For the past 20 years, when not on set, actor Sam Neill has been trying to develop the best pinot noir in the world on his vineyard at home in New Zealand, writes JOHN WILSON
Celebrity wines are in vogue these days, though they are often little more than vanity projects, with the famous owner keeping well away from the production side. Actor Sam Neill has done it differently, however. For two decades, the owner of Two Paddocks vineyard in Central Otago, New Zealand, has played an active role there whenever his acting permits.
“Central Otago was close to where I grew up,” he says, “and where we would take our holidays each year. To my great surprise some friends of mine started growing pinot noir there at a place called Rippon Vineyards. The wines were startlingly good, even though it was still early days. I became very interested in them.”
Neill was already a huge pinot noir fan, having been introduced to the grape by his friend and mentor, the actor James Mason in 1979. “It was over a dinner in Lausanne in Switzerland. I believe the wine was a Gevrey-Chambertin and it set me on the road to Damascus,” he says. “Once I started to work in films, I began earning a little more money. That meant I could drink wine that actually came in a bottle. I was living in London, just off the Edgeware Road for about five or six years; there was a very good wine shop down the road, and the people there pointed me in the direction of various great Burgundies . . . it was there that I rediscovered the enormous pleasure of red Burgundy.
“Unfortunately, just after that, the Americans discovered Burgundy too and they became unaffordable, and they remain so to this day, really.”
Shortly after tasting the wines from Central Otago, he was walking down a street at home in New Zealand and bumped into a friend. “He and a few others were going to buy a couple of hundred acres [about 80 hectares] and plant them with vines.”
Neill was asked if he wanted in. “I’d just done a Hollywood movie and had a little spare cash so I ended up with a very small, modest vineyard.”
This now produces First Paddock, one of two single vineyard wines. That was in 1993. The first wine was produced in 1999 and Neill now owns 20 hectares of vines.
“I got more ambitious,” he says. “It is sort of like a wildly careering out-of-control bus now. I quickly formed the modest ambition to make the best pinot noir in the world. I say that jokingly but I didn’t see any point in making wine unless it was good.”
Over the past two decades the Central Otago region has established itself, alongside Martinborough, as one of the best places to grow pinot noir outside of Burgundy. It is in the far south of the South Island, and is the only vineyard area that has a continental climate. This means bitterly cold winters, with a risk of spring frost, and a long, slow ripening period perfect for growing riesling and pinot noir. (Neill has a small plot of riesling planted because his wife “decided on a whim” one day that she wasn’t going to drink any more red wine.) The wines have an amazing intensity of pure ripe fruit balanced by excellent mineral acidity. Look out for Felton Road, Mount Difficulty, Peregrine, Mount Edward as well as Neill’s Two Paddocks.
Neill loves being involved in the day-to-day operation of the winery, though he has plenty of qualified workers.
“It is entirely different to film and theatre; not just the wine world, but being agrarian. We have a small farm with pigs, sheep and orchards. I spend a lot of time there. It is where I like to be. My life is sort of a perpetual torture, a nice torture if there is such a thing, but I am continually divided between my overwhelming desire to be home with mud on my shoes or doing a job. At the moment, I am working on a project with the BBC and I love it and thrive on it.
“Last year I did three movies and three TV series so I am extremely busy, but part of me always wants to be pruning vines. It’s not a bad life.”
It is hard to find a decent pinot for under €15, with the exception of those from Chile. Yields are too low to allow for budget wines.
So, sadly this week’s wines come in at fairly steep prices.
BOTTLES OF THE WEEK
Saint Clair Pinot Noir 2010, Marlborough, 13.5%, €17.99
This has plenty of ripe plum and black cherry fruits backed up by some spicy oak flavours.
Stockists: Next Door Off-licences; O’Briens and independents
Two Paddocks Picnic Pinot Noir 2009, Central Otago, 13.5%, €24
A delicious light Pinot with toothsome summer fruits.
Stockists: Red Nose Wines, Clonmel ; Curious Wines, Cork, curiouswines.ie
Muddy Water Waipara Pinot Noir 2009, 13%, €27.95
This has lovely rich dark fruit, some new oak, good concentration and a lovely meaty quality.
Stockists: see newzealandboutiquewines.comfor stockists
Two Paddocks Pinot Noir 2008, Central Otago, 13.5%, €34
A more substantial wine with smooth black cherry fruits, subtle spicy oak and a lingering finish.
Stockists: Red Nose Wines, Clonmel ; Curious Wines, Cork