Soil mapping helps winemakers create top tipples

Pyramid Valley vineyard, North Canterbury, showing the four discrete grape-growing plots set among the arid landscape.

In fact about 15 years ago now retired soil scientist Dr Philip Tonkin helped dig thousands of holes over land near Waikari for Pyramid Valley owners Mike and Claudia Elze Weersing in a bid to find the magic mix of limestone and clay. Pyramid’s managing director Caine Thompson said Mike Weersing had spent years searching for the perfect site to grow burgundy-style (pinot noir) and chardonnay grapes. Once he decided on an 80-hectare block at Waikari, Weersing still had to refine the process, because only a small percentage of the land had precisely the correct elements. After exhaustive digging, Tonkin and Weersing established that just 2.2 ha, in four individual blocks across the property, offered what was required. Thompson said the soils were unique. Cattle are run on the remaining land.

Tonkin first began mapping the soils 20 years ago, culminating in a report on the region that has just been presented to winegrowers and makers at a seminar at Black Estate winery. Today the Waipara region is home to at least 70 vineyards growing on distinctive landforms and in an impressive variety of soils, with the Omihi Valley having some of the most fertile in New Zealand.Associate Professor Roland Harrison, director of Lincoln’s centre for viticulture and oenology, said  winemakers could use the information not only to learn about the best areas to plant, but also to use in marketing their wines. “Looking at the whole geology of an area is useful for understanding and telling the ‘story’ of a vineyard. Celebrating differences and variety and diversity is crucial for marketing and the landscape here reflects these,” Harrison said.

The concept of “terroir” – the relationship between wine and the parent materials in which vines grow – was well-recognised by wine growers, winemakers and consumers, although it is tenuous and at times merely anecdotal. However soil attributes were relevant to heat, water storage and drainage, and in this way influence wine qualities. “We are better off thinking about what soil does, for example its influence on growth, than simply about the rocks from which the soils are derived,” Harrison said.

The report was put together over the last two years by Tonkin, associate Professor Peter Almond, current head of the Soil and Physical Sciences Department, Trevor Webb from Landcare Research, and other scientists. Tonkin hopes it will be a blueprint for what can be achieved in other winemaking areas.

Where to find some of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir

Wine Country
. By Ray Isle. Executive Wine Editor. Food and Wine Magazine. Posted November 20, 2015

After Pedro’s, I did what many Christchurchian day-trippers do on weekends, which is drive out to the North Canterbury wine region (though most locals probably don’t stuff themselves with four pounds of roast lamb first). Getting there takes about 
45 minutes to an hour—it’s less than the distance from San Francisco to Napa Valley. And there’s a good reason to go: In its Waipara Valley subzone, North Canterbury produces some of the best Pinot Noirs and Rieslings in New Zealand.

Unlike Napa Valley, though, North Canterbury still feels bucolic. Its history as a sheep-farming center isn’t long past, as wine grapes were only planted here in the early 1980s. Nor is it crowded, though almost every winery has a tasting room (or cellar door, to use the New Zealand term). The local vibe 
is more one of people taking their time and chatting casually with the winery owner, who’s as likely to be pouring as any other employee.

Despite its proximity to the city, North Canterbury was barely affected by the Christchurch quake, though at Pegasus Bay, my first stop and one of the closest wineries to the city, winemaker Mat Donaldson did have a few disconcerting moments. “I was in our cellar when it happened,” he told me. “All the barrel stacks started swaying back and forth. But then it quieted down…except for this eerie swishing in the silence of all the wine in the barrels.”

We were standing in the cellar when he said this, those same stacks of 
wine barrels rising 15 feet above us 
on all sides. I have to admit I felt a momentary urge to just set down my glass and step safely outside. But 
we hadn’t gotten to tasting Pegasus Bay’s top Riesling yet, and given how good the others had been, the off chance of being smashed like a bug by 
a 900-pound barrel full of wine seemed a reasonable risk.

Food & Wine:
© Pyramid Valley Vineyards photos by Hetta Malone and Dean McKenzie

As the day wore on, I headed up-valley through the tiny town of Waipara itself onto Omihi Road. Many of the region’s best wineries are here, their vineyards sloping up to the east toward the Teviotdale Hills. The hills provide shelter from the ocean winds (the region is only about three miles from the Pacific coast), and their clay-limestone soils are exactly the kind that Pinot Noir loves—part of why the best Waipara Pinots can go up against any other region’s in the world.

