Les vins de Sam
By Patrick Barkham
Photographs by Suellen Boag
What is it with movie types and their wine? First Chateau
Coppolla and now Sam Neill who, when not acting, can be found down on the farm
in New Zealand quaffing bottles of his own Pinot Noir
'Don't swallow. You'll get drunk,' says Sam Neill, pointing
to the sink where I should discharge my mouthful of his Two Paddocks 1999 Pinot
Noir. It seems rude to spit out such fine red wine in front of such a generous
host, in his own home, but it is 11am,
and we've got a winding car journey to Neill's winery and three tiny vineyards
in southern New Zealand
ahead of us. The actor (and now winemaker) gives his glass a swirl. 'One thing
you can say about Two Paddocks is that it does get you pissed. I thought this
could be our slogan at one time. "Two Paddocks - it gets you pissed.'
Wine is one of many things Neill is deadly serious about. 'I
hate using that overworked word "passion" because it's a word that sucks to me,'
he says. 'There is a lot of pseudery that goes with wine appreciation.' But he
believes two things are often overlooked. One is the length of finish. 'My
first wines didn't have this. A good wine should persist on the palette for a
long time.' The other is the nose. He buries his nose in his glass and gives an
appreciative sniff. 'If you ever see Gerard Depardieu putting his nose in wine
- it is a thing of beauty.' Neill's eyes twinkle. 'I've only met him a couple
of times but I saw that nose in a glass.'
We burst out of Neill's workshop into the brilliant New
Zealand light. He points out a blue heron
that flaps up from his pond and pauses to remonstrate with his sun-loving
Staffordshire bull terrier - with 'a face only a mother would love' - for not
keeping the rabbits out of his garden. She's called Fire. 'We inherited the
name. Calling "Fire" around the neighbourhood causes consternation.'
The air is Alpine-crisp and smells of earth and meadows. The
hilltop house where Neill lives with his wife, Noriko, a make-up artist, and
their young daughter, Elena, has views to the mountainside where Neill skies in
winter. In the other direction are the Remarkables, a spectacularly jagged
range of peaks.
Neill built his simple but luxurious 'Georgian Irish' home
15 years ago, nestled between the lakes and mountains surrounding the
increasingly chic adventure holiday town of Queenstown. His English mother and New Zealand
father moved from Omagh, Northern
Ireland, to Dunedin,
on New Zealand's
South Island, when he was three. Now 54, Neill began his
career in local theatre and TV, moved to Australia
during its late Seventies film boom, and has now appeared in more than 70 film
and TV productions. He has spent most of the last 25 years 'charging around'
the world to star in films like Jurassic
Park, The Piano, Dead Calm and Omen III but, unlike fellow Kiwi Russell Crowe, has never cut his
New Zealand ties. Neill's engagement in his local community particularly over
environmental issues makes him a national treasure. 'He's a legend,' one Kiwi
back-to-back films, including Jurassic
Park III, Neill has just spent a rare six months at home. He's not been
idle. A highlighter pen and a script for a lavish Granada TV production of DrZhivago
is slung on the coffee table in his bam-like living room. Neill will shortly be
flying to Prague to play Komarovsky
- 'the cad', he says. This will be a welcome break from recent boffin roles for
the actor whose sharp looks and gentlemanly demeanour once had him tipped as
the next James Bond.
Neill can't sit still. A quiet day in Queenstown involves
dashing around the countryside in the Landcruiser with Ian, his unflappable
'executive shitkicker', who is fielding calls and rearranging Neill's schedule
on his Psion organiser. 'It's very bucolic today,' Neill sighs as we barrel
past a bizarre field of llamas on our way to the winery.
Nine years ago, a winemaker friend persuaded Neill to buy a
small plot of land in the claustrophobic valley that winds its way between Cromwell
and Queenstown in Central Otago. The region is a
six-hour drive from Christchurch, the South Island's major city, past the
spectacular snow-capped Mount Cook along the kind of twisting roads that make
you feel trapped in one long car advert (manufacturers bring their latest
models from all over the world to film ads here). European settlers only
colonised here when gold was discovered in 1862.
