Pyramid Valley, 10 years on

The Pyramid Valley estate in North Canterbury was born only in the year 2000. Burgundy-trained American Mike Weersing and his wife Claudia had searched across the globe for a spot to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay before finding this small farm. I visited in 2011, meeting the Weersings and observing for myself its beautiful and almost unique location in New Zealand. As current owner Steve Smith points out, it is extremely rare to find “clay soils over limestone and a genuine cool climate.”

The Weersings followed an almost religious devotion to organic and biodynamic farming from day one. In search of fully expressing the terroir of their vineyard, winemaking was extremely ‘hands-off’. One quote Mike gave me when I visited in 2011, was “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.” Occasionally that almost fanatical approach led to wines that were, to my mind, just one step removed from being faulty. But when it was right the wines were glorious, with all the delicious plumpness given by the clay, and underlying precision and minerality from the limestone.

Fast forward to 2017. Steve Smith MW, ex-supremo of Craggy Range, with his American business partner, Brian Sheth, approached the Weersings about acquiring the estate. Mike Weersing was in poor health, and the mutually beneficial deal was agreed. Mike Weersing continued to advise, but sadly he passed away in 2020 at the age of 55.

A New Era in the Valley

I caught up with Steve Smith on a visit to Scotland, where I tasted six of the 2020 releases. After frost events dogged the previous couple of vintages, Steve says this is the site now showing its true potential.

Steve also confesses that eyebrows were raised when the buy-out was announced. Not all fans of Pyramid Valley were pleased. Steve has one of the keenest scientific minds in the world of wine. Over the previous couple of decades he had established and built the reputation of Craggy Range in Hawke’s Bay, as arguably New Zealand’s top estate. Renowned for the precision of its wines, it is a large estate with its restaurant and lavish cellars. That was the opposite of the Weersing’s ram-shackle farm with its pigs and chickens, tumble-down buildings and rudimentary cellar. It seemed like a clash of cultures.

Since taking over, Steve with the help of resident winemaker Huw Kinch, has planted all of the 7.5 hectare site, of which only around 2 hectares were already under vine. That will be on stream by 2025. “We’ve planted a whole bunch of different clones, which we’ll harvest together,” Steve tells me. A new winery has been built, amphorae are now confined to the estate’s orange and ‘Sauvignon+’ cuvées, and old (and sometimes problematic) wooden barrels have been replaced. Temperature-controlled tanks and large oak cuves have been installed.

The farm continues to be run biodynamically and the wines made with minimal intervention, but it seems obvious the changes have been all about bringing some precision to the wines: “These could easily be described as ‘natural wines’,” says Steve, “but my only concern is that we produce fine wine, to stand with the best in the world.”

The desire to express the site has not waned: “We’re on the edge of ripening at Pyramid Valley,” says Steve, “which is where the little variations of soil and climate really come into play.” His current obsession is with regenerative farming. This system is often, but not necessarily, organic, and seeks to reverse climate change by rebuilding organic matter and restoring biodiversity in soils. A basic aim is to restore carbon and improve the water cycle. “I’m a big fan of transparency,” says Steve, “and we’ll prove regenerative farming works by showing the workings. It’s expensive, but can offset three times the weight saving of knocking 150gm off of a glass bottle.”

Huw Kinch makes the wines and runs the farm from day to day, while Steve looks after the whole Smith & Sheth business. He does get involved in tasting and blending, and is always on hand, but in terms of making the wine he says “I have a pathological hatered of cellars. Give me a pump and I’ll blow it up.”

The Wines

I tasted through a range of wines in the ‘Botanicals Collection’ with Steve, all from the 2020 vintage (described as ‘near perfect’ by Huw Kinch). These are the mainstay wines of the property, each named after the species of meadow plant that is dominant in the vineyard parcel from where the wine comes. Two wines were also shown from the newly introduced ‘Pastures Collection’, where fruit is sourced from selected vineyards.

(2022) This new wine which will sell for around £30 - £35 is sourced from Waipara Springs, on Omihi clay soils, the vines planted between 1982-1986. The remainder came from the Three Sisters Vineyard in Waipara, which was planted between 2001-2004 on gravels. Fermented with natural vineyard yeasts, it was aged in 20% new French oak barrels for 12 months. Notes of oatmeal and flint, a gentle mandarin and lemon. A delicious ripeness of subtle peach carries to the palate, joined by a streak of saline that braces and structures the finish.
(2022) Part of the fruit is from the Lowburn Ferry property purchased by Smith & Sheth. It was planted in 2000 on loess over deep silts, with lime deposits, and is in organic conversion. The second comes from an organic vineyard in the Bannockburn sub region. Fermented with natural vineyard yeasts in open-top fermenters with 15% whole bunch and aged 12 months in French oak barrels, 25% new. The wine is suffused with gentle earthy notes, a little herb or hessian character adding nuance and savouriness. The palate is sweet and svelte, but given great clarity by refined, taut structure.
(2022) Planted between 2000-2002, this tiny, south-east facing block (1,650 bottles) has clays over chalky limestone; 20-25% clay, 5-10% active lime. Foot crushed and whole bunch pressed, fermentation with vineyard yeast and aged 20 months on lees in French oak barrels, plus a further six months in steel. Fabulous bracing palate, after a gently nutty, almondy, opening. So much vibrant, lemony juiciness, crunch and crispness. Gorgeous texture in the mouth, but that absolutely steely character never falters into a long, saline finish of mouth-watering decisiveness.
(2022) A steeply inclined, east facing block boasting 30% clay, and 15-20% active lime. Foot crushed and whole bunch pressed, with vineyard yeast ferment in used French oak barrels. 20 months on lees in barrel, then six months stainless steel prior to bottling. Around 2,700 bottles produced. Subtle at first. Thrust of lemon, succulent mandarin orange fruit and acidity. Fruitier than the Field of Fire for me, but still a vin de meditation, and still showing that saline streak across the mealy flavours and texture of the finish. It's horses for courses for which you prefer between these two lovely Chardonnays.
(2022) This steep, north-facing block was planted between 2000-2002 on coarse, shallow soils that are 15% clay, 5-10% active lime. Fruit was destemmed before fermentation in tanks with yeasts from the vineyard, before being transferred to French oak cuves and barrel for 18 months. 4,850 bottles produced. Fine stripe of liquorice here giving intensity, but it's plush, with perfumed, floral-touched black fruit, cherry, plum and damson. There's a real juiciness, a jewel-like shimmer to this on the palate, energising acidity and taut tannins seeing to that.
(2022) From an expansive, east-facing slope that has 25% clay, 15% active lime. Fruit was destemmed and fermented with vineyard yeasts, before being transferred to French wooden cuves and barrels for 18 months. Around 4,850 bottles produced. Beautifully svelte and more muscular than Angel Fire perhaps. Full silky fruit, but dark, brooding and intense. So sweet and plush on the palate though, with fabulous liquorice intensity, enough earthiness and spice to add extra savouriness.

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