Stylistically, Waipara Pinots are less fruity and straightforward than those of Central Otago, New Zealand’s most famous Pinot Noir region (or those of, say, the Russian River Valley in Sonoma). “They’re far more Old World in style, though I hate using that term,” Nicholas Brown, the winemaker at Black Estate told me. “More restrained and savory.” That was certainly true of his wines, which I tasted in the winery’s flower-filled café along with some locally sourced Akaroa salmon. And, while I’ve begun to feel lately that soon the only restaurant left in the world that’s not “locally sourced” is going to be Jack in the Box, taking a sip of good Pinot Noir while gazing across 
at New Zealand’s snowcapped Southern Alps reduced my cynicism level very quickly.
I drank a series of impressive 
wines as I continued along the line 
of the hills (a quick top three: Mountford, Greystone, Bellbird Spring), but for a combination of sheer 
beauty and great wine, I’d point anyone toward Pyramid Valley Vineyards. Tucked away in the more inland Waikari subregion, Pyramid Valley was founded by Mike and Claudia Weersing in 2000 and is the kind of step-over-the-dogs-to-get-
to-the-tasting-room place that always seems to me the platonic ideal of what a truly artisanal winery ought 
to be. More important than the inviting feel, though, are the amazing wines, the result of Mike Weersing’s Burgundian training combined with the exceptional fruit from Pyramid Valley’s tiny hillside vineyard. I was sipping the floral, gorgeously detailed 2013 Angel Flower Pinot Noir when Claudia Weersing said, “Oh, you have to see this!”

She pulled open the doors to the winery’s barrel room. There, covering the back wall, was an 8-by-26-foot mural: blue skies, strange cabalistic signs, geometric designs in brilliant purples, golds and oranges. It was a surreal moment, like walking 
through a magic door right back into Christchurch. The moment 
wasn’t made any less surreal by Claudia saying, as if it made perfect sense, “More pork. And yikes.”

I must have looked baffled, because she added, “Those are the artists 
who painted it—Morpork and Yikes. They’re a pair of street artists in 
the city. We commissioned the mural when we were building the 
winery.” It was as if I’d come full circle, from city to country and 
back again. The only thing left to do was finish my wine.

Where to Taste 
A few of the best wineries in the North Canterbury region, about an hour from Christchurch:

Black Estate:  Restrained Pinots, Chardonnays and Rieslings plus a superb café focusing on local ingredients.

Mountford:  Some of the region’s best Pinot Noirs and lovely flower gardens are the draw here.

Pegasus Bay:  The winery’s château-style building is also home 
to its award-winning restaurant.

Pyramid Valley:  Book ahead to taste the amazing Pinots and

Where to Stay

 The 53-room hotel overlooks Hagley Park and is walking distance from the Central Business District. From $242 per night;

WINE COUNTRY: Limestone Hills Guests at this vineyard estate’s quaint cottage in Amberley can go truffle-hunting with owner Gareth Renowden’s hound, Rosie. $200 per night ;

VIVA – New Zealand Herald – Pyramid Valley Angel Flower Pinot Noir 2012 – Top 10 Best wines of 2015 & Top Pinot Noir

top 10

The 10 Best Wines

The pick of the crop were chosen purely for their quality and individuality

By Jo Burzynska

What an exciting time the past 12 months have been for wine. I’ve certainly been spoiled for choice when putting together this annual list of the wines I’ve found the most thrilling.

I’ve been wowed at the new heights scaled by local favourites such as pinot noir and chardonnay, elevated further by a series of strong vintages.

I’ve been intrigued by the emergence of more left-field styles as winemakers start to push boundaries. And I’ve been impressed by the increasingly diverse array of wines we’re now seeing from overseas.

These are all represented here in a selection of currently available wines that cover different regions, varieties, styles, producers and prices.

They reflect the best of what New Zealand wine drinkers are enjoying today, while showcasing the most successful examples of new styles emerging.

Some are new launches; others established classics; all are outstanding examples of their kind, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

My top 10 wines of the year — a selection of different styles — were chosen purely for their quality and individuality.


Pyramid Valley Vineyards ‘Angel Flower’ Canterbury Pinot Noir 2012 $120
Mike and Claudia Weersing have been making some of the country’s most compelling wines from their very special North Canterbury site. The 2012 vintage is another step up, with the Angel Flower pinot noir from its north-facing clay-limestone slope the top pinot I’ve tried in the past year. It’s a delicate, beautifully perfumed wine, redolent of rosehips, rose and herbs, with a gossamer-textured palate of red cherries, plums and a subtle, savoury, gamey undercurrent, supported by a silky acidity and fine-grained tannins. From Great Little Vineyards, Fine Wine Delivery Company.

