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A Tale of Two Paddocks

Actor Sam Neill has embarked on a production quite different from his Hollywood blockbusters -- making wine under his own label, back home in New Zealand.
 I've always been impressed by actors and their ability to confidently assume the identity of another person. I could put on an ape suit and people would still say, “Hi, Bob.”

When I met Sam Neill for the first time, I also met Riley, Ace of Spies, and that clever professor in Jurassic Park, in the flesh. It was uncanny. Neill has the same suave, confident reserve as the characters in both films. He is also tall and scarily good-looking. I found the experience quite unnerving.

At first, I wondered whether I was talking to Neill the actor but soon realised that his thoughtful, measured responses to my questions, rounded vowels and unflinching gaze were all part of his persona. I was talking to Neill the man. It occurred to me that if Hollywood ever has a role for a cheery, middle-aged wine enthusiast of solid build, I could make a fortune.

First impressions can be misleading. There's a sparkle in Neill's cool blue eyes that's easy to miss, and the suggestion of a smile that's not immediately obvious when you first study his almost too-perfect features. Neill's comments in the “news” section of his website, www.twopaddocks.com, reveal an off-beat sense of humour and a love of language. It's pure speculation, of course, but he has the scent of a true party animal.

Neill's connection with wine goes back to his father's wine and spirit importing business, Neill & Co. The company later became Wilson Neill after his father retired. “My father imported quite a lot of wine through a Bordeaux-based company, so I was brought up on very good French wine,” Neill explains. “He also imported New Zealand 's top-selling brandy under his own label, Beehive. If my father had tried to market his brand under a name like Courvoisier, his customers would have run a mile. Instead, he chose a name that was simple, pronounceable and without affectation. I applied the same principles when I christened my wine Two Paddocks . Which is exactly what it was to begin with.”

Neill's father also planted the seed of an idea that may have influence Neill's decision to choose Central Otago for his winemaking venture. “I grew up in the South Island. Every Christmas, my family went camping in Central Otago. The region reminded my father of some of the classic European wine areas that he had visited. As soon as we passed Roxburgh on the way to Alexandra, he would say, “I don't know why people don't start growing wine here.” Cars were slower in those days. I had plenty of time to study the landscape and consider his words.”

Making wine in Central Otago has been described as making wine on the edge of an abyss. Site selection is a critically important part of the process. Before buying each of his three vineyards, Neill carried out all the usual tests, such as soil analysis and the measurement of soil temperature. He also relied on intuition. “You either feel well about the soil you work and stand on, or you don't. I wouldn't buy a piece of land simply because it passed the tests with flying coulours. It has to feel right.”

In 1993, Neill bought two hectares of land in Gibbston “to make good pinot noir that I might enjoy with friends. Our first couple of vintages we pretty hard yakka,” he confesses. “I thought that if I bought a second vineyard in another part of the region it would provide some security over vintage variation. Initially, I planned to produce just one wine from several vineyards. I then became fascinated with the way that single-vineyard wines are an expression of their site. It is far more interesting to make single-vineyard pinot noir than produce a blend from various sites.”

Alex Paddock, a three-hectare vineyard in Alexandra, was purchased and planted in 1998, yielding its first crop of grapes in 2001. Redbank, a 205-hectare tract of land in Alexandra, is the latest and most ambitious purchase. By 2004 (the vineyard's first harvest), six hectares had been planted. The land was previously part of the government research project to establish the commercial viability of a range of culinary and medicinal herbs and lavenders. It was sold after researchers concluded that none were commercially viable.

“We continue to maintain and process nearly one hectare of lavender and a wide range of herbs, although they will never make any money,” Neill admits cheerfully. “Included in the purchase was still that we now use to extract lavender oil.” You can buy thelavender oil for A$17/NZ$19 from Two Paddocks ' retail outlet at Central Otago Wine Company.

