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 ;