Wednesday Wines – Episode 133 – Pyramid Valley New Releases

A legendary estate reborn

It was an honour to be among the first people in the UK to taste the newly released Pyramid Valley wines with co-owner and Kiwi winemaking legend Steve Smith MW on Monday this week. Please note that my tasting notes below are not edited and are immediate reactions to the wines and Steve’s fascinating commentary.

A little history and a genuine sense of place – Mike and Claudia Weersing were not only inspirational wine pioneers, but they were also friends. When Mike passed away in November 2020, at only 55, he left an incredible vinous legacy. Pyramid Valley, in Waikari North Canterbury, has made some of the most arresting New Zealand Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs I have tasted. These are very much trade secret wines, situated off the beaten track, biodynamically farmed and made in minuscule quantities, and they were highly sought after. But despite the intrinsic qualities of the wines’ flavours, I suspect the real reason why those in the know flocked to share these wines with their loved ones was the passion, charisma and warmth of Mike and Claudia. It is often said that great wine makes itself. This is categorically untrue. It takes incredible dedication and vision to encourage the earth to play its best hand via the medium of wine, and Mike and Claudia managed this. It is exciting to share with you that Pyramid Valley has had a rebirth under the guidance of another group of extremely hardworking, skilful and steadfast souls.

Here is an excerpt taken from the Pyramid Valley website explaining its history. It is worth spending some time on this website because the level of detail recorded for every wine is incredible.

Mike and Claudia Elze Weersing spent 15 years searching the world to find this perfect place, Pyramid Valley, which they finally purchased in 2000. German-born and America-raised Claudia was a committed biodynamicist and the guiding spirit on the land in the early years of Pyramid Valley. Mike studied oenology and viticulture in Burgundy and worked in vineyards and cellars across Europe (including de Montille, Potel, Pousse d’Or, Deiss, and Loosen) as well as Neudorf in NZ, where he honed his vision and practice for spectacular winemaking. Together, Mike and Claudia created remarkable wines for nearly 20 years that have been recognised worldwide.

Fast-forward to 2017, when good friends Brian Sheth and Steve Smith realised their long-held vision of crafting impeccable wines – by purchasing Pyramid Valley. Brian and Steve were honoured to take on the estate’s legacy and create their family of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. In 2018, Estate Manager and Winemaker Huw Kinch took on the role of guiding our new chapter at Pyramid Valley. After ten years crafting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Martinborough, Huw moved south to explore a new expression of these varieties. Grown biodynamically and following natural principles in our winemaking with the use of indigenous yeasts, natural fining and minimal, if any, filtration, through our Botanicals Collection, we create wines that breathe of their place and taste of nowhere else on earth. Working with exceptional growers in Marlborough, North Canterbury and Central Otago, we also craft our Pastures and Colours Collection wines – a series of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Orange and Rosé wines that share the same sense of ‘somewhereness’ as the wines from our estate.

The newly released collections will arrive in the UK at the end of this month (28th November). Much of the stock has already found homes, so it is a matter of scouring the web, and you will, no doubt, get lucky if you hurry. The pricing listed here is my guess at the RRPs and may swing around a little, depending on the merchant.

Pyramid Valley Portfolio Overview

Colours Collection – Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc and Orange wine

Pastures Collection – Village and Single Vineyard parcels from hand-selected growers

Botanical Collection – Exclusively from the Pyramid Valley Vineyards

WHITE

2021 Pyramid Valley, Colours Collection North Canterbury Sauvignon+ (approx. £25)

All wild fermentation and any malolactic is natural. All old oak and no fining. Mike did not release a Sauvignon under his tenure, and this is Steve and Huw’s third vintage. Creamy and smooth with the old oak giving a marvellous degree of élan and composure, and then, at once, the super-grippy acid stuns the palate. There is a curious effect of the local mountain and ocean influences, bringing serious dynamic tension to the wine. The fruit seems more contained and also more concentrated than hosts of Marlborough Sauvignons. There is a definite nod to the shape and momentum of old-school Pouilly-Fumé here, and it works perfectly with this pristine North Canterbury fruit. I would go so far as to say that this is a unique take on this grape variety.  18/20

2020 Pyramid Valley, Pastures Collection North Canterbury Chardonnay (approx. £35)

This wine draws on fruit from three properties, all in Waipara. Again, this is a texturally phenomenal wine. Steve and Huw don’t like fining, so there is buoyancy and traction here that breeds stunning weight and a modicum of fruit exoticism. Any exuberance is tempered by raspy, saline acidity that snaps the palate back to order, makes the mouth water and balances the pliant fruit perfectly. This cunning acid line allows this wine to play with more fruit weight and depth than might ordinarily be the case. 18/20

2020 Pyramid Valley, Springs Chardonnay, North Canterbury (not exported)

Taken from a single plot of 40-year-old vines (thought to be the oldest in the country), this is a much more forceful and opinionated wine, and it is less flirtatious and shapely than the Pastures wine above. There is a considerable volume of fruit here, and it is leaning into a more assertive stance and yet the mineral backbone is breath-taking and, yet again, the balance is sensational. This daring wine triumphs with a terrifically long and refined finish.  18.5/20

2020 Pyramid Valley, Botanical Collection Field of Fire Chardonnay (approx. £85)

Steve explained that the Pyramid Valley site is cooler than Burgundy proper and somewhere between Burgundy and Champagne in degree days. This wine comes from the limestone/clay soils that Mike Weersing treasured. It is immediately much more bitter and challenging and we have moved to a more dramatic plane of wine experience. Lean, sour and more concentrated, there is laser-like focus here, and this superbly lean, cheetah-like wine took a remarkable two years to complete its fermentation. In the end, it didn’t quite finish malolactic – it kept ticking away! Steve noted that they played every genre of music to it to keep it occupied. The result is a wine with what I term historic Corton-Charlemagne brutality. It seems to come from an era long ago before new oak, and overripe Chardonnay was ever invented. The vineyard is only a single acre, and a couple of hundred cases were made. Still, I would do anything to own some bottles because this is a stellar example of cool climate Chardonnay at its apogee.  19/20