Fifteen years ago, a new gold rush began when people started
planting vineyards and found that Central Otago's warm,
dry summers and cool nights suited the notoriously fickle Pinot Noir grape.
Land that would only support half a dozen rabbits has rocketed in value. Neill
soon snapped up two more plots in an even more isolated valley, 40 miles from
the bungee-jumping, heli-skiing buzz of Queenstown.
He is fascinated by the Pinot Noir grape and the subtle wine
it produces. 'It's the most elusive of grapes. It is the fastest growing and
fastest ripening.' The most southerly wine-growing region in the world, Central
Otago's brilliant sunlight is tempered by a dry climate and cool
nights that prolong the grape's growing season. Neill harvests in May - the
equivalent of November in the northern hemisphere.
He says the region's fledgling Pinot industry is bound to
expand. 'You can grow it anywhere, but there are only a few pockets in the
world to date that grow it well- Burgundy, parts of Oregon, a couple of pockets
in Victoria, Australia, Martinborough in New Zealand, and Central Otago.'
His Two Paddocks label has produced four small vintages,
which have gained better reviews each year. Neill enthuses over its 'voluptuous
fruit characteristics'. Unlike bombastic Bordeaux,
Pinot tends to be versatile and light, and is now the essential accompaniment
to cheese at any party held by Queenstown's fashionable local set, who consume
many of Neill's bottles. Those not drunk by Neill and his large circle of
family and friends have found their way into cellars around the world,
including that of the Ivy in London.
I'm glad I spat as we lurch along the sickeningly winding
road from Queenstown to Cromwell. We flash past Neill's first vineyard at
Gibbston, a tiny plot on a steep north-facing slope (as it has to be Down
Under), which has provided most of his Pinot Noir so far. At Cromwell, we turn
into a small industrial estate housing the Central Otago Wine Company, a
boutique winery co-owned by Neill that bottles wine for 10 small producers in
the region. Before joining Neill, his young winemaker, Dean Shaw, followed the
Pinot trail around the world, harvesting the grapes in France
and South Africa.
'Because it's not so in your face you have to think about the textures and
subtleties and nuances of flavour,' he says, a floppy hat wedged over his eyes.
Shaw and Neill take a meticulous, enthusiast's approach to
producing Two Paddocks Pinot. The grapes are thinned on the vines to improve
their intensity of flavour. Handpicked, they are soaked for a week in vats
where the natural yeasts start converting the sugar into alcohol. Shaw mixes in
a few stems to add 'texture and tannins'. The grapes are then pressed as gently
as possible with a canvas balloon and the wine poured into small, aged oak
barrels. Neill insists on using French oak. US
oak is fine for white wine, but 'there is too much vanilla in it' for Pinot
The wine is then stored in a climate controlled warehouse
for 10 months. The wines in different corners of the vineyards are processed
separately, before their flavours are tasted and carefully blended and bottled.
'Dean sometimes asks me do I want this or that, but he knows a million times
more than I do,' says Neill.
Last year's harvest will be bottled soon and the factory is
at full tilt. Neill turns to Shaw. 'It's going to be good, isn't it?' he says,
looking like an enthusiastic inventor amid all the metallic thuds and shouts of
'turn the agitator off' from the men working in the factory. 'The first
[vintage] was good, the second was very good and the third I think is
excellent. The 2000 is differently excellent. What surprised me is how quickly
we got to excellent.'
We drive past a vast
hydro dam, before dropping down into Earnscleugh
Valley. Neill is ruminative, easily
fascinated, and quickly distracted. 'That, there, is a magpie,' he says,
pointing. 'They were introduced from Australia.
A lot of things were brought in by homesick Brits.' They also shipped in
blackbirds - and trout and salmon. 'I couldn't be more delighted. Some of the
best fishing in the world is in New Zealand.
These things were sensible,' he nods. But the worst was the possum. 'We have 80
million of them and they're ruining our native forests. This is a national
disaster. Many of the worst things in history were done with the best
intentions. Back at their house, Neill and Noriko have a beautiful bed cover,
made from 120 possum skins. 'I feel good every time I get under it,' he says.
