There's limestone in them Waikari Hills, a rock that's behind some of the world's finest wines and for winegrowers is akin to gold.
It's over a decade since the promise of the soil attracted viticultural prospectors to this small North Canterbury region. Their first wave of expressive wines has established it as one of the country's most exciting wine regions.
"The reason for being here is the lime-stone," explains Marcel Giesen who, with partner Sherwyn Veldhuizen, planted the region's first vineyard, Bell Hill, in an old limestone quarry containing a prized "active" type of the rock, whose sheer intensity created challenges as well as offering promise.
They show me a bare hillside block where riesling vines failed to thrive in the alkaline environment. They're giving the spot one last shot with sauvignon blanc. Pinot noir and chardonnay have proven a far bigger success. They have a history of excelling on limestone in Burgundy; Bell Hill's expressions have become some of the most sought-after examples in the country.
"There was a lot of risk at the outset," acknowledges Veldhuizen. "We have only been able to recognise in the last few years that we have a good site, which we didn't know then. Now the site is doing the talking, with its thread running through the wines despite differences in vintage."
It was a similar gamble for Mike Weersing at Pyramid Valley, despite the fact he spent years researching and scouring New Zealand and overseas to find a spot with the perfect combination of soil and aspect. "I was confi- dent the soil was special," he says. "But in the vine regions of Europe they've had hundreds of years of trial and error before it became clear what places and varieties worked.
"However, we've been making wine here long enough now to know that the wine that comes from here doesn't taste like a wine from any other place. Another voice has been added to the chorus of great sites," he observes, describing his intriguingly individual wines that have fast achieved cult status as having "flesh and generosity from the clay in the soil, while the high level of active limestone provides tension and salinity".
What makes Waikari's wines so exciting is that each vineyard displays its unique signature while exhibiting the classic lime-stone characters of crystalline acid and minerality. These characters can also be found in the wines of the region's third, final and smallest vineyard, Arden.
Farmers Trudy and Robin McMillan were spurred to investigate suitable sites on their estate following an unsuccessful search for a place to grow vines by a neighbour. They struck lime and were assisted by Giesen in setting up their one acre pinot noir vineyard in 2003.
Giesen made their first couple of vintages until Theo Coles took over. Coles is thrilled to be making wines from such a special site, wines that exhibit a limestone character he likens to "liquid rock". "There are a heap of unexplored areas and the potential for North Canterbury to become the Burgundy of the South."
These include more sites on the Arden property, which he'd like to see planted. How-ever, the McMillans are keen to keep things small so they can continue to do most of the vineyard work themselves.
Given most of Waikari's potential viticultural land is locked up in the large unsubdividable holdings that make up the region, small is also the size Waikari is likely to stay. Small, but perfectly formed, creating rare and distinctive wines from the buried treasure within its hills.
WONDERS OF THE WAIKARI
Pyramid Valley Earth Smoke Pinot Noir 2011 $120
One of the great pinot noirs of New Zealand, Pyramid Valley's Earth Smoke is true to its name, with earthy, smoky notes consistently present in this distinctively savoury, umami-rich expression. These are joined by notes of dark berry fruit, spice and an intriguing hint of seashell, supported by silky acids and fine chalky tannins. From Accent On Wine, Caro's, Great Little Vineyards and Glengarry.
Bell Hill Chardonnay 2010 $85
Richer notes of white peach and butterscotch are beautifully counterpoised by delicate notes of white flowers and fennel and the intense line of grapefruit and mineral that drives one of the country's finest chardonnays. Available by mail order from bellhill.co.nz.
Arden No 3 Limestone Pinot Noir 2011 $45
Pure notes of bottled plum are infused with notes of rose and herb in this pretty, poised wine. These are underpinned by an exhilarating crispness that leads to a long flourish of mineral. From ardenwine.co.nz.