Forum in pursuit of Pinot excellence

Forum in pursuit of Pinot excellence

Name: Marcel Giesen, Sherwyn Veldhuizen and Tony Scherer

By Mark Smith

The pursuit of excellence often goes unrewarded. It's one of life's ironies, Pinot Noir producers will tell you. This quirky red variety isn't called the heartbreak grape for nothing.

Even so, for many of those caught up in the pursuit of growing and making top quality Pinot Noir, the rewards have never been better. Recent years have seen a welcome increase in consumer awareness and appreciation of it in Australia. The industry, meanwhile, has responded accordingly, with the formation of Pinot Noir focus groups, and the establishment of high-profile events like the Mornington Peninsula's International Pinot Noir Celebration.

In Australia's smallest winegrowing State, things are also looking up. Tasmania's pursuit of Pinot excellence received something of a jump-start in 1999 with the establishment of a 30-member grower-based organisation, called the Tasmanian Pinot Noir Forum (TPNF). The group met in mid-February this year on the State's east coast for its eighth annual four-day program of winemaking and viticulture workshops.

Its agenda spanned issues from colour stability and grape tannin to terroir and the winegrower, alternative approaches to growing Pinot Noir, and sustainable grapegrowing. In the words of the forum's chairman, Tony Scherer, those formal presentations and its ready mix of social events, dinners and blind tastings were 'all designed to taste, talk and pontificate the mysteries of Pinot Noir'.

Top billing on the east coast was given to international guests Marcel Giesen (of Giesen Wines fame) and Sherwyn Veldhuizen. The New Zealand couple hale from the South Island's Canterbury region, often credited as the country's fourth largest winegrowing region, yet in reality an industry no larger than Tasmania's, accounting for barely 1000ha of vines, or 4% of New Zealand's total plantings.

Giesen and Veldhuizen are the owners and operators of the tiny, high profile Bell Hill Vineyard. The 10ha property is home base for a portfolio of Pinots that fetch well in excess of A$100 per bottle. The vineyard is located in an old limestone quarry in the Weka Pass sub-region of Canterbury an hour's drive north of Christchuch. It's currently planted to a meagre 1ha of vines. Yes, you read correctly: 1ha of vines.

These represent an eclectic selection of Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. They were added to the site in a number of staged plantings, beginning in 1997. And with vine densities of between 9,000 and 12,500 plants/ha, Bell Hill could perhaps be described as Burgundian in its size and scale.

But if you were to think its six distinct vineyard blocks and its broad mix of clones and rootstocks were simply another 'me-too' New World copy of a site in Nuits-St-Georges, or in Gevrey-Chambertin, or elsewhere in the Côte d'Or, then you'd surely be wrong, the couple said. They see Bell Hill as the real world manifestation of a limestone odyssey they first began in Europe over a decade ago.

'Why not plant in Marlborough or Martinborough,' Giesen asked his hosts rhetorically.

'Because we were looking for soils that would really make a difference. That put us on the limestone trail. Our view is that many of the great wines of the world come out of France. Over half its vineyards are planted on limestone. We think that loess, clay, river gravel and limestone provide many of the most important aspects that underpin the expression of the Pinot grape.

'We found what we were looking for in an old limestone quarry. It was pretty obvious to us that it would have what we were looking for, and that we wouldn't have to just make it up.'

'It's not so much a matter of us copying what's being done in Burgundy,' added Veldhuizen.

'What we've done is to acknowledge that this is the feature they respect most in their soils.'

The couple noted their venture had more than its share of viticultural challenges. The block they purchased was originally advertised as potential truffle country. Cynics have described it as chlorosis central. Both views can be readily supported by Bell Hill's highly alkaline soils (pH 7.2 - 7.5) and its degraded and weathered bedrock.

As if that wasn't enough, Giesen told forum members they'd also added limestone rock to two blocks to increase light reflection, and to explore the possibility of ripening their Pinot Noir at a slightly lower sugar level to avoid unbalanced and alcoholic wines.

'There are two schools of thought about growing Pinot Noir on limestone,' Giesen asserted.

'One says the most effective plants are those on their own roots. The other, of course, says that with more than 20% active lime in our soils we really need to plant on rootstocks to get the best plant response from the site.'

The full article can be found in the May/June issue of Australian Viticulture.

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