Sam Neill: Living on the edge is f****** terrifying

14th February, 2017 by Lauren Eads

Central Otago in New Zealand’s extreme south is not a place that any winemaker should tread lightly.

Sam Neill, owner of Two Paddocks, at the Pinot Noir NZ 2017 conference in Wellington

Majestic and picturesque with glacial-blue lakes and snow-capped mountains, it is one of the most visually alluring but viticulturally challenging regions in the world. Its semi-continental climate, with short, hot summers, make grape growing a perilous but rewarding endeavour, with winemakers frequently battling unpredictable snowfall, frost and sweeping temperatures.

So extreme is its climate that a government report in the 60s concluded that it wouldn’t ever be possible to grow grapes on New Zealand’s south island, let alone in Central Otago. We now know that isn’t the case, with the region responsible for some of New Zealand’s best examples of Pinot Noir. However it has lured just as many ambitious winemakers to the region as it has spat out. One of those to have survived is actor Sam Neill, owner of Two Paddocks, who planted his first vineyard – the First Paddock – in Gibbston in 1993.

“Living on the edge of viability is one of the most extremely satisfying things of all, but also fucking terrifying,” Neill so eloquently stated during the recent Pinot Noir NZ 2017 conference in Wellington.

Neill’s first vintage of Two Paddocks Pinot was released in 1997 with a second vineyard – the Last Chance – planted in Alexandra in 1998, which he says is “probably the southernmost vineyard in the world.”

“We know it is two degrees further south that anything in Tasmania. Jancis Robinson has established that it’s four degrees south of anything in Patagonia,” said Neill speaking to the drinks business during the conference.

“You are on the cliff edge, but it’s wonderful, as long as you don’t fall off the cliff. It’s vertiginous and it’s dangerous, but at those dizzying heights you can produce the most beautiful wines, if nature is kind.”

In 2000 Neill planted a third vineyard – Red Bank – in Alexandra, which also serves as Two Paddocks’ headquarters, and finally a fourth vineyard – the Fusilier – on Felton Road in Bannockburn in 2013.

“I have always liked that Burgundian idea where you have little parcels of land well placed in prime spots,” explains Neill of his reasons for expanding, while also confirming that he has no plans to expand further. “We also follow the Burgundian model in that we produce single vineyard wines as well as estate wines that tend to be a blend from all four vineyards.”

Central Otago in New Zealand

‘They thought of us as dilettantes’ 

Neill now has two decades of winemaking experience under his belt and a host of wine awards to the Two Paddocks name, but still remembers a time when he was “patronised, dismissed and ignored” by the wider media when he audaciously, in their eyes, embarked on a career as a winemaker.

“There is a commonly held view that really you should just do one bloody thing in your life”, he recalled during a seminar at the conference, later explaining to the drinks business that he was thought of as a “dilettante” by many.

“It takes a while to change those perceptions,” he says. “I’m serious about what I’m doing. I’m not terribly serious about myself, but we take what we do in terms of wine very seriously and that takes a while for people to realise. We are in it for fun too, but we don’t take what we do lightly.”

Two Paddocks is today certified organic, officially from the 2017 vintage onwards, and also uses a lot of biodynamic techniques, but Neill is unsure if they will ever become officially certified in this respect.

“I don’t think we bury cow horns but we certainly believe in those preps,” he says. “We have a very comprehensive and dynamic soil programme. Compost is everything to us. The farm itself, we take a holistic approach to all that we do. The cattle are there for manure and the sheep, they keep the weeds down. The chickens go around eliminating bugs – I think that’s what they are doing – they are always busy wandering about. We grow saffron and lavender and we grow our own organic vegetables and fruit and so on.”

Sam Neill as Uncle Hec in 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople

‘Winemaking is one of the arts’

Attending the Pinot Noir NZ conference in Wellington wine was of course Neill’s priority, but his stellar acting career and stature as a global household name can’t be overlooked.

Having made his film debut in 1975, Neill’s acting credits span five decades with different generations likely to know him best for his roles in Dead Calm, Jurassic Park, Kane & Abel, and more recently Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a comedy released in 2016 and based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump.