Before we get to Neill's other two vineyards, Alex Paddocks
and Redbank, we stop at the Old Post Office, now a pub, in Clyde, a pretty
village full of gold-miners' cottages and immaculately tended gardens. Inside,
the barmaid knows Neill likes ice in his ginger beer and the local drinkers, as
locals do, know we are heading out to his vineyards. A big man Neill doesn't
know plonks himself down and strikes up a slow conversation.
'A lot of rocks out at Redbank. I moved a lot of rocks
there,' he says.
'Yep,' says Neill.
'Built a wall up there with them.' 'That's a good wall,'
says Neill, matter-of-factly.
Not much escapes the shrewd gaze from what one US film
critic once described as '.45 calibre eyes that will plug holes in your sitting
As we head on towards Alex Paddocks, he mentions he's been
watching a lot of films because he is in the Academy and it is Oscar time. He
Drive. 'I thought it was the most amazing
thing I'd seen for a long time. But the last 15 minutes completely perplexed
me.' He went to a party held by the film's Australian star, Naomi Watts, in the
States. Suddenly he turns to Ian. 'Can you get her phone number? I really want
to call her and find out what the fuck was going on.'
He collects paintings by local artists. 'This is what we do
best. It may be because we're slightly inarticulate people.' The most fired-up
he gets is in discussing New Zealand's
lack of a national gallery. 'We are a country with a number of wonderful poets
and short-story writers. We have some good sculptors and some very interesting
Maori artists. We've got a few actors but we have a bounty of very brilliant
painters and yet no national gallery. What kind of sense is that? It's a matter
of national shame.'
Then there is wine. 'It's all been a slow revelation to me,'
he says. Wine was in his blood. 'It's about 75 per cent now,' he smiles. Around
the time of Central Otago's goldrush, his great-grandfather
set up a company importing wines and spirits into New
Zealand. It remained a family business until
20 years ago. Neill grew up with wine on the table at dinner (beer was strictly
for the holidays in his middle class world). He remembers the dumpy round
bottle of Portuguese rose he first got drunk on 'at school, with terrible
But his interest in wine only really developed at the same
time as everybody else in the country, he says. 'People started to make wines
that were affordable and drinkable and they soaked through into your life. I
spent a year driving through Europe in a VW Kombi, like
a lot of people did in the 1970s, and got used to drinking wine every night.
When I worked in the movies I started drinking better wine, then curiosity led
to a bit more knowledge of what I was doing.
'When you drink a glass of your own wine, if you have any
kind of palate at all you can judge it with some kind of objectivity. That sort of objectivity is not available to
you as an actor watching yourself.'
Food and wine are about conviviality,' he says. 'You
wouldn't want to drink wine in isolation. I've got so many great friends in all
different comers of the world. There is always some idiot who is up for a
bottle of wine, wherever you are.'
Neill admits that he could not live off his three little
vineyards. There is a saying in New Zealand:
'How do you make a millionaire? Give someone two million and tell them to open
a vineyard.' Pinot is a low-yielding vine, the grapes are hand-picked, and
Neill focuses on quality not quantity. 'One day it will look after itself,' he
says, but right now he is not unduly bothered by his losses. He is more
concerned when retailers sell it above the NZ$39 (£12) he suggests. 'I have
seen it for sale at NZ$100, which enrages me. I've always admired Morgan, the
English car company, because when Mr Morgan was asked why he didn't sell the
car for a higher price, he said: "Otherwise the wrong people would drive
it." I'd hate to think my wine was only being drunk by property developers.'
Two Paddocks has not yet seriously entered the European
market, but Neill has several distributors lined up. One lesson he has learnt
from his family's wine business is the importance of the unpretentious Two
Paddocks name. A brandy called Beehive was his father's best-selling product,
and Neill recounts his father's theory that it was because New
Zealand punters were too embarrassed to ask
for an exotic French brandy whose name they couldn't pronounce. A similar
dynamic seems to exist today. As French winemakers steadily lose market share
to accessible New World brands, some are copying
Southern Hemisphere branding and using simpler names.
We hit a bumpy dirt
track and drive past a small house and garden, where two children bounce on
a trampoline. 'This is a very out-of-the-way corner of New
Zealand. You'd never have a reason to come
here,' Neill says. The rocky terrace of Alex Paddocks overlooks a broad,
beautiful, and slightly bleak valley. All you hear is birdsong and the wind
rushing through the parched yellow grass.
