A Californian’s take on New Zealand Pinot
Sunday 17 January
So, my Wine of the Week is Pyramid Valley’s 2008 Earthsmoke Pinot Noir. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve tasted from New Zealand but then they’re doing things a little bit differently here.
The Burgundy-trained Californian, Mike Weersing, has been biodynamic since planting in this virgin territory in 2000. Before coming to New Zealand, he lived in a camper van “cadging” jobs off his heroes: Alsace’s Jean Michel Deiss, the Mosel’s Ernie Loosen and Burgundy’s Nicolas Potel. People thought he was mad leaving his winemaking job at Neudorf to set up in the unknown Pyramid Valley but he seems to have proven the sceptics wrong.
What is it that makes his wines so different to the rest of the country? Perhaps it’s the soil. Weersing said, “We could not locate the combination of clay and limestone anywhere else in Waipara.”
Or could the explanation lie in low crops? The two-hectare vineyard planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is planted at an Old World density of 1m by 0.8m with only 400g of fruit per vine. Elsewhere, it’s common to see 3.5kg of fruit on a vine – and 5kg for Sauvignon Blanc. The concentration comes through in the wines.
What’s more, 95% of his vines are ungrafted and he has found that those that are grafted on to American roostocks are the first to suffer drought. He’s also discovered that the roots of the ungrafted vines can penetrate the limestone whereas the grafted ones get to the limestone and stop burrowing down, missing out on all the mineral goodness of the limestone. While most would worry about the threat of phylloxera, this vineyard is pretty isolated and Weersing has little concern about the vine louse.
Weersing doesn’t irrigate either unlike many other New Zealand grape growers. In Marlborough, some producers on free-draining gravel soils have told me they irrigate twice a day with 400mm of water at the height of summer. But this goes against his idea of terroir. “You are not just expressing the soil, you are expressing the season,” he says, “ and if there’s a bit of drought stress then so be it. For example, if you love Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, you want to see it in all its manifestations.”
He makes his wines in a shipping container rather than a swanky winery. He doesn’t add anything including sulphur (until bottling) and when he does bottle his reds, he doesn’t fine nor filter, so expect a slightly cloudy wine but with all the good bits still in it. Considering his wines have a high pH (4.1 for his 08 Pinot Noir), this should mean that the wines are really unstable and prone to microbial spoilage. It goes against all the wine books that his wines should work. But they do.
Some people might think Weersing’s a hippy. Perhaps he is, but who cares? The wines are impressive and I’m slowly coming around to biodynamics. The proof is in the glass.
The hill debate continues
Thursday 14 January
Last month after visiting Waipara for the first time, I noticed that the vast majority of vines were planted on the flat gravel lands while there were plenty of hillsides sitting unplanted. Coming from a European viewpoint, I questioned whether there was lots of untapped potential.
This led to an interesting debate with Brian Bicknell of Marlborough’s Mahi wines. While vines in Europe are planted on slopes mainly to find less vigorous soils, achieve better drainage, and a better aspect to the sun, he commented: “the weird thing is that the situation here is nearly exactly opposite [to Europe] as the valley floors were rivers only a couple of hundred years ago so certainly in Marlborough, and I believe in Waipara, the free-draining soils are on the valley floors. The silts and clay soils in most cases are still on the hills so it is quite a different situation to that of Europe.”
I’d heard about a winery in Waipara, Pyramid Valley, 15 minutes drive west into the hills, that was planting on limestone slopes with excellent results, so I headed up there to see what their view is on this whole hill thing.
Mike Weersing, a Burgundy-trained Californian, and his partner Claudia, planted the two hectare vineyard in 2000, after searching Europe, California and New Zealand for a place to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We wanted to add a new terroir to the world that could say something about the place via the grape,” he said. They found parcels of clay and limestone and there’s still plenty of virgin land on the property to be planted.
So what’s his take on the hill thing?
“Historically it’s been easier to plant on the flat and producers like the wines they are making enough, so they don’t have the incentive to plant up the hills,” he says.
“They would make more interesting wines and they would have one-hundredth of the water needs of the vines on the flat gravels” He says this because clays on the hills retain water better than free-draining gravel, adding “the country is going to deplete its water resources with so much irrigation. We don’t have to irrigate on the clay slopes.”
So, is it laziness and complacency that is to blame for people heading up into the hills? Well at the moment, there is very little planting due to the oversupply and recession. When the financial crisis finally draws to a close, will there be more people looking upwards? Yes, it’s going to be more expensive to work, so it would only be for premium players but there could be lots of new and interesting wines made.
In Hawkes Bay, the Glazebrook hills surround the main grape growing area – the Heretaunga plains. According to Rod Easthope, chair of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association, they offer some new good-looking terroirs for the local producers. “There’s potential all through the hills with limestone. It’s elevated so they don’t suffer frost. But they are always going to be an adjunct to what people are doing now,” he said.
