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Bell Hill

bell-hill-view.jpgLong-touted as one of the [future] stars of New Zealand Pinot Noir, Bell Hill has slowly undergone its development.  An initial release of the 1999 vintage under the ‘Old Weka Pass’ label, was followed up with the Bell Hill Pinot Noir (from 2003 vintage) and Bell Hill Chardonnay (from 2004).  Quantities of these wines have been frustratingly tiny, and sadly this is likely to continue for the next few years at least.

Marcel Giesen and his partner Sherwyn Veldhuizen have a vision, and have painstakingly developed the vineyards, build a house, established a modest

winery and created an underground cellar (based upon a shipping container sunk into the hillside), not to mention plant around 23,000 vines as their chosen clones and rootstocks have become available.  Yet today Bell Hill remains very much a work in progress, even with the last vines finally planted a few months ago (twelve years after the first).  The future is very exciting here. 

There are now approximately three acres of vines planted, very densely (between 9,000 and 11,000 vines per hectare), on numerous distinct blocks or plantings.  The Quarry Block was first planted in 1997, followed by Limestone Block and Shelf Block.  From 2005, plantings were sporadic, as rootstock and clonal selections proved difficult to cultivate - only two rootstocks tend to grow successfully on the incredibly limestone-rich soils.  200 vines one year, 1,000 the next, it was not until 2009 that the final delivery of around 10,000 vines meant that the vineyard is now fully-planted.  In keeping with a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ approach, much of the Limestone Block had to be pulled out and replanted due to extreme chlorosis.  Eventually the Shelf Block has been expanded, two further, well-sheltered blocks near the road, and a tiny, extremely steep (perhaps 60°) terraced patch directly below the Shelf Block has been planted to individually-staked Riesling vines (again, over numerous years).bell-hill-new-vines.jpg

The various blocks, now planted, have formed a natural ampitheatre on the hillside.  Most vines are north-facing, although some (Quarry Block) have a tendency to be slightly east or north, while the latest plantings, sculpted around a contour of the main hill, are nearly northwestern-facing.  Like Pyramid Valley, the vines are more elevated than most in Waipara, located in the hills to the west of the valley floor.

Over the past few years, a more intensive approach to organic and biodynamic cultivation has seen the elimination of all systemics (ie, no pesticides, herbicides or insecticides), and biodynamic preparations have been applied.  Some support is still required in areas, as the soils (varying, but generally thin topsoils over limestone and clay of differing proportions) have deficiencies in Manganese, Iron and Zinc in some places).

Diseases rarely cause much trouble here - birds and rabbits appear most damaging - but intensive and continual work is required in the vineyard, managing bunch numbers, foliage and in some cases, vine vigour.  But devotion requires difficult work, and Sherwyn and her workers have only quality in mind.

Very simple winemaking is the key at Bell Hill.  The Chardonnay is gently pressed and fermented in barrel (or in the case of tiny yielding vintages like 2005 and 2007, in whatever vessel is small enough - namely glass).  Natural yeasts are utilised, and malolcatic fermentation can take up to a year to finish.  Pinot Noir is cold soaked for up to a week, and in all spends about 28 days on skins (including post-ferment maceration) before basket pressed and run into barrel.  Up to 100% new oak is used, and this can occasionally be prominent, especially in the young wines.  Some whole-bunch experimentation is being trialled at the moment, and the results look promising.

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