Bell Hill in demand

Marcel Giesen (right) and Sherwyn Veldhuizen of Bell Hill. (Photo: Niki Boon)

A special corner of my cellar is devoted to the wines of Bell Hill. I’m a bit miserly with my precious Bell Hill bottles. They are scarce and expensive (around NZD $120). I tend to open them for visiting wine critics.

Bell Hill has just two hectares of vineyard in production. They deliberately manipulate their vines to produce low yields in pursuit of quality.

I’m so besotted with Bell Hill that I’m surprised when less than 20% of the people who attend my wine course have heard of this tiny North Canterbury producer.

Bell Hill has just two hectares of vineyard in production. They deliberately manipulate their vines to produce low yields in pursuit of quality. They export 65% of their wine and local sales are strictly allocated. Want a dozen? You’ll be lucky to get two bottles.

Bell Hill is owned by Marcel Giesen and Sherwyn Veldhuizen. They describe themselves as “growers” rather than winemakers. Some years ago Sherwyn phoned me after I’d written a rave review about their wines. She was pleased that I had tasted and enjoyed them but asked if I would mind not reviewing them in future because they were embarrassed by the demand that followed.

It’s been around 21 years since Marcel and Sherwyn planted vines on an ancient chalk quarry that is shaped like a bell (personally I think it is more like a female breast, but plan to get counselling). The soil is pure chalky limestone and calcareous clays.

“We’ve still got great faith in the soil,” enthused Sherwyn. “With vine age, our wines are developing more pronounced limestone mineral character. The soil gives our wines shape, tension and length. We’re still learning and try hard to gain a little extra quality each year.”

Marcel and Sherwyn look to Burgundy, where they have a family holiday house, for inspiration and energy. Their latest vineyard planting is a high density 11,363 vines per hectare. They recently purchased an adjacent 8.4 ha of land of which 4-5 ha is plantable but will limit expansion to 1-2 ha.

The existing vineyard is planted with chardonnay (28%) and pinot noir (72%). The new vineyard will narrow the gap with a higher percentage of chardonnay which, in my view, is the more spectacular of their two wines.

“Our philosophy is to remain small and do it well by attention to detail in the vineyard”, explained Sherwyn.

Their latest release wines are the 2014 Bell Hill Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and second label wines, Old Weka Pass Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Tragically a house move meant that I didn’t get the Bell Hill newsletter in time and missed out.

The 2015 vintage was decimated by hail with 75% crop losses, although Sherwyn says they might make an early partial release of the 2016 Weka Pass Pinot Noir when they release the 2015 wines (there was no Weka Pass made in 2015).

A small amount of wine from the 2017 and 2018 vintages have been allocated to a sparkling wine program. The wines are from carefully designated areas of the vineyard. “It’s a long-term project.”

The 2016 wines, to be released next year, will include Bell Hill’s first single vineyard wines, Bell Hill Single Block Limeworks Chardonnay. Other single vineyard wines will follow.

Bell Hill is about 15 minutes from Waipara on the road to Hamner Springs. It is certainly worth a visit but make an appointment first. Check out their website and join the winery mailing list, but please don’t tell Sherwyn that I told you to do so.

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