In my next blog, more on Pyramid Valley and its unfined and unfiltered biodynamic wines.
Minimum pricing won’t work
Monday 11 January
Once again, the question of problem drinking and how to remedy it has reared its head in the UK. Not that it ever went away, but last week the Government’s Health Select Committee got together to publish its report calling for minimum pricing for alcohol, so it has come to the fore. Again.
The committee’s report estimated that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol would save 3,000 deaths a year. Do these “‘expert health professionals” not realise that if people are going to drink excessively, they will regardless of price. Shouldn’t the government be spending money on making it shameful to get pissed every weekend rather than taking the easy way out with a tax per unit? It lacks foresight and it won’t work.
According to the UK Wine and Spirit Trade Association, government statistics show that 7% of the population drink 33% of the alcohol in the UK, so it is these problem drinkers who need to be targeted. Sticking more money on a bottle of wine or beer, destined for the Treasury’s coffers, sticks the knife further into the drinks trade, which is having a tough enough time as it is. It is not much of a vote winner and the latest polls show Gordon Brown, who has rejected the idea of minimum pricing in the past, needs all the help he can get.
However the report also states: “We are concerned that government policies are much closer to, and too influenced by, those of the drinks industry and the supermarkets than those of expert health professionals.” What a load of rubbish. While I may be biased, the drinks industry is bending over backwards to align itself with responsible drinking campaigns – Drinkaware, The Portman Group etc. It is also lining the Government’s pockets with taxes and duty at a time when exchange rates and the recession is slashing its bottom line.
But in the words of Monty Python, we should always look on the bright side of life: Russia is currently being threatened with a state monopoly to curb alcoholism problems. At least we won’t have to go down to the State booze shop to get a bottle of wine.
Where’s all the Sauvignon?
Wednesday 6 January
Crikey, who’d have thought it would be so difficult to get a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand?
I am currently searching for a South African, Chilean and Loire Sauvignon for a Master of Wine tasting practice with Lynnette Hudson, winemaker at Pegasus Bay. But it is proving rather difficult. I called respected merchant Vino Fino in Christchurch and they could only help me out with the Sancerre - but it will cost me $52 (£23) for the privilege. When you’re such a strong Sauvignon player, the assistant told me, you can’t sell Sauvignons from the rest of the world. I guess it’s the same in most wine-producing countries. New Zealand’s wines are of an enviable standard but it’s a shame people aren’t able to try styles beyond their borders.
I was clearly spoiled for choice in London where the local independent merchant would always have something from Leyda, Stellenbosch and Touraine on the shelves. Unfortunately you don’t realise how lucky you are until you move away.
Now I am horribly aware that trying to do tasting practice for the MW in the UK is a) less hassle and b) cheaper than doing it elsewhere - although living costs and exorbitant travel fares add up (£4.10 for a single on the tube is a joke, Boris).
So, if anyone from the UK is coming over to Auckland, could you stick a bottle of Rueda/Argentine Torrontes/anything from South Africa in your luggage for me?
Sunday 3 January
On my tour of New Zealand’s wine regions, there have been a few wineries pulling out a surprise wine or two from Waitaki. Where the hell is that? Until I landed here a month ago, I’d never even heard of this region but from what I’ve since tasted, it is worth getting excited about. I’m planning on heading down there in the next few weeks to see what’s going on but here’s the latest.
Waitaki is in north Otago and is really pushing it in terms of viticultural possibility. A handful of growers have been attracted here in search of the next central Otago – a cool climate and the holy grail of soils: limestone. However, this region showed how susceptible it is to the elements in 2007 with a virtually non-existent crop. Cool weather and winds can ruin flowering and towards harvest, grapes can struggle to ripen.
The region’s pioneer, Howard Paterson, planted his first vines at the start of this century with John Forrest of Marlborough-based Forrest Wines making the first wine from the grapes - the 2003 Doctors Creek Pinot Noir. It’s still showing well six years later with a nose of peppery spice, Worcestershire sauce, smoked sausage and tarragon. For a first crop, it had real depth and lovely texture. Paterson sadly passed away before he could taste the fruits of his labour but he has left a legacy with around eight wineries now producing Waitaki wines and producer Pasquale opening the region’s first winery and cellar door at Kurow in November.
You’ll find surprisingly taut yet textured Pinot Gris; intense and bony Riesling; peppery and damson-ey Pinot Noir with a minerally almost chalky quality, plus Gewurz and Chardonnay.
Rod Easthope, winemaker at Craggy Range, which makes a few Waitaki stunners under the Otago Station label, says, “It’s ridiculously on the edge because in some years, we are not going to make any wine there.”
“They could be another Riesling/ Pinot Gris/Sauvignon Blanc region competing with the rest so I’ve suggested that each producer does an aromatic white blend not a varietal as the region’s USP.”
That’s a snapshot of Waitaki for you. More soon…