Bell Hill: Sensational Wines from the South Island of New Zealand

Today, the third of our trio looking at some of the best wines from New Zealand. I’ll confess that Bell Hill, located in Waikari in the South Island of New Zealand (North Canterbury), is very much a personal favorite.

I first met Sherwyn Veldhuizen and Marcel Giesen back in 2007. Marcel is from the well known Giesen Wines family that has established itself as a major producer in Marlborough, coming from a wine family in their native Germany.

In 1981, his elder brothers, Theo and Alex, were traveling the world and were so impressed with land outside Christchurch that they purchased some and established what was then, the world’s southern-most vineyard.

Their background gave them the vision to see the potential of Marlborough and they were early pioneers in that region. Their first vintage from that region was 1984. After finishing his winemaking studies, Marcel joined them in 1983. Notwithstanding what was to come, Marcel is still involved with that business.

Marcel met Sherwyn while working together. Sherwyn had studied wine at Lincoln University in Canterbury and worked around the world. The pair travelled around Europe for six months in 1995, mostly in Burgundy it seems.

They returned, determined to grow (they consider themselves winegrowers, not winemakers) great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Back then, those varieties were still very much in their infancy in New Zealand and even more so in Waikari.

Bell Hill cottage and vineyards

They had decided to give themselves five years to find the right site. It took just six months before they found a bell-shaped hill in North Canterbury (the Waikari region), elevated and with considerable limestone.

Indeed, part of the property was an old limestone quarry that operated between 1917 and the late 1930s. It was named, unsurprisingly, Bell Hill.



The papers to purchase the site were signed the day before their wedding (Valentine’s Day, 1997 – personally, I would have thought Valentine’s Day would have been more appropriate for the wedding, rather than signing your life away, although some of my friends see them as one and the same).

Planting – high density – began in 1997 and continued incrementally over the next decade and more.

On parts of the property, one can see a sliver of topsoil, six inches deep if that, on top of meters of eye-shielding limestone, as white as an Englishman in winter. In coming across this site, Sherwyn and Marcel effectively won the winegrowing lottery.

I can think of a few winemakers who, if they had been so fortunate as to get hold of this place would have strutted around like peacocks expounding on their talents to anyone within earshot.

These guys could not be more modest and disarming and certainly recognize their good fortune, even if the journey has not been an easy one. That said, their skill with the wines has been on display with every vintage.

If ever there was an example of synchronicity – site/terroir, winemakers, varieties – this must be it.

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2019

Officially, the first Bell Hill wines appeared from the 2003 vintage. Vintage conditions depending, they have made Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ever since, although in the early days, they also made some sparkling (a wine which continues to elude me), and apparently, it is back on the agenda, so I live in hope. It was revived with the 2017 vintage but is some years away from leaving the nest.

They have a second label for younger Pinot Noir vines called Old Weka Pass Road, which first appeared with the 1999 vintage and indeed, until 2002, was their only label. It is named after the road leading to the winery (it is a joy to encounter names and labels that make sense and have not been concocted by some overpaid marketing guru).

Bell Hill Chardonnay 2019

The Bell Hill Chardonnay was truly a unicorn wine for years, very rarely seen. Even those on the mailing list for years often struggled to get a single bottle. For example, looking back over recent newsletters and we find them pondering over how they will allocate just 252 bottles of the Chardonnay, from the very small 2015 vintage – November hail destroyed 75% of their crop.



Recent plantings have helped eased the pressure, but it is still one of the most desired of all New Zealand whites. Some of the Pinot was removed, even though it was their second best block at the time, after the Shelf. Sadly, the rootstock was failing, due to lack of lime tolerance, so it was removed and replaced with a more suitable rootstock and Chardonnay to increase the plantings of that variety and in recognition of how well the next door block, already Chardonnay (the Limeworks 1999 Chardonay block) was performing.

A friend calls Bell Hill Chardonnay the ‘Montrachet of the Southern Hemisphere.’ He’ll get no argument from me. It is such a thrilling wine.

The Pinot was hardly any easier to source, but it took little time before taking its place among New Zealand’s very best. Ata Rangi, Felton Road, Pyramid Valley, Kusuda, Dry River and Bell Hill form a stellar half dozen that will do me. That said, there are many more that are almost equally worthy.

And there is a new name on the horizon that I hope to look at in the near future (those a little saturated by the Kiwi coverage of late need not fear – it won’t be for a few months at least), but we really do need to see a few more vintages before it can be considered as genuinely special and not an early flash in the pan (so I am not going to jinx it). I’m confident it will be another Kiwi star.

For me, Bell Hill is always in the top two or three Kiwi Pinots, every vintage without fail. Some of their early plantings were on own rootstocks – always a little brave given the threat of phylloxera (a destructive vine-munching aphid).

