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Le Vins de Sam

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 skis 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 tells me.

After four 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 Dr Zhivago is slung on the coffee table in his barn-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 Noir.

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 room wall'.

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 loved Mulholland 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 results'.

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 corners 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 handpicked, 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 absent-mindedly 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 face.

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 Alpine-style houses and hotels were popping up on the mountainsides.

Sam NeillRedbank, 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.'

© Copyright 2002, Guardian Limited. Posted with the permission of the publisher.

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