When asked how his experience as an actor has helped shape his approach to winemaking Neill is pragmatic: “If I hadn’t have been an actor I wouldn’t have been able to afford four vineyards,” says Neill, who also acknowledged the recognition that his acting career has afforded his wines.

“There’s some really good wine producers here and for some of them it’s difficult to create a story. A story attached to a wine is important in terms of public recognition. That works, but only to an extent. If your wine is a dud it only goes so far. But if you have great wines it’s a good way to start.”

But despite his success in wine, Neill admits his vineyards are far from profitable and more typically break even.

“I started off with 800 cases a year and now we are 8,000 cases a year,” says Neill. “I’m not sure where the sweet spot is where it becomes commercial, when you start running into profit. We don’t run at a loss, but they all get paid, I don’t. There’s an enormous satisfaction in producing something that’s beautiful. I’m involved in the arts anyway but I think winemaking is one of the arts.

“It’s just slightly more tangible for the consumer and a little more pleasurable than appearing as a bad guy. I think long after I am gone those vineyards will be a living vibrant thing and producing beautiful stuff. Hopefully they will still be Two Paddocks, but I will have left something behind that is a thing of beauty. I hope I will have made some sort of contribution.”

Looking ahead, diversity of styles between sub regions, particularly in Central Otago, is becoming a defining factor of New Zealand Pinot Noir, with Neill saying that the growing distinctions between sub regions are what he finds most “absorbing” about his role as a winemaker.

“Familiarity breeds respect, and you learn to respect each site for its own,” says Neill. “Every year we understand our terroir a little better than we did before and we learn what’s necessary in terms of canopy management and all those rather dull technical things. And different parts of the vineyard behave differently. We are beginning to understand what clones need what kind of attention.”
Vine age is also playing a part in the complexity of New Zealand Pinot, with Neill comparing the life cycle of a vine to that of a human.

“The oldest are 25 and the youngest are 17,” he says. “After 20 years vines really settle down. They are rather like humans. First as babies, then teenagers, but troublesome and moody, and then after 20 we can all relax with each other.”

Two Paddocks 2015 Pinot Noir

Rising cost of Burgundy an opportunity for NZ

Furthermore, winemakers are proving the ability for New Zealand Pinot Noir to age gracefully, despite much of its production currently being drunk with two weeks of being bought. Its relatively low price point compared with Burgundy is, to Neill’s mind, an opportunity, especially when set against the rising cost of Burgundy.

“If you love Pinot Noir, and if you love Burgundy try getting a really good bottle of Burgundy for £36,” Neill asks. “But if you look judiciously you will find really fantastic Pinot from Central Otago, including our own, that for Pinot-philes readily fill that gap that has now been left behind from an over demand for Burgundy.

“I remember with great affection the days when I, as a struggling actor, could afford a good bottle of Burgundy, which I could buy on Edgware Road. Those days are long gone. But I would urge Pinot lovers to start making that journey. There’s some really good Pinots coming out of Tasmania and Victoria [in Australia]. We have at least four really good regions in New Zealand. It’s really worth exploring those and finding out what you love and what you don’t like at all. Not everyone loves Pinot Noir but those that do, swivel the binoculars this way.”

4 Responses to “Sam Neill: Living on the edge is f****** terrifying”

  1. Earl Myers says:

    Terrific informative article. Keep up the good journalistic work!

    Earl Myers EM+P Brokerage & Consulting Group 357 Almeria Avenue Suite 1601 Coral Gables FL 33134 Mobile Telephone: 786.797.3729 Office Telephone: 786.409.3141 E-mail: earl@empwinebiz.com, E-mail: earl@empwineandspirits.com, Website: http://www.empwinebiz.com, Facebook

  2. Earl Myers says:

    Great article. Keep up the terrific journalistic work.

  3. Eric Awes says:

    Also loved the region when I visited in Sept, 2016!!

  4. If you can grow good Pinot Noir it is not a hostile region to grow grapes. Try growing in Midwest US, it is really hostile here. Last year had late spring frost and the 2 years before about -15F both winters. Along with summers of high humidity make organic growing next to impossible.

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