I have visited the winery and vineyards several times now, the most recent a few weeks ago. The initial visit was back in 2007. The place has certainly expanded somewhat, though it is still tiny in comparison with most establishments.

The first time reminded me of a combination of Lord of the Rings and Lost. Lord of the Rings because it looked just like Hobbiton in the movies. Lost because the guys had buried an ex-shipping container to use as underground storage, and climbing down into it was just like climbing down into the bunker that was discovered on that show.



Now, it is a bit more Jurassic Park as it turns out that the little swampy bit of land near their vineyards is one of the richest paleontology sites in the country, giving up the bones to numerous Giant Moa – even providing evidence that what was thought to be the largest two different species of Giant Moa (there were quite a few different species of varying sizes – science is not sure how many different species of Moa there were, but estimates are between nine and 64. So, some work still to do there) were simply the male and female (the female much the larger, almost twice the size of the male) of the same species.

At last count, they had unearthed the remains of some 19 distinct species of extinct birds on the property, and identified the remains of some 300 Moa. Visitors (don’t get too excited – the place is closed to the public as they simply don’t have the resources to be looking after all the members of the public who would love to visit) can see some of the extraordinary bones at the winery.

Giant harrier hawks also dropped various reptiles, like the legendary tuatara, into the old stream. The animals would be trapped in the clay and starve or drown.

Size comparison between 4 species of moa bird and a human. 1. Dinornis novaezelandiae (3 meters tall). 2. Emeus crassus (1.8 meters tall). 3. Anomalopteryx didiformis (1.3 meters tall). 4. Dinornis robustus (3.6 meters tall) (image courtesy Conty/Wikipedia)

Things also get a little scary – Jurassic Park scary. A Giant Moa could stand as high as three meters and weigh 230 kilograms. Imagine the size of an eagle that could attack, kill and even carry off a Giant Moa. Evidence of this is in the claw marks on some of the Moa bones discovered here.

Haast’s eagle attacking moa (image courtesy John Megahan/Wikipedia)

Haast’s Eagle had incredible power with its talons able to easily puncture a Moa skull. Weighing up to 15 kilograms with a wingspan up to three meters, they are believed to have been nearly twice the size of the next largest eagle, the Harpy.

The arrival of the Māori in the 13th and 14th centuries saw the end of the Moa and, losing its prime source of food, Haast’s Eagle followed.

The introduction of the Polynesian rat did not help.

Not for the first time, we have digressed.

This most recent visit was the most exciting of all, including verticals of both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Winelovers will know that a tasting of either would have been thrilling in itself – of both, goosebump stuff.

As well as the Bell Hill Chardonay and Pinot Noir, they have started to produce an occasional, very limited, single parcel wine. So far, only one Chardonnay, the 2016 Limeworks, has seen the light of day, but there are more in the works, with both grapes.

Two things. The first is obvious. Quantities will be extremely limited. The second is fairly obvious as well. These will not be cheap. But in comparison with Burgundies of a similar quality, they may as well be giving them away.



Rather than get too carried away with an endless parade of incredible wines, the chances of many of us ever seeing them being slim at best, I have narrowed the list down a little and included some unreleased wines, as these will become available, however briefly. I have attempted to keep the notes relatively brief. These are all Bell Hill wines, not Weka Pass.

Forgive the scores– I know some will be a touch skeptical of such a run of high scores – but to me, they are worth every bit of them.

Bell Hill Chardonnay 2002 – But wait, I hear you say, there was no Bell Hill wine released until the 2003 vintage. Correct, but unknown to most of the world, Marcel and Sherwyn bottled 100 bottles of a Bell Hill Chardonay for their museum.

What a wine. Simply one of the greatest Chardonnays I have ever tasted, from anywhere. There are figs, spices, lime pie notes, minerals and chalk here. Focused, dense but dancing. Immaculate balance and extraordinary length. Oystershell notes on the palate. Wonderfully complex and incredibly fresh. 2002 was a wonderful vintage in Burgundy, red and white, but very few of the whites would match this. 99 or 100 – take your pick.

Bell Hill Chardonnay 2009 – Concentration, purity and focus here in a Chardonnay which is both layered and intense. Spices, limes, river pebbles, chalk, a line of salinity. Wonderfully complex, this still has a decade ahead of it. Lingers with intent. 97.

Bell Hill Chardonnay 2012 – Real tension here. Notes of florals, river stones, limes and an earthy chalky backing. Hints of lemon rind. Precision with a fine line of acidity and that mouthwatering salinity emerging on the palate. This has at least ten to fifteen years ahead of it. What a wine! 98.

Bell Hill Limeworks Chardonnay 2016 – I was delighted to see this wine again. I managed a single bottle on release (which was most generous of the team), but under severe nagging from friends who were extremely keen to taste it, and being of underwhelming willpower, it was opened and enjoyed soon after arrival. On one hand, deep regret, but how can anyone regret enjoying a wine of such searing quality.

