"The only reason why we are here is because the soil is very interesting." -Marcel Giesen
When you talk with winegrowers, most will tell you that "90% of the wine is made in the vineyard;" but at Bell Hill, this is clearly apparent and doesn't need to be stated. Husband and wife team Sherwyn Veldhuizen and Marcel Giesen have a clear and focused dedication to these vines; they talk about clones as if they are their children.
The Bell Hill vines are trained low and nestled closely together, pitted in competition with one another for water and nutrients. The practically unfathomable vine densities range from 9,090 to 12,500 vines/hectare (compare this to the vineyard density of 3,000 vines per hectare which is usually used for maximizing yields and making mass-produced table wine). With little option to lazily spread out, the roots are forced to go down. At such high densities, these vineyards are impossible to farm with machinery, and everything must be done by hand.
They have no real opportunity to cover crop because outside plants would grow up to the low fruiting zone, shade it, and make it more difficult for winds to dry up mildew-risk zones. Without the option of cover-cropping, they plant oases of native plants to harbor insects that eat vine pests. Powdery mildew is a risk here. They have powerful nor'west winds which tear through the vines every so often and dry the bunches, but still, they take what some viticulturists would call extreme precautions against fungi. For instance, when Sherwyn and Marcel drop crop, they carry the discarded bunches out of the vineyard so mildew cannot breed or spread.
They signed the papers for the land the day before their wedding, so Bell Hill Vineyard is, in a way, a portrait of their marriage. From this cottage they set out and planted their vineyards-- the first vines went down in 1997. Daringly, they planted their most difficult sites first. By getting the trials and defeats out of the way on the tough, smaller plots, they'd have more experience when it came to planting the larger blocks and could make more informed decisions when planting a larger amount of plants (and yet, there is not much difference between a "large" and "small" plot at Bell Hill, as their vineyard blocks range from .2-.45 hectares). Thus, Bell Hill has been forged in the hottest part of the fire-- intense focus goes on the vines at the fringe.
There have been trials and tribulations on this journey.
A Mosel-esque plot of steep riesling vines didn't make it.
Sherwyn describes the experience with a sadness at the corners of her mouth, but she has plans to replant this section as a different variety. Of course she does: no obstacle can stop this woman. In several years when she does coax fruit from this hill, I'll be the first in line to try the wine.
They faced the same uncertainty with scion clones on their unique plot, but they've approached clones with an open mind. "To categorically disregard a clone is difficult until you try it on your own land," Marcel explains.
When it comes to making the wine, they are on the same page. Sherwyn notes that "we've got similar palates, so we don't argue that much about style." But when the fruit they are working with is so carefully farmed, "the wine is bigger than what you do to it," she says wisely.
"You put a lot of money into the labor, and a lot of time into the canopy.....
but you get it back in the wine." -Sherwyn Veldhuizen
The chardonnay is whole cluster pressed in a hydraulic basket press, fermented on indigenous yeasts, allowed to go through full malolactic fermentation (because the high acid balances out the malic perception), and are aged in mostly old barrels. The result is a nervy, compact chardonnay with an introspective concentration that reveals the impeccable vineyard management.
The pinot noir is harvested/fermented separately by block, de-stemmed, spends about a moon-cycle on skins, then a year in new French oak. It sits in a tank before bottling about ten months later. Quantities are extremely limited-- you can read the bottle production on each label. The Bell Hill red wines result in rich pinot noirs, perfectly ripe flavors, and soft, soft tannins. The aromas are so complex, and the acid feels so balanced when you drink it.
Wines from this type of viticulture don't come cheap-- it probably takes more ounces of sweat and tears to bring each bottle to market than the drops of liquid found inside. In the hardest years, Sherwyn and Marcel have coaxed a few hundred cases from their vines. Now, they have built up to a production of about 1,000 cases/year. These wines are expensive and rare; but if you find a bottle, consider yourself lucky, because you are drinking a wine that springs forth from the edge of what is possible in the vineyard.
Bell Hill wines are on another level. The sum is greater than the parts. Like a Bach Partida or da Vinci painting, Sherwyn and Marcel have shepherded into being something that borders the holy byway of meticulous technique. They bring a sublime order to the chaos.
"You will only be remembered for what comes out of the bottle." -Marcel Giesen