“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,” says Mike Weersing, of Pyramid Valley in New Zealand. “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.”
Mike Weersing didn’t grow up in a winemaking family. He grew up in California, a place certainly known for wine, but perhaps not the kind of wines Mike would eventually be known to grow.
“Wine started to interest me while I was at university,” says Mike. “I was at a point in my life where lots of things around me were changing, and wine, like I guess it does for most people, became an interest and then a hobby, until it became an obsession, and then, finally, it takes over your life and your wallet. So, I thought, I might as well look into this.”
Mike headed to Oregon in 1992 to do vintage at Evesham Wood, where he fell in love with Pinot, before moving to France to study, work and indulge in his new found obsession.
“I did vintage in Oregon, and I’d read enough by then to know that Pinot was of a particular interest to me. I then moved to Burgundy and bought a VW van, which doubled as my home for a while,” says Mike. “I studied viticulture and oenology in Burgundy, and would drive around from region to region trying to find growers who were doing work that excited me, and then I’d talk my way into getting a job with them.”
In France, Mike worked for the likes of Pousse d’Or, de Montille, Potel, Deiss, Loosen, and Kreydenweiss, where he combined this priceless hands on and practical experience with the theory he was learning at school there. While in France, Mike became enamoured with the idea of finding a new site, somewhere in the world, where he could grow Pinot, the way he’d been taught, and make a wine that spoke so loudly of the place it was born from that it would reduce the voice of the varietal down to a mere whisper in the glass.
“Why in the world would you want to make a Pinot Noir that only tastes like Pinot?” asks Mike. “The grape is never the message… In Burgundy, the growers there say about a Pinot, which is just a vin de cépage, they say, ‘ça Pinot’ (that’s Pinot) and that’s not a compliment,” explains Mike.
After years of searching for the right site to put down some roots, so to speak, Mike, with his wife Claudia, settled on a property in North Canterbury, New Zealand, amongst the rolling hills of Waikari, in a place called Pyramid Valley.
On their new found land, Mike and Claudia planted, Pinot Noir and Chardonny, exclusively, across four different sites. Earth Smoke, and Angel Flower, which are planted with Pinot Noir, while Lion’s Tooth and Field of Fire, are both planted with Chardonnay. Each of these four sites are named after the reminiscent weeds which grow between the rows. ‘Earth Smoke’ for fumaria officinalis, ‘Angel Flower’, for yarrow, ‘Lion’s Tooth’, for dandelion, and ‘Field of Fire’, for the rapidly growing grass, commonly referred to as twitch or quack (it’s not often that a grower will name their vineyards, orchards or gardens after the weeds that share the soil with their plants).
“Once we’d found the place we were looking for, we always knew that it was going to be growing single vineyard wines,” says Mike. “We’d never intended to blend.”
Mike’s meticulous search for the perfect site is mirrored in his philosophy for winemaking. The individual voice of each site is captured and transformed into wine in, more or less, the same way. Each vineyard’s fruit is hand picked into small picking bins and taken down to the winery at the bottom of the hill. There, the grapes are de-stemmed by hand, with the intact berries being separated away from any other berries that may have been split or broken during transportation from the vineyard. A few weeks before all this, Mike starts to prepare for the impending harvest by activating a separate and unique starter culture in each of the four vineyards, which is made from the ambient yeast that lives upon the grapes, leaves and trunk of the vine, within each vineyard site.
“Every wine we make is fermented with a starter that we’ve been nurturing over the last couple of weeks,” explains Mike. “The idea is to build up a native yeast population from that one vineyard, which comes from the same time and place as the fruit. When you talk about terroir,” Mike continues, “you’re talking about place, and the fruit, but if you think about it, wine at its most basic is simply grapes plus yeast plus time equals wine, and so the grapes and the yeast should be from the same time and place if you want to speak about a wine coming from the same time and place.”
Indeed, that’s why they call it a vintage, is it not?
“Each home block is picked one at a time and then de-stemmed by hand, by Claudia and her team,” says Mike. “We can sort the intact berries and clean them up, and then start to ferment them as whole berries, using the specific starter from the vineyard. It’s not a carbonic fermentation,” continues Mike, “because we don’t add any Co2 and then seal it. But, the virtue of fermenting unbroken, whole berries is that you get an intercellular fermentation that begins inside the grape. And, that’s what gives you that very lifted, spicy aroma in the finished wine, which I like.”
A lot of people mistake the Pyramid Valley Pinots for having some stems present in the ferment, due to a spicy herbaceousness sometimes found, typically, in Earth Smoke. But there are no stems present in any of the Pyramid Valley ferments.
“We don’t use stems in our Pinot because it makes our pH go crazy,” explains Mike.
“We plunge the cap a couple of times a day by foot (a wooden beam is placed across the top of the steel fermenters and the cellar hands sit on this beam so they can plunge their feet into the wine), and just keep tasting the wine until we think it’s ready to be pressed,” says Mike. “Then, the wine is transferred into as little new oak as possible, where it goes through natural malo in the spring. We don’t make any additions at all,” continues Mike, “except a little sulphur (30ppm or lower) at bottling, but only if the wine needs it. All our wines are bottle unfined and unfiltered.”
Except for the wines made for the Growers Collection, which aren’t de-stemmed by hand, every one of the Pyramid Valley wines is made in exactly this way. They might just be the best (natural) wines in the New World…
– 2012, FIELD OF FIRE, Chardonnay: A pastoral scene. A bright sun shines down upon bales of hay being stacked high under white clouds and blue skies when, all of a sudden, a gentle breeze stirs and wafts, and brings with it the faint smell of bacon frying in butter in a cast iron pan. Honey bees buzz around a table set with dollops of cream and soft, yet fresh yellow fruits, like mango and pineapple and ripe as summer melon… – 12.5% / $125
– 2012, LIONS TOOTH, Chardonnay: Nearby, a fresh water river runs cool through lush green fields that are still soaked from last night’s rain shower. The late afternoon sun, still bright, continues to warm the green grass, providing some concentrated respite from the slight chill in the air. A bell, dripping with slow flowing honey, rings and the sound cuts clean through the crisp afternoon, which smells fresh, like juicy red apples and fleshy nectarines… – 12.7% / $125
– 2012, EARTH SMOKE, Pinot Noir: Twilight creeps across the sky shifting the big blue into hues of pink and deep purple. The clouds are turned into gigantic wisps of smoke and the whole scene looks like it’s being painted with water colours. Scents of cherries and blackberries get carried on the wind from a nearby orchard whose ground is damp with leaves shaded orange and red. Something is roasting in the oven and it’s edges are beginning to char… 13% / $130
– 2012, ANGEL FLOWER, Pinot Noir: Night falls. The stars twinkle and shine bright, like a black, back lit canopy with holes punched in it. The duck is pulled from the oven, glistening, burnt, orange and black. Plums, mulberries and raspberries are stewing slowly on the stove, perfuming the warm air inside the kitchen and providing balance to the roast aromas of the bird with all the trimmings… 13% / $130
D// – The Wine Idealist
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