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Sam Neill's New Role

The noted film actor also produces fine Pinot in his native New Zealand

Actor Sam Neill's movie career spans over 60 productions, including the acclaimed art film "The Piano" and the blockbuster "Jurassic Park." Yet busy as he is with films, Neill passionately pursues another type of production: making Pinot Noir wine from his Two Paddocks Vineyard in Central Otago, New Zealand.

Neill grew up in Dunedin, a city on New Zealand's South Island. Though his father had been a wine importer specializing in Bordeaux, Neill became attracted to Burgundy while in London during the early 1980s. Initially, he favored less-fashionable white Burgundy. But when this gained popularity and escalated in price, Neill turned to red Burgundy, and there found his vinous inamorata: Pinot Noir. "[Pinot's] immensely seductive," he says, adding that while it possesses a "mercurial quality," its ultimate reward is subtlety. Though he does enjoy other wines, including the occasional "sticky" (late-harvest dessert wine), Neill approaches Pinot with virtual piety. "Bordeaux and Shiraz can be like being run over by a train or taken to with a big club," he argues, "[but] you can drink Pinot Noir with everything; it's very versatile."

Neill is a model of discipline for anyone whose tight schedule might preclude the savoring of wine. Though his acting chores frequently dictate long and hectic hours, he doesn't forsake "a real meal," which by his definition always involves a bottle of wine. "I have a very brief and intense drinking window," he says, " which starts before dinner and ends at mealtime." And the wine in that window is usually Pinot, be it from Burgundy, from Oregon's Willamette Valley or, of course, from his own Two Paddocks Vineyard.

"You can love many places," Neill muses, "but you can only be in love with one place." And the "one place" for him is the ruggedly stunning Central Otago region. Having long adored this area of mountains, lakes and jade-green rivers, he purchase a property there in the mid-1980s, intending only to build a house on it. But the late Rolfe Mills, an old family friend who owned Otago's Rippon Vineyards, convinced Neill the land could successfully grow Pinot Noir. And the first vintage (made with Mills' help) was 1997.

Central Otago is the world's most southerly wine-growing region. Its four sub-regions encompass the towns of Alexandra, Cromwell-Bannockburn and Wanaka, and also embrace New Zealand's action-packed capital city, Queenstown. This is old gold rush territory. In fact, it was a French goldminer who sniffed out Central Otago's suitability for viticulture and first planted grapes there in 1862. And today, it's New Zealand's most rapidly expanding wine region.

Central Otago is especially suited to the temperamental Pinot Noir grape. Where most of New Zealand is classified as maritime climate, here the weather is more continental. Warm summers, cold winters, low rainfall, higher elevations and wider day-night temperature fluctuations enable longer, healthier ripening periods. Unusually dry conditions, moreover, decrease the need for herbicides and pesticides. The only drawbacks are (occasional) spring frosts, high winds and voracious birds. But Neill, like many Pinot Noir producers, insists that fine Pinot requires marginal weather. And at Two Paddocks, he certainly has that.

Though Central Otago produces fine Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, Neill devotes his five-acre vineyard solely to Pinot. Steve Moffard [sic] oversees the viticulture, while the winemaking falls to Dean Shaw, who says his goal is to "achieve balance and ageability." Yet this is no easy task, as Shaw must work with several different soil-types, which, naturally, give several distinct styles of grapes. He groups each harvest, and as a result, into two broad categories: "black fruits," which are full of blueberry flavors and nice structural components and "sweet red fruits," which are brighter and more subtle in character. From these, he blends "seven layers" of wine to create an integrated whole highlighting the best qualities of each terroir.

Great care is taken along the way. The grapes are hand-picked, and 70 percent of them are destemmed, with the rest going in whole-bunch to increase structure. Each grape-lot is vinified separately, with the juice macerating in squat, double-skinned, stainless-steel dairy vats for about a week, prior to being fermented wholly with natural yeast. If the ambient conditions are too cool to trigger fermentation, winemaker Shaw carts the tanks out into the warm sunlight and carefully "sunbathes" them. He makes sure, too, that the sturdier "black fruit" wine lots undergo a longer post-fermentation skin-maceration that the lighter "sweet red fruit" ones. He also eschews fining and filtering-except when absolutely necessary.

Neill, though please with the results, is quick to caution that taste in wine is a personal thing. Years ago, he confesses, "I thought my palate was better than everyone else's. I ordered a bottle of Chablis in a smart London restaurant, and it was overwhelmingly redolent of burnt rubber. I told the sommelier, 'This is not on.' But he tasted the wine and proclaimed otherwise. So I simply paid the bill and left without eating dinner. I realized then that wine was an individual experience. It's what you like. You enjoy it when you trust yourself." And that's just what Neill is doing at Two Paddocks: trusting himself, and clearly enjoying it.

© Copyright 2001, The Quarterly Review of Wines. Posted with the permission of the publisher.

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