Respecting the environment is key for this successful husband and wife team.
Once the site of an old lime quarry in the Weka Pass, North Canterbury, Bell Hill is now a vineyard and winery with exceptional chardonnay and pinot noir wines, crafted by Sherwyn Veldhuizen and Marcel Giesen, worthy winners of the Viticulturist of the Year Award.
Veldhuizen first met Giesen at a barbeque hosted by local wineries in Canterbury for students of viticulture and winemaking. “I asked Marcel for a job at the Giesen facility and started working there in 1993,” she says. “We got together after a year.”
A trip to Burgundy in 1995 followed, in part to “look for inspiration”; that was the start of a journey into soil and viticulture, and a search for the right land to establish their own vineyard. “It was when we were in Burgundy and tasted a Meursault that Marcel and I realised the distinctive relationships between land and vine.”
The couple established Bell Hill Vineyard 24 years ago in 1997. From the outset they adopted the Burgundian model of vineyard architecture with low-yielding, high-density vines encouraged to penetrate deep into the limestone soils, resulting in fruit of great tension and flavour profile. Their aim was, and still remains, to reflect the site through wines that express terrior – and give a sense of place.
In spring 2007, and once they had the required funds for a crawler tractor, Veldhuizen and Giesen moved to organics and have continued to evolve their vineyard practices.
“Our learning about biodiversity, vine density, weeds and energy has been in our space, over time, on our land. Our viticultural philosophy has not changed, but our farming methods are changing based on regenerative farming, which is new to us.
“We are very excited, there is a lot of learning to complete about biomass, diversity, preparing the land and cover crops. We are experiencing climate change – we’ve got to make a change now. We have to live the change now,” Veldhuizen says.
Her assessment of climate change is specific. “For us, it’s about the ocean temperatures and cyclonic patterns coming off the Pacific Ocean and onto the east coast.”
Giesen and Veldhuizen already know so much about their site, and the changes and movement in the vineyard from season to season and vintage to vintage; but they continue to learn more about their property, from below the ground – soil health and microbial activity – and above the ground, including plant and insect life.
I absorbed more in the few hours spent with this couple, walking the vineyards and tasting the wines than reading any books on the topic. It may be a cliché but it is true that seeing and touching and smelling is a pathway to understanding viticulture in this way. These days, Veldhuizen and Giesen are as well known for their unique approach to agriculture and their depth of knowledge as they are for the wines they produce.
Both are great cooks, too. Veldhuizen is a risotto and cured salmon expert while Giesen is the barbeque king and bakes a mean soufflé. On their favourite pairing? “Cold smoked salmon and pinot noir. We also love whitebait and always pair it with chardonnay.”
There is much to admire about Veldhuizen and Giesen, from their passion for viticulture and wine to their role as custodians of the land.
Photography by Niki Boon Photography.