2020 Pyramid Valley, Botanical Collection Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay (approx. £85) 

Lion’s Tooth hails from a two-acre vineyard only 100m from Field of Fire, but this time it has more calcium and active lime in the soil, and it is more easterly facing and slightly warmer. Interestingly, the grapes ripen at the same time as Field of Fire. This is another sour lime and raucous herb-steeped wine. There is more obvious fruit intensity coupled with a more elevated ripeness level. With this larger volume of flavour, there is also more muscle and brawn. Less obviously elegant than Field of Fire, Lion’s Tooth will be a slow mover, and it will blossom in time and will end up being a glorious, full wine with whip-crack acidity stanchioning the fruit.  18.5+/20

ROSÉ

2021 Pyramid Valley, Colours Collection North Canterbury Rosé (approx. £35)

Taken from old Pinot vines on clay soils in Waipara. Steve reckons that they would struggle to ripen enough to make a decent red wine, but given they don’t have to do this for rosé production, they are the ideal ingredient in this wine. The result is a tasty, juicy, textural Pinot with much more going for it than most Loire efforts. Clean, silky and with a touch of herbaceousness to counter the strawberry and raspberry juiciness, this is a worthy wine for rosé lovers to put up against elite Provençal examples.  17.5/20

RED

2020 Pyramid Valley, Pastures Collection North Canterbury Pinot Noir (approx. £45)

All sourced from Waipara, this is a classical style that makes an effort on the nose and can’t quite keep up the performance on the palate. The perfume is undoubtedly attractive and accurate, but the taut finish is just a couple of degrees too pinched to even out fully, given time. And it does need time! Built for a five-year minimum haul, I wouldn’t bet against it gaining enough balance to become a fabulous blind-tasting bottle for the future.  17.5/20

2020 Pyramid Valley, Pastures Collection Korimako Pinot Noir (not exported)

This comes from the only North-East-facing Pinot Noir vineyard in Waipara. I am immediately taken by the cosmic cherry notes on the nose and the strident, spicy, red-fruited palate. It is much more focussed on the red fruit spectrum than the PCNCPN above. But what makes me sit up and pay attention is the trademark acidity – the same tension I found in the Chardonnays. There is stunning grip here with a superbly scratchy back end. Korimako is a stunningly layered wine, but I imagine some will find it rather difficult to love. For my part, I cannot underline just how sensational the traction is here with saltiness and abrasive tannins that make this wine sing. The alcohol is a mere 12.5%, and it reminds me of the shape of old-style (I am talking four decades ago) Gevrey-Chambertin from an era when they, too, had a genuinely cool climate. I am devastated that this wine is not making it to the UK because it would blow Pinot collectors’ minds.  18.5+/20

2020 Pyramid Valley, Pastures Collection Central Otago Pinot Noir (approx. £45)

Brian Sheth, Steve’s business partner, bought the Lowburn Ferry property in Central Otago, situated on the western side of the lake on the way to Wanaka. Half of the grapes for this wine come from this property and half from Bannockburn. This is a spot-on, generous, spicy, darker, deeper, more forward and flirty Pinot as you might expect. It is a little bit beetrooty which is not a bad thing, but it certainly lacks the nerviness and stylish stance of the North Canterbury set. Of course, one has to have a Savvy and a Central Pinot in the line-up to keep the bean counters happy, and in this regard, this is a decent wine, but it dips below the Sauvignon in terms of individuality.  17.5/20

2020 Pyramid Valley, Botanical Collection Angel Flower Pinot Noir (approx. £85) 

Wow, wow, wow. The label depicts yarrow or angel flower – found growing wild in the vineyard. And yet, ‘angel flower’ could be a two-word descriptor for this sensational wine.  Coming from a north-facing slope, with a little more clay and a little less limestone, this is an earlier ripening vineyard, and I found the nose captivating. While this is a Pinot through and through, my mind kept giving me Barbaresco flashbacks, such is the exoticism and complexity of the perfume.  This wine has the definition of an ‘aerial nose’, which might sound trite, but it almost immediately becomes part of the air above and around the glass and it seems not to fade. It grows, and you can taste it by inhaling it – this is a remarkably aromatic wine. The fruit and flower notes are captivating, and in common with the Chardonnays, the texture is epic, ethereal, super-long and refined. The acidity teases at your cheeks, and the stunning tannins rake the palate into purple and red furrows. With less than 10% new oak and all large formats employed, this is a genuine Pyramid Valley terroir wine and one I imagine Mike would be incredibly proud of because it captures this site and his vision to perfection. Steve tells me that Claudia continues to act as an ambassador for these wines, and I imagine that 2020 Angel Flower must fill her with an incredible sense of pride.  19+/20

2020 Pyramid Valley, Botanical Collection Earth Smoke Pinot Noir (approx. £85)

Sitting beside Lion’s Tooth and picked a week to ten days later, this is imperceptibly richer and a tone or two darker than Angel Flower. With a more elemental stance on the palate, again, the name of the wine is truly evocative of its flavour. That it is named after a weed found growing wild in the vineyard is borderline unbelievable, but it’s true. In the same way that Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay was tougher and more unyielding than Field of Fire, Earth Smoke is the more belligerent and belligerent of the Pinot pair. Backward and this time more akin to a brooding, square-cut Morey-Saint-Denis, this wine needs ages but will be utterly astonishing when it finally falls into equilibrium.  19+/20