Wines of Pyramid Valley

I last visited Pyramid Valley back in 2011, when the estate was owned by Burgundy-trained Mike Weerisng and his wife. It was a controversial estate in many ways, farmed biodynamically and dedicated to natural wines. Some of its Pinot Noir bottlings were pale, cloudy and unconventional. Some tasters regarded them as faulty, while others loved them. As Mike Weersing got deeper and deeper into his completely ‘hands off’, natural philosophy, the wines did not become any more consistent.

Fast forward to 2017, and having left his position at the head of Craggy Range, Steve Smith MW and new business partner, US businessman Brian Sheth, created Smith & Sheth. The new business is based in Hawke’s Bay on the North Island and is focused on finding vineyards that have proved to make great wines, with a particular focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They purchased the Pyramid Valley estate, having been particularly attracted by its cool site credentials and its limestone soils – which are relatively rare in New Zealand.

Location, location, location

It was great to catch up with Steve via Zoom to taste a selection of Pyramid Valley ‘Appellation’ wines.

Though Smith & Sheth are synonymous with Hawke’s Bay on the North Island, Pyramid Vally is over 300 miles south in North Canterbury on the South Island. Steve says it was purchased specifically as a Pinot Noir property: “We’re a little bit like Ridge I suppose,” says Steve, referring to the famous Californian producer that makes single vineyard estate wines, but from two different regions.

I presumed the wines would have become more consistent, with any more obvious deficiencies ‘cleaned up’, Steve being one of the most experienced wine producers in the world. He stresses that the recipe has not changed drastically, in that Pyramid Valley is still biodynamic, and uses minimal sulphur for example, but investment has allowed them to introduce more controls on various aspects of the winemaking.

The first wine tasted was a Sauvignon Blanc – the first ever under the Pyramid Valley label – but adhering to the Pyramid Valley philosophy with minimal sulphur and no additions. It also demonstrates that the estate still does things a little differently, with some ferment on skins in old oak barrels and amphora, long lees ageing, and with Riesling and Pinot Gris in the blend. The mind-set is flexible though, not adhering to any dogma: the Chardonnay, for example, was made in oak, as Steve thought the previous recipe which used amphora was too oxidative.

A real surprise was to see an ‘orange’ wine in the line-up. Steve has been highly critical of orange wines in the past and says to an extent he is still, despite now having one of his own: “It’s true that I have no time for wines that show faults – I get criticised for that, but I hope this wine is totally valid.”

The wines show a salinity which Steve cannot explain fully, but when pressed he does note that there has never been an innoculated yeast on the property; even before it was a wine farm the farmer worked organically, and the yeast could be the source.

The Wines

Pyramid Valley is imported into the UK by Louis Latour Wine Agencies.

(2021) An arresting nose of pink grapefruit and burstingly-ripe nectarine on this Sauvignon Blanc (with some Riesling and Pinot Gris in the blend I believe) from Steve Smith's Pyramid Valley. There's a preserved lemon suggestion of firmness too, taut and bright. In the mouth so juicy: more nectarine, very ripe melon, just a hint of more exotic fruit and a fat orangey tang. Textured and creamy-rich on the mid-palate, the juicy freshness is maintained by the squeeze of grapefruit acidity and salinity in the finish. Imported into the UK by Louis Latour Agencies. Watch the video for more information and food-matching ideas.
(2021) A single vineyard wine from Chardonnay planted on gravel, and one of the warmer sites in Waipara. It is mostly whole-bunch pressed, fermented with wild yeasts, and just a small percentage sees new oak. Some of it was also foot-trodden. Lovely buttery nose, crushed almond perhaps, but a sense of richness and poise, the stone fruit aromas creamy and full. In the mouth a great saline background to this sets a savoury tone from front to back, but there is limpid texture and those ripe fruits and a hazelnut richness draped across the framework.
(2021) Fermented in a combination of amphora and stainless steel, this is 98% Pinot Gris plus just one percent each of Muscat and Gewurztraminer. Whole-bunch pressed and wild fermented, it matures for eight months in oak. The colour is quite a deep amber/orange, gently hazy, with aromas of orange and bitters - very negroni-like - with small redcurranty fruit and a subtle smoky grassiness too. Full of interest. In the mouth it is bone dry and equally fascinating. That negroni comparison continues here, the bitter orange and very grown up, Fino-like flavours and character into a long finish that always hints at fruit sweetness beneath the cloak of nutty and dry flavours.
(2021) Though this estate's exisiting Earth Smoke and Angel Flower Pinots were produced in 2018, this is a new wine introduced by Smith & Sheth. Parcels were fermented in large wooden casks and aged in them too. Red cherry and briar on the nose, a refined floral note too, but more focused on bright fruit and sweet damp earth than the more vegetal (mushroom, truffle) face of Pinot. Quite fresh and elegant on the palate too - a dry pomegranate and cranberry fruitiness, plenty of sour cherry and plum acidity and a grain to the tannins that gives a nice little bite to the profile. Quite long, well-balanced and spicy in the finish too.

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