A wine of coiled power. If it is possible, this seems both lean, elegant and richly flavored. Gentle notes of florals, wet stones, minerals and chalk, oystershells and sea breezes. A laser-like focus with knife-edge balance and such energy. Ethereal elegance with sledgehammer power. It is easy to see this scoring the full Monty in ten to fifteen years, but for now, a more modest 98.

Bell Hill Chardonnay 2019 – The latest release and only just available, this is an exciting young Chardonnay, perhaps a little richer and fuller than some of their releases. Stunning stuff, there is an intensity intertwined with the elegance. Again, that line of salinity. Such potential, a future that will surely extend beyond the next decade. 98.

Bell Hill Chardonnay 2020 – The possible release is for late this year. Trust me, it will be worth the wait. Taut, precise, linear with lemon notes, some cinnamon/nutmeg notes of oak still detectable. Citrus, stonefruit, figs and peaches, there is sensational power here and even though it opened up in the glass, it seems so young at the moment.

In good cellars, this should provide enormous pleasure over the next 25 to 30 years (I cannot remember ever giving a white wine such a lengthy aging spectrum). 99.

Bell Hill Chardonnay 2021 – Even younger, naturally, and proclaiming judgement at this stage may be a touch premature. Precision, power and a real minerality here, it certainly needs time to come together. Meyer lemons, river stones, stonefruit and white peaches. Salinity, energy and fine acidity, with serious length. Expect this to lift even further in the coming years. 96.

Bell Hill Shelf Pinot Noir 2007 – The what? Shelf will be the single parcel Pinot, which the team will release in due course (2018, the initial release, has just become available). But not this one. Has there ever been a smaller production wine? Three bottles. Yes, just three. Seems Marcel dipped into the Shelf barrel from 2007 during the production of the Bell Hill Pinot, as the fruit has usually gone into that wine, and removed three bottles. Not often one gets to drink an entire third of the production of a wine. I wish I had asked Marcel whether he regretted not releasing this as the first Single Parcel Pinot. It would have been a smash hit, I’m sure.

This is a star Pinot. Flesh, soy, leather, miso, the typical dried herbs that seem to be ever-present here. Hints of bay leaves. Seamless and with silky tannins, this has depth and complexity. The intensity never waivers. A truly stunning effort. Still a future. Well, it would have a future if there were any left. 98.

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2012 – Florals, soy, miso, cloves and a chalky base. There is a fresh, fleshy note with real underlying minerality, noticeably chalky support. Focus and grip, a hint of rose petals lingers on the finish. Excellent length. Surely a decade ahead of it. 96.

Bell Hill Shelf Pinot Noir 2018 – The first formal release of their single parcel wine, just now released. Sour cherries, bay leaves, animal skins, flesh, tobacco leaves and undergrowth. That beautiful chalky note in support again. Bold cherry notes. Great length, the silkiest of tannins and a luxurious lingering finish. Special. Hard to envisage this not giving immense pleasure for the next twenty years. 98.

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2019 – The ripeness of the 2019 vintage shines through here. An utterly luminous Pinot. Plush but structured, complex and focused. This is an ethereally elegant wine with notes of cassis and aniseed, soy and cherries. Such silky tannins. This is already a complete Pinot, but such promise for the future. 99.

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2020 – At this stage, this is much more restrained and refined, precise and taut, with red fruits dominant, including redcurrants. The palate sees florals, licorice, black cherries, earthy notes and cloves emerge. Superbly crafted but you would do it a disservice by touching it within the next three to four years. After that, it should drink wonderfully well for twelve to twenty years. 97.

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2021 – The 2021 vintage seems to be a stunning success across so much of New Zealand. This very young Pinot is already so ethereal that it almost seems to be like drinking clouds of satin. Notes of blueberries, iron, a hint of citrus rind and coffee beans are already evident, and there is that fine line of salinity. Intricately defined, there is so much potential. Give it time and then enjoy for two decades. 97.

Bell Hill Shelf Pinot Noir 2021 – This will be the second release of this wine and it is a scintillating effort. So young but already so seamless and so supple, the potential here seems unlimited. The complexity of Martinborough and the plushness of Central Otago, the key is the finesse of the Waipara. Forest floor, cherries, dry herbs, spices, a hint of pepper. So much going on here. A wonderfully seductive texture and fabulous length. As with all Bell Hill wines, the balance is impeccable. A stunning Pinot by any standards. 99.

Yes, these are extremely high scores, but they are wines that absolutely thrill and if they don’t deserve them, hard to imagine what does. For me, Bell Hill is one of the great wine estates of the world. Never miss the chance to grab what you can.

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