While I have found a great deal of truth in the saying that “wine only grows in beautiful places” not every bit of wine country is created equal. If you’re lucky enough to spend some of your time traveling through the world’s wine regions, some places seem to almost vibrate with their potential to produce phenomenal wine. This can be true on the grand scale, as those lucky enough to have their breath taken away by the Douro River valley in Portugal or the Franschhoek Valley in South Africa might easily attest. But this feeling manifests most profoundly for me at the level of the individual site, and most often when standing in a vineyard established by vision and determination in the most unlikely of places.
“We signed for this property on February 14th, 1997, and then got married the day after,” says Sherwyn Veldhuizen. “That amounted to two life sentences in 24 hours. We’re not sure how to get off this ride,” she continues, with a laugh that makes it clear she would rather be doing nothing else.
Veldhuizen and her husband Marcel Giesen met in the early 90s while she was a harvest intern at his family’s eponymous winery near Christchurch, New Zealand. Though she had gone to school initially for Business Management, Veldhuizen discovered wine early in her university days, and decided to angle for a career in the wine business, which meant attending New Zealand’s Lincoln University for a postgrad degree in viticulture and winemaking, and the heading off to work harvest at various wineries around the world. She and Giesen conspired to work a harvest together in Burgundy, and says they came away from the experience permanently convinced of their mutual desire to work with Pinot Noir planted on limestone.
While no definitive scientific studies exist proving that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay require limestone soils to reach their utmost potential, the anecdotal evidence has been piling up for centuries that these grapes can make incredibly special wines when planted on limestone. The histories of Burgundy and Champagne offer unassailable case studies on the epitome of both Pinot and Chardonnay.
The purchase of a small Burgundian domaine wasn’t an option for the new couple, so they returned to their home country and began the search for a bit of limestone that they might call their own. The search took less time than they might have imagined, thanks in part to the coincidence of where Giesen’s family business was located at the time — a wine region known as North Canterbury — the most limestone influenced terroir in New Zealand.
A set of small hills crown the northern part of the Waipara Valley, bisected by State Highway 7, which follows the winding path of the Waipara River through the gorge it cut through some of the southern hemisphere’s purest limestone. Known as the Weka Pass, this seam of ancient marine sediments was thrust up from the valley floor by the system of faults that make this region so earthquake prone – much to the recent regret of local residents. If North Canterbury represents New Zealand’s body of limestone terroir, then the Weka Pass is its beating heart.
As Veldhuizen and Giesen explored the area, they came across a farm with the remains of an old quarry on the property, marked on old maps as Bell Hill, so named thanks to its gently curving shape. Pay a visit to Bell Hill and it’s not hard to imagine the couple’s reaction at finding the site, which mirrored the astonishment of most visitors who round the edge of the hill and see a scant six inches of topsoil laid upon a thick base of pure limestone so white, it becomes blinding in the right light conditions.
If you’re looking for limestone, Bell Hill can’t be described as anything other than a jackpot. And if you’re attuned to the kinds of places that wine loves to grow, this land all but screams greatness.
“Everything is pure lime,” says Veldhuizen. “This is the one region in the area where the soils have no windblown loess in them. Instead, all the soil, all the clays at the bottom of the hills — everything — is eroded lime.”
The couple convinced the farmer who owned the place to part with it, and after only a brief detour to say their vows, they got to work creating their vision for a small estate in the model of a tiny Burgundian domaine.
The estate’s roughly 5 acres of vineyard are planted at a density rarely seen outside of Burgundy, with an average of 4600 vines per acre, made up of the most diverse set of clones available at the time. The estate has been farmed organically since 2005, and using many biodynamic principles and preparations since 2008, due in large part to the influence of their friends and neighbors at Pyramid Valley Vineyard.
“We always knew we wanted to be organic,” explains Veldhuizen, “but when we first started here in 1997 it was high risk. We didn’t know if it would work, and we definitely couldn’t afford to buy the specialized machinery required.”
Grapes are hand harvested in stages, block-by-block as the different areas of the hill ripen at different speeds. The Chardonnay pressed (sometimes as whole cluster) to old oak barrels to ferment spontaneously, while the Pinot Noir (with usually some percentage of whole cluster) is given a cold maceration for a week before starting the fermentation using a technique known as a pied de cuve. This involves letting a small portion (often just a bucketful) of grapes ferment spontaneously and then once the yeast has become prolific, dumping this into the main fermenter. This has the effect of more easily jump-starting the fermentation in the larger vessel, while ensuring that the fermentation is based primarily on the yeasts that came into the winery on the skins of the grapes.
With the exception of some sulfur and occasionally a little tartaric acid for pH stabilization during fermentation, nothing else is added to the meager 1000 cases of wine the estate produces each year. This production is spread across their Bell Hill Pinot Noir, a not-quite-second-label-but-definitely-less-expensive bottling they call the Old Weka Pass Pinot Noir, and their Chardonnay.
At the moment, the couple is focused on getting some of their newest plantings ready to bear fruit in the hopes of increasing their volume of grapes.
“In 2015 we had hailstorm in November, which was devastating,” says Veldhuizen. “We lost 60% or more of our crop. In this little corner of the world we generally have cold temperatures during springtime, even outside of frost, which we protect for. It can be bitterly cold during flowering.”
She ticks years off on her fingers. “2005, 2007, 2010, 2012 — were all low yielding years. Not quite one out of two with very poor fruit sets. One out of three seems to be the norm. We’re hoping that in two years the additional plantings will take us out of our low volume years where we’re weather affected.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Veldhuizen and Giesen pursue a lean, tension-filled style of wine reminiscent of their favorite Burgundies. While in the earliest years they were content to let the grapes ripen significantly (mostly to see if they actually could), once satisfied that sugar levels were not going to be a barrier, they settled down to pick early, preserving freshness and a transparency to the wonderfully stony character of their site.
“Our ideal of the wine that we thought should come from here, when we started, we wanted to see minerality and acid backbone,” says Veldhuizen. “That’s what we were looking for. We didn’t want plump fruity Pinots. It’s a part of you, what you’re looking for in a wine. In some ways you’re looking for yourself in a wine. I want these wines to age, and to have the structure to allow them to do that. Above all, we’re looking for balance.”
And how do they do that?
“We always think about our winemaking and wine growing,” says Veldhuizen. “It’s important to retain humility and always be questioning how you’re doing and why you’re doing things. We’re aware of that at the moment. We’re certainly very aware of the work, the amount work we have to do and how we can get into processing mode rather than thinking about what we’re doing or wanting to experiment more. We’re conscious of that at the moment. We want to make the time to plan for experimentation. We know what works but we want to push the boundaries a bit, refine things.”
I can remember my first taste of the Bell Hill wines a little more than four years ago. I was spending time in the North Canterbury area of the Wellington Pinot Noir conference, moving from table to table as I explored a region of the country I knew very little about. My first taste of a Bell Hill wine brought me up short, even before I put it in my mouth. Pale colored and silky in the glass, these wines looked different from everything else I had tasted in New Zealand. And then when I put them in my mouth, I found myself enthralled by the crystalline, floral intensity of the wines.
Simply put, their Pinot Noir is among the very best made in New Zealand, and, dare I say it, the entirety of the Southern Hemisphere. The wines are hard to come by, owing to their small production levels, and correspondingly high prices (especially when the costs of transport are taken into account). But if you’re willing to accept the consequences of supply and demand in pursuit of great terroir expression, you simply cannot pass up these wines. As an expression of the place they come from, they are delightful. As an indication of the potential for New Zealand Pinot Noir as a genre, they are revelatory.