Rebecca Gibb: My New Zealand Red of the Year 2014

Earth Smoke Pinot Noir 2009 3.11024 x 4.25197 inches

Think New Zealand red, think Pinot Noir but there’s more to New Zealand red wine than one variety: some of the best reds I’ve reviewed over the past 12 months reflect New Zealand’s ability to produce classy Bordeaux styles as well as sexy Syrah, particularly in the warmer climes of Hawke’s Bay.

When it comes to Pinot Noir, Central Otago is the must-have region on most wine lists but quality abounds across the country with key players in the Martinborough and Waipara regions, in particular, continuing to impress in 2014.

My wine of the year was a five year-old Pinot from Canterbury’s Pyramid Valley that is ripe for drinking now. Be quick if you want to get your hands on a bottle as there’s not much left.

Here are My Seven Superlative Reds reviewed in the past 12 months…

Pyramid Valley, Earth Smoke, Pinot Noir 2009, North Canterbury
Hailing from Waikari in North Canterbury, 2009 was the warmest year owner-operators Mike and Claudia Weersing had experienced in their 9 years on the farm. Yet the wine remains delicate and ethereal. It is now a cloudy garnet in the glass, showing its 5 years of age. The flavours are alluring, offering up smoky notes, game and plum fruit but it is the silken texture that really impresses. And, while it is incredibly delicate and light bodied, it manages to combine this with mahoosive density of fruit, pointing to the site’s low yields. This is all topped off with fine chalky tannins. Well done guys.


The Wine Advocate’s Latest Reviews of Pyramid Valley Vineyards by Lisa Perrorti-Brown

Wine Advocate logo

You may think you know New Zealand wines but I can assure you that until you have tasted Pyramid Valley, you have no idea. When I first sampled the earliest releases from this left-of-center producer, I was so drawn to the signature, ground-breaking if, at that time, not altogether flawless wines that I vowed to pay them a visit as soon as possible (which, given their location, is easier said than done). There was a spark of “otherness” about the wines that was so unlike anything else in New Zealand, it was difficult to say if proprietors Mike and Claudia Weersing were geniuses or mad or mad geniuses. I’m still kinda thinking there’s an element of the latter going on here but at least my first visit in 2011 and follow-up visit this year have confirmed to me that they are most definitely wine geniuses.

Having searched New Zealand for their ideal plot of land to produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of the very highest quality, the Weersings were tempted by comradery to plant amongst their friends in Central Otago. But it was the unique, clay-limestone soils and scarp slopes near Waikari in North Canterbury that stole their hearts. In 2000 they planted vines in one of New Zealand’s newest and remotest wine regions…so new and remote it still doesn’t really have a name other than “North Canterbury”. Claudia is the biodynamic green-thumb and Mike is the Burgundian trained winemaker in this small-scale, hands-on operation. Everything in the fields and winery is as natural as natural can be and anyone who has followed the wines over the years will know, from tasting if not knowledge, that Mike has tested the boundaries of no / low sulfur additions and now seems to have a knack for adding just-enough to ensure stability without compromising the couples’ ethics. The results speak for themselves: astonishingly good, terroir-expressive wines that will challenge all your preconceptions.

Pyramid Valley was my most impressive visit this trip to New Zealand and indeed of all my Australia / New Zealand visits this year. I cannot shout enough about the dedication and diligence of Claudia and Mike Weersing, not to mention the special little patches of terroir they’ve carved out of nowhere (honestly), but then I don’t have to rave too much because the results are patently clear for anyone who tastes their most recent releases – the 2012s. Forget that they’re biodynamic and all the trials and tribulations of the past with no / low sulphur wines plus the use of bespoke amphorae, which are made of clay layered with beeswax covered with a stainless steel lid, to make the wines; their lengths and unconventional methods are simply means (however you want to read them) to a worthwhile end. These latest releases are wines of great purity, singularity and complexity and come highly recommended. I can’t wait to keep following these guys”!

Home Collection

Lions Tooth Chardonnay 2012            95+ points

Field of Fire Chardonnay 2012           93+ points

Lions Tooth Chardonnay 2011            96 points

Field of Fire Chardonnay 2011            92+ points

Angel Flower Pinot Noir 2011             95   points

Earth Smoke Pinot Noir 2011             92   points

Angel Flower Pinot Noir 2012            94+ points

Earth Smoke Pinot Noir 2012            93+ points

Growers Collection

Moteo Chenin Blanc 2013                  90+ points

Kerner Pinot Blanc 2012                     91+ points

Calvert Pinot Noir 2012                      90  points

Howell Cabernet Franc 2013             91  points