Bell Hill, one of New Zealand’s finest producers

chardonnay new zealand pinot noir

Bell Hill, one of New Zealand’s finest producers

marcel sherwyn bell hill

I just love the wines of Bell Hill, a boutique winery in Waikari, North Canterbury, New Zealand (not far from the Waipara Valley). I visited seven years ago on my first trip to New Zealand, and was blown away by the wines and the vineyard. So I was really pleased to catch up with owners Marcel Giesen and Sherwyn Veldhuizen who were visiting London.

My first question I had for them was: why  has no one else established vineyards in the Waikari since Bell Hill and neighbours Pyramid Valley started out over a decade and a half ago? The success of these two suggests that this is a special place for wine grapes. ‘The two vineyards chose to have over 10 000 plants/hectare,’ says Sherwyn. ‘Anyone coming in would have to step up to that to be seen as being an equal.’ But she adds: ‘There are lots of little pockets of land begging to be planted.’

‘We first bought the property 18 years ago this month. We signed up for the land one day and got married the next.’ At this stage they got first right of refusal on the neighbouring land, so expansion in the future isn’t out of the question. The model was to make 1000 cases a year, but there are significant yield fluctuations because of cold weather in the spring time. There are some younger plantings from 2007 and 2009 that are now coming on stream, which will help satiate some of the demand for these wines.

In the 2015 growing season the drought conditions were a challenge. Up until Christmas the Waipara experienced the coldest period on record followed by the hottest. They were frost protecting five nights out of seven, which is very rare.

Marcel is preoccupied with the family business, Giesen Wines. They live in Christchurch, but Sherwyn spends most of her time at Bell Hill, while Marcel is all over the place. The family company is going very well at the moment.

How did they find Bell Hill in the first place? ‘We found it for ourselves,’ says Sherwyn. ‘We knew we weren’t interested in windblown loess. We travelled through the Weka Pass. We did some title searches then picked up the phone and began asking local farmers. It’s a very confined area, all in the ownership of five families. It turned out that Bell Hill used to be a lime quarry from 1917-1930, and so it was on a separate title. It was a matter of negotiating with the farmer. There had been a marriage break up and they needed some cash for settlement. We knew we wanted 20 acres of land, with limestone soils, a northern aspect, on slopes, and no house. Three years later Pyramid Valley came along.’

They are farming organically and biodynamically, and 2007 was the last time they used herbicide. They will soon have Biogro certification.

These are really stunning wines: I think they are among New Zealand’s very best.

bell hill chardonnay

Bell Hill Chardonnay 2011 Canterbury, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. From a hillside that used to be a lime quarry in the 1920 on the Weka Pass, planted to 9090-11363 vines/hectare. The vineyard is 2.25 hectares. Complex nose of ripe pear and peach fruit with a taut citrus edge and some waxy, slightly smoky, spicy notes. There’s amazing tension on the palate with fresh citrus acidity at the core, bold slightly pithy pear and ripe apple fruit, and a warm, rich, spicy mineral finish. Remarkable stuff: fresh, intense and with a long life ahead of it, combining ripe fruit flavours with amazing vitality and tension. 95/100

Bell Hill Old Weka Pass Road Pinot Noir 2011 Canterbury, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. This, the little sibling of the Bell Hill Pinot Noir, has been made since 1999. It has beautiful aromatics: sweet, floral red cherry fruit with delightful green sappy framing. So perfumed and enticing. The palate is very fresh with a sappy, leafy edge to the sweet, rounded cherry fruit. So enticing and drinkable, with ripeness allied to freshness, and just a hint of undergrowth. 94/100

bell hill pinot noir

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2011 Canterbury, New Zealand
14% alcohol. Lovely concentration and texture here: perfumed black cherry and plum fruit with lovely fresh spiciness. Bright with good acidity and taut mineral spiciness, with some autumnal forest fruit notes and some savoury hints of iodine and earth. Beautiful, fresh and detailed with richness and finesse at the same time. Subtle reductive characters suggest this needs a bit more time, and I think it will be good for mid-term ageing. Fabulous. 96/100

UK agent is Armit Wines

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wine journalist and flavour obsessive

One thought on “Bell Hill, one of New Zealand’s finest producers

  1. the reason noone is charging into making wine in Waikari is that the Hurinui District Council is against the subdivision of the land titles held there, so whoever is keen is

    either a) already farming land there, and largely people aren’t interested in diversifying into boutique wine production when their life it already too busy managing a few thousand head of stock,

    or b) committing to buy a vast, vast tract of land (Pyramid Valley is on ~200ha, larger properties out that way run up over 300000ha) so you’re either doing pretty well already in the money stakes or have some pretty crazy bank manager to believe their business plan of selling 1000cs/yr will support that kind of outlay. both ‘proper’ vineyards in Waikari fall into the ‘were doing pretty comfortably already’ category.

    there is one other vineyard producing some very lovely wines out there, but i’m not going to tell you who they are, because there isn’t enough of it as it is, and their wines are actually affordable, which is how i’d prefer they remain at present!

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