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.”
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.