Two Paddocks initially made one wine. Neill Pinot Noir. From 2002, Two Paddocks has product two single-vineyard pinot noirs: First Paddock from One Paddock Vineyard in Gibbston, and The Last Chance, from Alex Paddocks in Alexandra. From 2002 they also made Picnic Pinot Noir, a less expensive second label made using wines that don't reach first-label standard.

Neill plans to produce a picnic-style white wine made from Marlborough chardonnay grapes purchased from the 2004 vintage. It will be called Socialist Chardonnay – a term the mayor of Queenstown used to describe Neill. Neill plans to give the mayor the first two bottles.

A picnic-style Riesling made from grapes grown in the Redbank Paddock vineyard will be made for the first time from the 2004 vintage. Why riesling? “Because it is my favourite white wine and Central Otago can make great riesling. A lot of winemakers are planting pinot gris, but I believe that riesling will eventually be more successful because it is an inherently superior grape variety,” explains Neill.

Two Paddocks ' rapid growth in vineyard are parallels the almost frantic expansion of Central Otago vineyards in recent years. That expansion is largely devoted to pinot noir. There are rumblings in the region that production may now have outstripped market demand.

Neill is not at all concerned that Two Paddocks might feel the pinch, but he worries about the prospects of others, particularly new entrants with insufficient capital. “It's easy to understand why there has been such a rapid growth in pinot noir plantings – the wine is so seductive. Everyone has been surprised by the quality. There are a couple of things that do worry me. You cannot successfully mass-produce high-quality pinot noir. It is a very handmade wine. I am also very concerned by the current spate of advertisements for vineyard land that encourage buyers to ‘join the gold rush'. Winemaking seldom provides a quick return and yet some people may be counting on it. I'm glad that I have not put my life savings into Two Paddocks.”

I asked Neill if he had any comment on the current rumours that in two years' time, New Zealand will be producing more pinot noir than is currently consumed in North America . His curious but somehow satisfying response: “I recently heard that Americans eat one million animals a day.”

In 2004, Central Otago had a rough ride. An early frost dramatically reduced crop levels, while a late frost affected both quality and quantity. Neill agrees that is was a tough year but clams his winemaker, Dean Shaw, is quietly confident that they will make some pretty good wine.

How can you get your own share of Two Paddocks ? Neill has recently decided to take responsibility for his own distribution within New Zealand . “Our distributors were making more money out of selling my wine that I was,” he says, “and I was doing more work.”

At A$59/NZ$38, Two Paddocks' 2003 The Last Chance Pinot Noir is clearly one of the best buys in the vintage – if you can get it. The average price of 2002 pinot noir in Central Otago, according to my database of 83 wines, is NZ$41.70. Surely the wine could sustain a higher price, I suggest, quickly adding that if Neill has plans to put the price up, I'd be grateful if he could he wait until I had ordered my case.

But price is a sensitive issue with Neill. “After we release our first wine, I was stung by the comments of a couple of people who said it was overprice,” he says. “I want the wine to stand on its own merits rather than sell on the strength of my reputation.” Enough said.

Two Paddocks tastings are held at The Central Otago Wine Company

Take Two

2002 Two Paddocks The Last Chance Pinot Noir, A$58/NZ$38 intensely fruity pinot noir with dense black cherry, floral, farmyard and ripe plum flavours, plus a seasoning of dried herbs. Rich and silken wine with a long finish and a firm tannic backbone that hints at cellaring potential.

2002 Two Paddocks First Paddock Pinot Noir, A$59.95/NZ$35 deeply coloured pinot noir with an almost jammy intensity and a strong tannic backbone that promotes longevity at a cost to early drinkability (tasted in late 2003). Leaner and firmer than the more opulent The Last Chance.

© Copyright 2004, Gourmet Traveller WINE. Posted with the permission of the publisher. To find out more about Gourmet Traveller WINE or to subscribe please follow this link: www.wine.magshop.com.au

Photos: Suellen Boag

 

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