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My Cellar: Sam Neill

Read the full article as published by James Halliday: My Cellar: Sam Neill (PDF)


The original, pre-edited version:

My Cellar

One thing about having a cellar is that ideally you need to give it some thought before building commences. I gave it none at all. Nevertheless, it has some inherent virtues that others might learn from.

First of all, it is extremely inconvenient, in many ways. This, I think, is essential. Mine is situated a long way off, under an outhouse (so to speak) elsewhere on the property, down about 75 stairs. Once you’ve actually made it down the stairs, you will find that you have forgotten the key, so that means another 150 stairs until you are ready to enter.

Then, once in, most of my good stuff is hidden behind steel cages, designed to keep the racked  bottles from being flung to the floor in the event of an earthquake (I live in New Zealand, which gives you caution, if nothing else). These are ridiculously difficult to open. I have put my back out on at least two occasions, rumpling around for something desirable.

So it’s a pain in the rear end to fetch something from the cellar, and as a result most of my good stuff lies peacefully undisturbed and allowed to mature, safe from my irrational thirst. The stairs alone discourage late night lurching excursions – the very time you should never open something distinguished.

One is often told how important it is to bring a sense of order into a cellar, and I applaud those who know where everything is, or even have an early warning system – the “drink now” idea. I have never had the heart to do this. Or the common sense. Or indeed, the energy. So the cellar is a shameful shambles, I fear.

However, the upside of this is that whenever I do manage the trek and the cage wrangling, my cellar is full of surprises. There is nothing like the thrill of turning up a few bottles of something special you’d completely forgotten you ever had. Think of it as “spontaneous cellaring.” It may be a model of disorganization, but it’s an awful lot of fun.

First Wine cellared.

I really only built the cellar as I realized pretty soon after we first started producing our own Two Paddocks wine that the sensible course would be to keep back some of each vintage. For many reasons, not the least being how interesting it is to see how well your wines age. So the first bottles down there were Two Paddocks 1997. I have the whole back catalogue there now, and it’s heartening to see how most of our pinots have developed beautifully. What I do regret is not seriously cellaring our rieslings, which also age well. Bugger.

First case bought.

It’s a big psychological step and a big financial step too, buying your first case. I remember feeling very grown up when I lugged my first up the stairs to my flat in London. It was a case of Louis Latour Puligny Montrachet, I’m guessing 1976 or 7. I discovered white burgundies before the reds. Both were reasonably affordable in the early 80s. Salad days!

Wine you celebrated a major Moment.

I don’t really drink champagne much, but most of the big days seem to have been marked by champagne.  Not the greatest moment in history , but a very fine consolation – after our respective heart-breaker semi-final losses in the Rugby World Cup in 2007, a bunch of Aussies and New Zealanders were  kindly invited to stay at the Moet & Chandon chateau in Champagne; we had a rip roaring party and at dinner a different champagne with each course . A dismal moment became a great moment.

Wine you wish you’d bought more of.

Wish I’d bought more of that great burgundy when it cost 15 quid a bottle. I’d like to think that in thirty years’ time, people will be saying , “Remember when you could buy a top Central Otago pinot for 40 or 50 bucks?”

Wine that isn’t great, but I love it anyway.

So much of enjoying wine is about context. I remember a very happy time in Portugal, when every night we’d pour and pour white Vhino Verde, and couldn’t imagine anything more refreshing or delightful. Wouldn’t drink it anywhere else though. And you wouldn’t want it in your cellar.

Wine you never used to like, but now you love. Best bargain ever.

What a shame that  all that Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch that went with the failed fumbling seductions  and the Chicken Kievs , back in the day, almost irreparably damaged the reputation of  Riesling (if that indeed is what it was). It’s really only in the last ten years I have become an avid fan of Rieslings, and I always have  downstairs some Alsace (say Hugel or Trimbach, some South Australian (Peter Lehmann, Grosset), German (Dr Loosen for instance) Austrian, and of course ours as well, and Mt Edward from around the corner. All astoundingly underpriced for the quality. Riesling, as a rule of thumb, is today’s great bargain.

Wine that taught you a lesson.

A story I’ve told before, but the great James Mason and his wife Clarissa took me to a splendid dinner at L’Auberge de L’Onde near Lausanne in 1979, and bought a bottle of Burgundy (I think Gevry Chambertin). I had never drunk anything like it before. I asked James what it was. ‘”Burgundy, my boy. And don’t forget it.” Both the wine and James were teaching me a lesson, and I never forgot it.

Wine my parents loved.

After 20 years in the army, my father returned to New Zealand to manage Neill & Co, Wine and Spirits Merchants. With the emphasis on spirits, as there was zero interest in table wines in NZ at that time. Nevertheless my parents drank wine most nights, and occasionally a good claret would be seen at table. Dad had a fondness for Italian wine; I think he’d found it cheering when fighting the Germans up the Iberian Peninsula in the War.

Go to wine.

Well, a no brainer this one. It is a mad folly of course, but it does fill you with quiet pride pouring a good vintage of your own wine to a table full of friends.

Favourite lunch wine/end of night wine.

Call me a prude, but I never drink at lunch time – it stuffs the rest of your day. And by and large, I make it a rule to stop drinking as soon as my main course is finished.  I think I like wine too much to drink more than that, and to be honest, I never really had the constitution to go on carousing into the night. But if you force me to choose – Pouilly Fume for lunch, and Beaume de Venise for pudding. Alright, go on, twist my arm.

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