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Visiting New Zealand's wine regions 
Part 18: Bell Hill

bsite: www.bellhill.co.nz
Bell Hill Vineyard Ltd, P.O. Box 24, Waikari 7442, North Canterbury, New Zealand, Ph: +64 3 379 4374

The final appointment on my whistlestop New Zealand tour was a fitting end to a memorable trip. It was with Marcel Giesen and Sherwyn Veldhuizen (above), the husband and wife team behind Bell Hill.

Located close to Pyramid Valley Vineyards in Waikari (in the hills inland from the Waipara region, close to Christchurch) this is another Bugundian-inspired domaine based on a remarkable vineyard site. As you can see from the pictures, the soils are incredibly chalky, and are planted with tight spacing.

‘This area is unique’, says Marcel. ‘All the soil in the Weka Pass area is dervived from limestone, and this is what drew us here.’ Marcel (who is one of the Giesen family who have an eponymous winery) and Sherwyn first planted here in 1997, and in subsequent years planted further blocks. They use mechanical cultivation. As well as limestone, there is some limestone-derived clay here. Some of the vineyard plots are just limestone, while some have a significant B horizon of dense clay.

‘When we started we knew we’d have problems with plant material’, says Marcel. ‘The only vaguely lime tolerant rootstock available at the time was 420A.’ The problem with chalky/limestone soils is poor availability of iron, which leads to chlorosis in the vine leaves. This manifests itself as a paler than normal foliage colour. And Bell Hill does have a problem with chlorosis, especially where 420A is used as a rootstock.

As well as planting 10 000 grafted vines, they have also planted 1400 on their own roots. They’d still like to plant more blocks, but the problem has been waiting for the right plant material. The hillside plot has been planted with Ruggeri 140 rootstock which is limestone and drought tolerant, and is proving to be ideal for this site, which is why they are waiting for it. ‘We’ve got big orders in with the nursery, but they haven’t been able to supply because somehow the [Ruggeri] rootstock doesn’t graft well’, explains Marcel. ‘We had an order in for 10 000 plants and so far have just received 1300, so we are drip feeding the planting process’.

This is a small scale venture, with the model being to plant 6 acres of vines that at 2 tons/acre that will yield 1000 cases of wine. So far, 10 years on, just 1 hectare has been planted. ‘It’s a good think we have had to wait’, says Marcel. ‘Naturally, we are impatient. It has been a real test of our patience to develop things slower than we’d have hoped for.’

However impressive looking the vineyard may be, the truth is in the wines. And these really are remarkable wines, if these barrel samples from the 2007 vintage are anything to go by. It’s a shame they are made in such small quantities, but the impact of wines like these extends beyond the limited opportunities for people to taste them, because I think they really do extend the boundaries of what is possible. (Apparently, 2007 was quite a forward vintage, while 2006 here is big and structured.)  

Bell Hill Chardonnay 2007
Just one barrel made, a 1 year old barrel. Lovely full, bright minerally wine with high acidity and real focus. There’s a delightful nutty core: tightwound, with great acidity. Very mineral. 92–94/100. Marcel and Sherwyn are looking for acidity and minerality, and say that the experimental debut 2002 Chardonnay is still drinking well.

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2007 Quarry Block
Wonderfully pure and aromatic, with red fruits and a hint of cherry. Good depth, focus and purity. Brilliantly pure, structured palate with great focus. Intense, fresh and elegant. 93–95

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2007 Quarry Block, vines planted on their own roots
Sweet, rich aromatic nose showing red fruits and some new oak influence. The palate shows really fresh acid structure and lovely purity of fruit. ‘The tannins are more grainy and spatial, and the wine is more earth driven in the aromatics’, says Marcel. There’s great elegance here. 93–95/100

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2007 Limeworks Block
Focused pure, slightly earthy red fruit aromatics with depth. A bit reductive? The palate is fresh with good acidity and structure. There’s a pure fruit focus here. They describe this as muscular rather than elegant. 92–94/100

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2007 The Shelf, top block
Pure, focused, deep. Not as bright aromatically, but there’s some elegance and depth. The palate has tight, dense structure with lovely purity of fruit. Bright and intense. Firm yet elegant with lots of weight. 93–95/100 ‘Up there we get the best tannins’, says Marcel. ‘The seeds are beautiful.

Wines tasted 11/07  
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