“I wanted to find a place where the voice was so loud that you couldn’t hear the grape,” says Mike Weersing, winegrower at Pyramid Valley, in New Zealand.
After 15 years of searching, Mike and his wife Claudia, who were originally from the US, finally settled on an old sheep farm in Wairkari, North Canterbury. They had spent over a decade studying soil maps and travelling to and from Europe, California, New Mexico, Portugal, and all throughout Australia. Climbing slopes and digging holes, sending countless soils samples back to scientist friends who would analyse them, looking for the perfect combination of limestone and clay on which to plant a brand new vineyard and liquify its geography into wine.
“There are affinity’s between grape varieties and soil types,” says Mike. “The reason for that is that each variety has it’s own characteristics and, when combined with the right soils, it will give you a unique voice… Clay limestone soil combinations are perfect for Pinot because it’s a thin skinned variety, it’s very aromatic, it doesn’t need schist or granite to boost the aromatics, but because it’s thin skinned, high in acid and lean, the clay provides volume and richness and texture, while the limestone gives it structure.
“I was looking for a specific combination of soil and climate and topography that could make a wine that would trump varietal voice,” explains Mike. “I wanted to add a new voice to the chorus of world wine voices that matter most to me… I didn’t want to make a wine that just tasted like the grape.”
The search eventually led Mike and Claudia to New Zealand.
“We’d never thought that the site was going to be in New Zealand.” says Mike. “I got a job making wine at Neudorf, in Nelson, and spent years going over the country with a fine tooth comb. It got to a point where I began looking at soil maps of Uruguay and Claudia was looking at flights back home to the United States.”
“We were looking at all these soils maps that were created in 1942,” says Claudia, “and we’d identify these limestone outcrops, but when we got there, there’d be all this wind blown loess, about 4-5 metres deep, and we started to think that maybe this just isn’t possible.
“That’s that makes Pyramid Valley so special,” continues Claudia. “It doesn’t have any loess covering the limestone. When we actually dug a few holes at the top we found that there was too much limestone, but a bit further down the slope was exactly what we were looking for.”
“I knew I was being pretty anal about it,” admits Mike, “but I also knew that I was old enough and poor enough that I really only had one shot at it.”
Pyramid Valley has been meticulously close planted with only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grape vines. These vines are planted across four distinct sites, covering a total area of 2.2 ha, whose borders are defined by the existence of a balanced combination of clay and limestone soils.
Rather than plant right up and down the hillside and maximise the amount of wine that could potentially be made from the property, Mike and Claudia want to maximise the quality of each wine that’s grown from the four separate sites. As a result, each vineyard looks, from a distance, like some modern geometrical piece of art that’s been left hidden on a hill side while it waits for its great unveiling.
“We dug loads of holes by hand and marked them with bamboo,” explains Mike, “so we knew how high we could go before you would get only limestone, and how low you could go before you reached only clay. If you go too high on the slope you get only limestone, which isn’t good for soil health or plant health, or wine quality. If you go too low on the slope you get to a place where clay dominates and that’s not good either, for soil health, plant health, or wine quality.
“It would be so much more convenient if Mother Nature decided to work in a rectilinear grid,” says Mike.
From the very beginning, Pyramid Valley has been managed using biodynamics.
“I’ve worked with a range of different producers in Europe and in the New World,” explains Mike. “Some were conventional, and some were organic, and some were biodynamic, and it soon became very clear to me that the biodynamic producers always had the best soil and vine health, and therefore the best vineyards. Maybe not the best sites, but always the most healthy vineyards.”
“I was a sceptical of biodynamics when we first planted the vineyard,” explains Claudia, “and it took me at least four years to be convinced that it had value for growing wine. But, after making a few different compost heaps that had the biodynamic preps in them, I realised that the quality of the compost was so much better in the BD heaps than in the other ones. I kept forcing my ego and expectations on our land until I looked deeper and understood that it’s both our energies and the energy of the vines and the land all working together.”
Pyramid Valley’s Home vineyards and wines are all certified biodynamic by Demeter, and all the biodynamic preparations are made on site from materials collected off the Pyramid Valley farm.
“We make our own preps with offerings from our farm,” says Claudia, “because it’s just like yeast in wine and why you don’t buy packet yeast from Germany and use it to ferment your wine, and then talk about terroir.”
After all this searching high and low, all around the world, for the most perfect site to grow some wine on, planning and planting out the vineyards in such a meticulous way so that you might maximise the site’s potential to sing in it’s own unique voice, then spend the next seven years or so patiently tending to your young vines, encouraging them to grow stronger and healthier by not using any harmful chemicals around them, positioning, pruning, bud rubbing, shoot thinning, leaf plucking and finally fruit thinning, until at last the day arrives when the vine is finally ready to grant you a little wine, you might think you’d be a little nervous.
“The hardest part for me was waiting those 7 to 8 years before we could actually taste a wine from the property,” says Mike. “You know you’ve done as much as you can do but if you taste the wine and it’s banal, then you have to make a decision whether to commit and continue making banal wines from this site, or think about going to work for the council, or something.”
Thankfully, for Mike and Claudia (and the entire world of wine) the grapes that took so long to be composed on the slopes of Pyramid Valley posses one of the most beautiful voices in New Zealand. And, this voice – as far as I’ve tasted – has been known to sing some of the most unique and empyreal songs ever written into the song book of world wide wine.
“The grape is never the voice, it’s only the messenger…” says Mike. “Wine has this magical capacity to become a kind of liquid geography that can show the little nuances of a particular time and place, and I feel like it’s a moral failure not to aim for that. You might not get there every time, but you must do the best you can with what you have. Beer can’t do this. So, honour wine by trying to show what’s so special about it.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
Links and Further Reading