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February 2021

Bell Hill Vineyard Winegrowers Marcel Giesen and Sherwyn Veldhuizen have claimed the coveted Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine’s Viticulturist of the Year 2021 Award.

“This award validates our pioneering efforts that began in 1997, our old-school values and a continuation of tradition,” says Sherwyn.

“Our pursuit of limestone soils; our winegrowing ethos of Burgundian viticulture, high vine density (11,363 vines/ha) and dry farming; our low yields per vine and high, painstaking ‘doing it, not just talking about it’ attitude; as well as our detail in the vineyard partnered with organic farming and Biodynamic methods – they all combine to elevate the quality of fruit from which our wines are made.”

In recent times, new vineyard plantings and more land have provided additional opportunities for expansion as the pair ramp up their regenerative farming efforts – a movement that the pair say is one of their most exciting developments.

“Regenerative farming is about working with the land to actively improve it,” Sherwyn explains. “We’re moving away from cultivation to enhancing biodiversity and soil health. Thank you for recognising our crazy dream, in a way the best is still to come, and more extreme boundaries will be pushed to hold those around us accountable to try harder themselves.”

February 2021

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.