Though movie fans may know him for blockbusters like Jurassic Park or indie flicks like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Sam Neill’s reputation in the wine world hangs on Pinot Noir.
We last chatted with Neill back in 2008. With Jurassic World: Dominion now on the horizon, we decided to check in again—this time, via Zoom from his quarantine hotel room in Auckland, New Zealand—to learn more about how 2020’s events altered his perspective on wine and why natural wine can be interesting.
Have the pandemic and various quarantines changed your perspective on wine?
I’ve been encouraging people to drink less, but better. To really get interested in what’s in the glass, who grew it, what it’s about… When you’re locked down and putting up with your own company…you might as well be mindful of what you’re doing.
What was it like to film Jurassic World during a pandemic?
That was an unusual experience and one of the toughest I’ve ever had. We were locked up for effectively four to five months, tested every day for 10 days when we arrived, and three times a week after. Someone estimated they spent $5 million just on Covid-19 precautions.
“I’ve been encouraging people to drink less, but better. To really get interested in what’s in the glass.”
You’ve gushed openly about the magic of Central Otago. Do you feel the same now?
Someone once said, “You can love many places in the world, but you can only be in love with one.” The only place in the world I’m in love with is Central Otago. I get off the plane, and within an hour, I feel completely at home.
You recently produced a small amount of Pinot Noir naturally, without intervention or preservatives like sulfur. Did you find much difference between that and the Pinot you make conventionally?
We made two small batches from exactly the same plot: the Fusilier Vineyard in Bannockburn. One was a natural wine, and one was classic. It was really interesting, the results, because they were completely different wines. They could have been from a different vineyard altogether, but they were from exactly the same grapes.
Did the pandemic disrupt vineyard and cellar work for you?
When harvest hit, it was full-on pandemic, but the government made an exception for the wine industry with very strict protocols in place. Everyone got a dedicated bucket, a dedicated set of secateurs, and people had to keep about 6.5 feet apart all day. We estimate that every vine is visited by a pair of hands 14–15 times a year. It’s time consuming and repetitive work, from leaf plucking to harvest, so it helps when you’re all in it together. To be separate and doing it isn’t so much fun.
What’s your vision for the winery in the next five or 10 years?
Well, all four vineyards were certified organic in 2017. It’s becoming more important to people, and it certainly is to us. There was one vineyard that was problematic that we had to farm conventionally for a while, but we eventually decided everything had to be organic. It’s time consuming and expensive, but I couldn’t in all conscience live with myself if we weren’t farming organically and sustainably.
How do you feel about natural wine, or wine that’s made without anything added or taken away?
We got interested in natural wine, which I laugh a bit about, but there’s demand for it. We make a small amount for our wine club members… I don’t really approve of it, to be honest. How long has mankind been making wine? I suppose it’s 10,000 years or something? And one of the great breakthroughs happened about 3,000 years ago when they started putting in a little bit of sulfur from Mt. Etna in Sicily. They discovered wine could have a life, rather than be a home brew, so why we’re reverting to something your grandad made in his garage. I don’t really know.
What can you tell us about Last Chance, the beautiful windswept vineyard at the end of the world?
If I had to pick one of my vineyards, that would be the one. There are extraordinary, weathered rocks that look like ancient creatures, and green vines growing below them. It has fabulous views looking north into the sun. It seems an unlikely place for a vineyard initially, but it has the full intensity of that Central Otago sun that’s like nowhere else. It’s a bit windier than elsewhere, so it produces tough, small berries and small bunches. Alexandra, the subregion, was always overlooked, but I think we make some of the most interesting, elegant, restrained wines from there. We hold back Last Chance an extra year. It is the slowest to come forward because of these lovely tannins. Next year, we’ll release the 2018.
What’s distinct about this wine? How would you recognize it when tasting it blind?
It’s got lovely savory qualities. It’s the most savory of our wines. It’s surrounded by wild thyme. Thyme even grows between the rows. I’ve always thought that partly accounts for its profile. It also has a subtlety and a kind of reticence that calls for attention, which is exactly what I’ve been talking about, that mindfulness that you need to appreciate Pinot Noir.