The vines are under nets, Neill explains, to protect them
from birds. 'It all looks like a giant condom.' Five weeks from picking, the
grapes are small, round and already taste sweet. Neill absentmindedly plucks
several leaves from a vine to better expose the grapes to the sun. 'Everything
is done by hand except mowing between the rows,' he says. The earth is dry and
stony and looks singularly unpromising. 'You don't want the grapes in heavy
lush soil because they just become these overwhelmingly powerful vines and they
forget about growing grapes.'
Alex was planted with Burgundy clones
grafted on to US
rootstock in 1998. Neill and Shaw are still learning how the young vines and
their fruit behave in New Zealand's
glacial soils (which are far younger than European soils).
'I think this will be fruit-driven, very silky and delicate
through the mouth,' Neill predicts as he bounds up the north-facing slope ahead
of me. 'There's something exhilarating about this site. It never fails to
excite me. I just feel it will be one of those famous little vineyards in NZ
one day,' he shouts. 'Here's the secret ingredient. These hills are covered in
herbs.' He plucks thyme from the dry ground. 'These will just add a very subtle
extra dimension - a little bit of herbal influence,' he says with a straight
There is a touch of the Prince Charles about Neill's
old-fashioned love of the land and enthusiastic support for hunting and
fishing. He has become closely involved in arguments about development in
Queenstown. 'It is under terrible duress, like anywhere that is involved in tourism,'
he says. 'People want to move here because there is something idyllic about it.
This is a knotty problem, but one which has been dealt with many years ago in Britain.
It would be marvellous if you could all live in the Lake District,
but you've had to say "we're full. You can't build any more." These
things are taken for granted in Europe but are regarded
as absolutely draconian, undemocratic and unjust in a frontier society like
this. The best one can do is support some modicum of controls.'
The tide turned late last year, he hopes. The 'rabidly'
pro-development mayor retired and the man Neill and fellow activists championed
got in, promising to regulate the pace at which vast Alpinestyle houses and
hotels were popping up on the mountainsides.
Redbank, just down the road from Alex Paddocks, is Neill's
third and newest vineyard. The poplars lining the track leading through the
valley give it a French look. 'We'll take the 'gator,' says Neill. 'I love this
machine.' We jump on a little green and yellow John Deere, more go-cart than
tractor. Redbank, a former government research farm, is a mosaic of fields,
dotted with pear trees, apricot orchards, rows of tomatoes and plots of
rosemary, thyme, bay leaves and lavender. 'I'm leaving those. I see them as a
benign influence,' he says. An overpowering waft of freshly cut lavender seeps
from a shed door. Neill is bottling the oil and selling it. 'Again, there is no
money in it but it's a nice thing to do.'
Neill has also planted some Riesling at Redbank. 'You
wouldn't grow Riesling in Burgundy.
I don't know why. It's an oddity,' he ponders. 'It's undervalued because of
those ghastly sweet German Rieslings we drunk when we first started drinking
wine in the Seventies, but I think it will be the other great wine to be grown
here in Central Otago.'
After his stint filming in Prague and a forthcoming role in Perfect Strangers, made by his own
production company (his first film in New Zealand since The Piano), Neill will relocate one of Redbank's apricot orchards
and plant more Pinot. He envisages this large orchard becoming the centrepiece
of Two Paddocks. Redbank's more sheltered site will offer very different
flavours to the dry rocky hillside at Alex Paddocks. Neill will produce
separate vintages as soon as he can.
We lurch to a halt at Redbank's top boundary, under the
poplars. Across the broad valley, empty but for birds and a couple of
farmhouses, the mountains soften in the late afternoon sunlight. 'You must have
empathy with the land. You need some heartfelt connection with the land,
otherwise it's a bit pointless,' Neill says. 'I love coming here. I think it's
a great place.'
Then we're off again, back towards Queenstown in the
Landcruiser. Neill turns to Ian, his assistant. His farm manager at Redbank has
'got to prioritise the shelter belt modification' he says, frowning. We pass a
field of cows. He swings round boyishly. 'They're very attractive looking cows.
I've never seen them before.'