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Pyramid Valley

pyramid-valley.jpgMore than any other vineyard I’ve had the privilege to visit, Pyramid Valley has a sense of place - everything about it and all it embodies stems from its geographic location.  Walking through the vineyards on the property there is a feeling of energy, of synergy, of balance.  Perhaps it’s the fact I’ve got Claudia beside me, pointing out nuances, intricacies and subtle happenings in her very holistic, considered, positive manner, but I like to think there’s more to it than mere suggestiveness on her part!

What makes listening to Claudia all the more remarkable is that prior to planting here some ten years ago, she was a biodynamic-sceptic.  Yet today both she and the vines themselves speak volumes of the benefits of a careful, harmonious and thoughtful approach to winemaking.

In the late 1990s Mike and Claudia Weersing, via California, Burgundy and Spain, came to the Canterbury region of New Zealand.  Here after many years of searching they found what they were looking for - hillside slopes on limestone soils with a northern aspect in a climatically-suitable area.  Around 300 acres were for sale on a road Mike knew well, Pyramid Valley Road, and everything followed from there.

Over the next few years, four separate blocks were planted, two each to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Extremely close-planted (between 10,000 and 12,000 vines per hectare - New Zealand’s densest plantings) mostly on own-roots (about 2% are grafted on to rootstock) to a clonal mix, they have been raised from their inception biodynamically, and over the years ever more strictly.

Three of the blocks are north-facing, the ‘Lion’s Tooth’ Chardonnay, ‘Earth Smoke’ Pinot Noir and ‘Field Of Fire’ Chardonnay.  The fourth block, ‘Angel Flower’ Pinot Noir is east-facing, further around the hillside.  All are named for the weeds most commonly found within the blocks.  The soils are mostly clay on limestone, although they do vary subtly both within and from vineyard to vineyard.  They are quite high in altitude, planted on the hillsides some 20 or more kilometres from most of the Waipara plantings on the valley plains.pv-bottles.jpg

Future plantings are likely - Mike and Claudia have identified what they believe will make their best site - but for the time being they are eagerly awaiting their existing blocks to reach maturity and produce ‘normal’ fruit quantities.  Whilst some irrigation was utilised to establish the vines, they are unirrigated now.  The vineyards receive around 650mm of rainfall a year.

The various ‘Grower Collection’ sites are all leased on long-term arrangements, the Weersings having been burnt once before, losing what they considered the country’s oldest and best clone of Gewurztraminer (only a single vintage, 2007, was produced before the vines were removed).  They pay a set amount each year, irrespective of whatever volumes they are able to take each year, and are able to direct all aspects of viticulture - allowing them to pursue their biodynamic principles on their non-estate fruit.  Mike specifically seeks unusual, predominantly white, varieties. 

Special mention should be given to the Calvert Vineyard in Central Otago, where the fruit is shared equally between Felton Road, Craggy Range and Pyramid Valley.  All three produce noteworthy wines, showing differences in winemaking and handling - an interesting comparison in terms of winemaking philosophies.

As will come as no surprise, an obsession with quality manifests itself when it comes to the winemaking process.  All the fruit is destemmed by hand, a painstaking process that takes incredible dedication and intensive labour.  About two weeks prior to harvest a bucket of fruit is taken from each block an the natural yeasts present within each vineyard that year are allowed to commence fermentation naturally.  This ‘starter’ is then used a fortnight later when the rest of the fruit is harvested.  Picking is done without significant testing - physiological ripeness, especially seed ripeness is determined by Mike and Claudia.  Harvest is undertaken in each vineyard at once, so there is naturally a slight variation in degree of ripeness within bunches and berries.  Claudia specifically likes the added complexity this gives.  Any underripe or otherwise damaged fruit is discarded.  Fermentation continues at its own, often slow pace, and the wines are racked into tank and bottled when ready.  Two years on and the 2008 Chardonnays are only just being prepared for bottling, whilst the Pinot Noirs are already bottled and approaching release.

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