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Sam Neill Spreads His Pinot Wings

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Many, including visitors to last week's Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, and the man himself, would have been amused to read in the country's largest newspaper that actor Sam Neill has expanded his Two Paddocks "wine empire".

Hardly an empire, I would have thought, when even with the purchase of a six-hectare vineyard at Bannockburn (his fourth) total plantings are still just 19 hectares.

The real significance of Sam's purchase of Desert Heart vineyard, at the end of Felton Road, is that it gives him a presence in what has become the engine room of one of the world's most exciting pinot noir regions. And makes him the only producer with a footprint in all three sub-regions - Gibbston Valley, and the Cromwell and Alexandra basins.

Not only will the acquisition provide a consistency of supply but will lift Two Paddocks' production by 7000 cases a year - about a third - which should help satisfy a growing international demand that reflects not only the quality of the wine, but Neill's undoubted and very public passion for the variety.

No. Passion is the wrong word.

Sam prefers to call it a grand obsession, which began in the late 1970s when dining with actor James Mason and his wife and they ordered a bottle of burgundy. That was it. He was hooked.

But Sam, 66, also has a family connection with the industry that goes back 150 years, when his grandfather Sidney founded Neill and Co, wine and spirits merchants in Dunedin. This became Wilson Neill and was run by his father Dermott, a former major in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, for whom the newly-acquired vineyard will eventually be named.

While his son Sam chose a different path it was this - acting - that allowed him eventually to indulge himself. In 1993 he bought and planted two hectares in pinot noir at Gibbston and his mate, film director Roger Donaldson, did the same next door. Hence the Two Paddocks tag which became reality when Roger lost interest.

Such was the success of the pinot that Sam intended to share with friends that he then became what he calls "outrageously ambitious" and planted more. The first was Alex Paddocks, above the Earnsclough Valley, the other (now the main vineyard) on Redbank, a farm that is now at the heart of the operation and also in the Alexandra area.

With the acquisition of the entirely pinot vineyard from Denny Downie and Jane Gill, who have run the place since 1999, this means he will be able to add at least another single vineyard pinot to his stable, taking the pinots produced to five.

It also means that all the pinot, including that under the Picnic label, will now be estate grown and from next year part of a completely organic operation.

Meantime, Denny and Jane will at least continue to retail their wines, which include an outstanding chardonnay (Renaissance 2012) and a gold medal rose.

From Two Paddocks:

Picnic 2012 Pinot Noir, $32
The bloke on the label of this easy-drinking introduction to Central Otago pinot is Sam's granddad Sidney, picnicking at Karitane beach around 1920. A potion of cherries and spice

Two Paddocks 2010 Pinot Noir, $50
A lovely soft and savoury blend that runs on darker flavoured, red-berried fruit from the Gibbston and Alexandra vineyards. More restrained and elegant than many of its kind.

Two Paddocks 2010 First Paddock Proprietor's Reserve Pinot Noir, $70
A powerful aromatic, red-fruited pinot with appealing spicy, savoury, sweet-fruit characters off the Gibbston vineyard. Substantial and complex layered with flavours and interest.

Two Paddocks 2010 Last Chance Proprietor's Reserve Pinot Noir, $70
Named for watercourse dug by old-time miners that runs through the vineyard. A dense, brooding but refined pinot built around black cherries, florals and spicy, charred oak. Classy.

Southland Times

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