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After the 1991 Commerce Commission ruling on collective bargaining, that system changed and so did their vineyard.

They approached Penfolds for advice who recommended replanting the Muller Thurgau and Flora on grafted, phylloxera-resistant rootstock. That decision was the first step in vineyard renovation and extension that has continued to the present. In the late 1980s, Doug’s parents bought another 10 acres of land. The family decided to plant this in Clone 6 Chardonnay – one of the first in the district. At the same time, they decided to change companies to Corbans, ‘and they were keen on us trying a new variety and we were also keen to do something a little bit wide of the normal as it were! The variety was from Geisenheim – GM 312-53. Doug and Delwyn were attracted to it because ‘it’s extremely disease resistant. It basically doesn’t have any problem with powdery, downy, or botrytis. It has these characteristics because it is a hybrid grape – ‘a Riesling-Seibel cross’. Their next move was to replant the Flora block with Mendoza Chardonnay, at the time one of the most popular Chardonnay clones in Gisborne and New Zealand. Then, in 2000, they took up a small interest in a 25-acre vineyard with members of Delywn’s family. It had four varieties each between 6 and 7 acres – Chardonnay, Reichensteiner, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Within three years a manager was running this vineyard and Delwyn and Doug were back to replanting their home vineyard.

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In September 2000 the Commerce Commission gave Montana the green flag to purchase Corbans. Shortly afterwards, Delwyn and Doug decided to change their allegiance and supply Coopers Creek who were actively seeking experienced Gisborne growers prepared to produce a range of less common, more trendy even, varieties to their specifications. With more than seventeen years experience as winegrowers the Bells were well prepared for this opportunity. The current configuration of their vineyard demonstrates the rapidity of the changes they have made to their varietal mix in the last decade. It now consists of three different clones of the Rhone Valley variety Viognier making up a total of 8 hectares. To this have been added 3 hectares ofArneis, the Italian Piedmont white variety colloquially called ‘little rascal in its homeland because it is considered difficult to grow. They have also planted 2 hectares of the Portuguese variety Albarino in 2009 and another 2 hectares in 2010. They are experimenting with almost 1 hectare of the Rhone Valley and traditional Languedoc-Rousillon variety Marsanne. It, too, is contracted to Coopers Creek. The Bells may be signalling a revitalised mix of grape varieties for Gisborne.

All of these newer varieties are widely spaced with the rows the standard 2.9 metres apart. Doug summarises this spacing as complying with Richard Smart’s ‘big vine theory’. The vines are spur pruned, partly to reduce labour costs. Doug also believes spur pruning better enables them to control the vigour of the vines and have their vegetative growth in balance with the vines ability to ripen the crop. Coopers Creek are seeking low yields of 6 to 7 tonnes per hectare. To achieve crops at this level requires more work in the vineyard but the price per tonne of grapes is much higher. The Bells are at ease with this trade-off because their objective is to grow grapes of the highest quality. They are quite prepared to make the extra effort, and indeed prefer producing grapes with the flavours and acid-sugar balance to make such wines, provided they are rewarded for it.

The remainder of the Bell vineyard is predominantly planted in Chardonnay -4 hectares of Mendoza and almost three of the new 131 clone. These grapes are managed differently. They are pruned in the more common system of vertical shoot positioning with the aim being to produce Chardonnay crops of about 12 tonnes per hectare. These grapes are contracted to Constellation Brands. The price per tonne for these Chardonnay grapes is, of course, much lower than for the varieties they are growing for Coopers Creek. In most years, though, the income per hectare works out at being higher for the varieties planted specifically for Coopers Creek.

In 1983 when they first planted grapes, the Bells relied heavily on advice from the viticultural advisors of the companies buying their grapes. While they continue to benefit from such advice, they are now in a much stronger position to assess the yields that they might reasonably be expected to achieve, compared with the cost of the viticultural practices required to meet them. Doug admits to being ‘a bit of a gambler and is prepared to take risks provided the possibility is there for a higher net income per hectare. When in the 1990s Corbans introduced a system of higher payments per tonne for grapes that reached higher sugar levels and were free of botrytis the Bells were strongly in favour of it. Supplying a smaller company, such as Coopers Creek, that is committed to producing distinctive wines at high prices from different but proven varieties, also appeals to them.

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