we make, in vineyard and winery, is a summons to this spirit of place,” Mike writes on the vineyard web site. This poetic approach is reflected in the wine he produces.
Weersing makes chardonnay and pinot noir under the Pyramid Valley label on his property. He also buys fruit from other regions to produce the Growers Collection range of riesling, pinot noir, cabernet franc and savagnin rose. The last grape is an ancestor of gewurztraminer, that aromatic white delight found in Alsace and Germany.
Weersing said the home vineyard was established according to rules he discovered while studying and working in Burgundy. Pinot noir and chardonnay have been planted on clay-limestone soils. Pyramid Valley is on a former seabed, so the limestone and calcium in the soil give a chalky or mineral sense to the estate wines.
Each of the four blocks was planted to reflect a specific soil type, which explains their irregular shapes. The estate is only 2.2 hectares, so supply is limited. Weersing makes two estate chardonnays and two estate pinot noirs. Each wine is made separately but identically in a mix of old oak and clay amphorae so outside influences on the grape are minimised.
These are magical wines.
Claudia Weersing named the blocks after the weed varieties that dominate each section. The weeds, in turn, reflect the soil types. I tasted the 2009 Field of Fire chardonnay and the 2009 Angel Flower pinot noir, along with the 2010 Growers Collection Hawkes Bay cabernet franc, the 2010 Growers Collection Marlborough savagnin rose and the 2009 Growers Collection Marlborough riesling.
The Field of Fire block has the heaviest clay soil yet produces a delicate chardonnay that is delicious. Aromas of cashew and toast are enveloped in an elegant acidity. The wine was still excellent when tasted after being opened for almost a week. It is as good as a French premier cru white burgundy, and as the vines age I would be tempted to liken the chardonnay to grand cru.
Weersing is always experimenting. The 2011 edition of this chardonnay was the first vintage using clay amphorae, and Weersing described the results as “fascinating”. “The giare [clay vessels] provide focus and clarity, while the barrels lend richness and opulence. The combination seems better than either component on its own.”
My favourite, as in past tastings, was the pinot, though it was like choosing a favourite child — effectively impossible. This wine reflects a lightness and delicacy of touch, and has an ethereal aroma like the great French burgundies around flavours of rich dark blackberry-like fruits.
The terms “forest floor” and “sous bois” connoting humous and decomposing leaves may not sound elegant but they do reflect the difficulty of describing such a wondrous mouthfeel. It is like tasting the start and end of life. I was reminded of the opening words of the famous haka the All Blacks rugby team shout before a game: “It is life, it is life, it is death, it is death”.
This wine would be divine with a slow-cooked meat dish such as pheasant.
Another superb wine was the 2010 cabernet franc. It reminded me of some of the great red wines of France’s Loire region. The best description would be to say it was like drinking summer pudding, that quintessential English dessert, around a core of soft tannins and acidity. It has a perfume like ripe blackcurrants from an English garden.
If your definition of great wine, like mine, is something that makes you want to drink a second and third glass immediately, then grab yourself some Pyramid Valley estate wines. I do not have enough space to talk about Weersing’s other wines.