North Canterbury on the edge

Bell Hill cabin

New Zealand's answer to Burgundy is feeling the cold. See also North Canterbury in 2023. A slightly shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

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 in 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 an ex limestone quarry into a little wine estate. They wanted it to be thoroughly artisanal and burgundianMarcel’s family not only own one of the larger wineries in Marlborough to the north but also have 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 (see above) – albeit with top-quality wine glasses and some enviable bottles. Electricity and a proper house to live in didn’t arrive until 2009, 12 years after they started work.

Marcel Giesen in 2023

This year, while showing four of us wine writers round 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.

In 2013, when the total production of their Burgundy grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was sufficient to fill only a small handful of barrels, they hosted a tasting in London that I wrote about. My article is illustrated with a photograph of the couple looking delightfully young and hopeful. Today’s picture of these perfectionists is heartbreakingly different.

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 misfortunes have 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% of the potential buds to frost that struck as early as September. And in October last year, an unprecedented polar blast wiped out 80% 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 which is only 3.18 ha (7.86 acres). 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.

Bell Hill estate 2023

Above is the site as it looked in February, with some of that precious limestone in the foreground. 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 up to 11,000 vines per hectare, we were treated to a tasting of four of their Chardonnays back to 2010 and five Pinot Noirs back to 2003, their first vintage, all under Kiwi screwcap 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 burgundy 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 have supplied some Marlborough Chardonnay from their 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. ‘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. 

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, and has already passed into other hands. 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, 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 – optimistically perhaps – being expanded.

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% 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 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 all of New Zealand because it is classified agricultural rather than viticultural. Although land price is only part of the commitment: it may cost only about NZ$20,000 per hectare to buy, but would need another NZ$150,000 per hectare to develop.

In the balmier climes of Waipara, the wine region on the coastal plain between here and the Pacific, the vines jostle with sheep and the wine flavours are much less intense. Although some fine Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling have been produced within the Waipara appellation, the most commonly planted grape is Sauvignon Blanc, much of which is shipped north to be blended in to New Zealand’s cash cow, Marlborough Sauvignon, in which 15% of the blend may come from outside the region.

Being grown in Waikari not Waipara, the wines of Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley are allowed only the rather less distinguished appellation North Canterbury, but there is absolutely nothing undistinguished about them. Any lover of fine wine should be pleased that they exist to show what is possible here – some years.

We were on such a tight schedule that we were flown by helicopter to Canterbury from Bell Hill and had to leave the fantastic tasting decribed here and sumptuous lunch all too soon. Below Giesen and Veldhuizen see us off. My sincere wishes that they will be blessed with better luck over the coming vintages.

Giesen and Veldhuizen from a helicopter

Where to find North Canterbury wines

Bell Hill

H2Vin in the UK
K&L in the US
Whole Bunch Wines in Australia
NZ Wine Home will ship to private customers around the world.

Top pick: Whatever you can find.

Pyramid Valley

Louis Latour Agencies and Farr Vintners in the UK
PVVUSA in the US
Bibendum in Australia

Top pick: Angel Flower Pinot Noir 2020 North Canterbury 13.5%
£71 VintageDrinksOnline, NZ$125 producer's website, £650 per case of 12 ib Farr Vintners

Tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking dates in North Canterbury in 2023. Some international stockists on