Bell Hill, New Zealand: the first vineyard visit that left me feeling sad
Most visits to vineyards and wine estates are uplifting. Occasionally, if the PR machine is cranked too vigorously, they are amusing. My visit in February to Bell Hill in the North Canterbury hills of New Zealand’s South Island was the first that left me feeling sad.
I had last visited Marcel Giesen and Sherwyn Veldhuizen in Waikari 18 years ago, at which point they were excitedly converting a former limestone quarry into a little wine estate. They wanted it to be thoroughly artisanal and Burgundian — Giesen’s family not only owns one of the larger wineries in Marlborough to the north but also has a house in Puligny-Montrachet. A visit there in 1995 had made the couple, in their own words, “fall in love with Burgundy”. They were young, hopeful perfectionists. When I visited Bell Hill in 2005 they still didn’t have electricity and were living in a sort of cabin — albeit one with top-quality wine glasses and some enviable bottles. Electricity and a proper house didn’t arrive until 2009, 12 years after they had started work.
This year, while showing me and three other wine writers around the vineyard, Giesen recalled their initial excitement on locating this unusual outcrop of limestone — the revered bedrock of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. “The white stones we saw jutting out of the grass were sufficient — what could we lose?”
“Twenty-six years of our life,” muttered Veldhuizen through gritted teeth.
The pair really have had the most terrible luck. Some of it has been personal. In 2017, when fetching a bottle from the Puligny cellar, Giesen hit his head and is still suffering the effects of serious concussion. But most of their misfortune has been the result of meteorological calamities. In 2019, it was so wet during the December flowering that it halved the potential crop. In 2021, they lost about 35 per cent of the potential buds to frost that struck in September. And, in October last year, an unprecedented polar blast wiped out 80 per cent of the 2023 crop and left the growth that remained at such a variety of different stages that all they were able to harvest this year was a modest amount of base material for sparkling wine.
Such blows are particularly difficult for a vineyard that is only 3.18 hectares. Their Burgundian close-planted vines have always been painstakingly worked by hand, at first by them and now with the addition of three full-time staff. They have never veered from the most labour-intensive traditional techniques in both cellar and vineyard and have been fully certified organic by BioGro from 2015.
“You may wonder how we make a living,” Veldhuizen observed wryly. “We can’t.”
You may say more fool them for planting an unpropitious site, but that would be unfair. It would have been impossible in 1997 to predict just how vicious the effects of climate change would be. As Veldhuizen noted sadly in a recent email, “everywhere we look, here and abroad, seasonal conditions have become powerful and unpredictable”.
I’m just glad they have been able to produce what they have, given the exceptional quality of their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. After our somewhat disheartening tour of their various frost-ravaged vineyard blocks, including the newest one, which Veldhuizen planted herself by hand (at the madly high density of over 18,000 vines per hectare in some parts), we were treated to a tasting. This included four of their Chardonnays back to 2010 and five Pinot Noirs back to 2003, their first vintage, all under Kiwi screw cap rather than Burgundian natural cork.
The wines looked stunning, and far more youthful than the New Zealand norm. The 2016 Chardonnay is just starting to open out. The 2004 Pinot Noir really is Burgundian Grand Cru quality.
So what of the future? To complement the tiny 2023 harvest at Bell Hill itself, fellow organic devotees Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef and Duncan Forsyth of Mount Edward in Central Otago (one of the few NZ wine regions to have been unscathed in 2023) offered to sell Giesen and Veldhuizen some of their Pinot Noir grapes to be vinified in the Bell Hill winery. And the Giesen family has supplied some Marlborough Chardonnay from its organic Clayvin vineyard.
Veldhuizen is trying to put a positive spin on it. “All of this will be a new chapter for Bell Hill, spreading the risk of relying on just one growing region,” she wrote to me. “It also gives the potential for adding on to what we do here in the most respectful way . . . The frost was a catalyst to get this vision moving.”
They are now starting to think about what will happen to Bell Hill when they retire. It has built such a reputation for quality that it deserves to pass into the most sympathetic hands.
One nearby vineyard has already changed hands successfully. Two years after Bell Hill got off the ground, Giesen and Veldhuizen gained some like-minded neighbours, Mike and Claudia Weersing, who established another top quality, densely planted vineyard in Waikari. Pyramid Valley was biodynamic from the start, a real rarity in New Zealand. It is now owned by the deep-pocketed American investor Brian Sheth and NZ Master of Wine Steve Smith, the team behind Smith & Sheth wines.
They invested in a brand-new winery, effectively a big shed, and planned to be ready in time for the 2021 vintage, which was in the end sacrificed to frost. Nevertheless, as at Bell Hill, the vineyard is being expanded. I hope their optimism isn’t misplaced.
Pyramid Valley’s talented winemaker, Huw Kinch, was lured from Martinborough on the North Island and lives next to the new winery with his three young daughters (who constitute 10 per cent of the pupils in Waikari’s school) and wife Amanda, whose cheese scones compensated considerably for the winds that whipped us as we walked the vineyards. Smith admitted that these characteristic winds tend to reduce yields even in unfrosted years, but he is clearly excited by how Burgundian the limestone layers are here.
In another conversation, he had already observed that this area of North Canterbury offers prospective vine-growers some of the cheapest land in New Zealand because it is classified as agricultural rather than viticultural. (Land price is only part of the commitment: it may cost only about NZ$20,000, or £10,000, a hectare to buy, but it would need another NZ$150,000 a hectare to develop.)
Given the recent trials and tribulations in this cool corner of North Canterbury, it seems unlikely that there will be a flurry of newcomers keen to invest there, but any lover of fine wine should be pleased that Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley exist to show what is possible — in some years at least.
Where to find North Canterbury Wines
Angel Flower Pinot Noir 2020 North Canterbury 13.5%
£62.68 Lay & Wheeler, £65 pyramidvalley.co.nz, £71 Wright Wine Co
Tasting notes, scores and suggested drink dates on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. Some international stockists on Wine-searcher.com
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