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The Hunt for Pinot Noir

Actor Sam Neill makes a New Zealand wine.

Sam Neill, Hollywood star, has turned into Sam Neill, New Zealand winemaker.

Neill, whose film credits include such hits as Jurassic Park, The Hunt for Red October and The Piano, has ventured to the far frontier of wine-making in his homeland to make Pinot Noir, recently releasing 300 cases of Neill's 1997 Two Paddocks Vineyard Pinot Noir.

The grapes for the wine come from the Central Otago region of the South Island, which ranks as the southernmost wine-growing area in the world. Though the 1997 vintage was of mixed quality in Central Otago, Neill's new wine has good berry flavors and appealing earthy notes.

The vintage also brought tragedy. When his close friend, winemaker Mike Wolter, died in an accident at the winery midway through the vintage, Neill nearly gave up on the fledgling project. "I was terribly shocked and depressed," he said. "I wanted to give up, but that wasn't going to do Mike's memory or his widow any good."

Neill owns two vineyards--a 5-acre property and a larger one half an hour away--and he is also a partner in the Central Otago Wine Co., which makes wine for other small growers in the region. Neill's wine costs about $15 a bottle, and he plans to stick to Pinot Noir. He hopes to export to the United States someday.

Neill was born and raised in the South Island city of Dunedin, and he was brought up around wine, which his father imported through Neill & Co. (now called Wilson & Neill and out of family hands). But Neill himself first became enamored with Pinot Noir when he lived in London in the 1980s and went to wine shops in search of red Burgundy. Like Burgundy, Central Otago is full of small farmers, explained Neill. "It's the little guys out there in their fields living on their vineyards. It's what works with Pinot Noir--it's a hands-on, handmade, tricky little wine, which is very rewarding when made well."

Central Otago was home to vineyards in the 19th century, but was later relegated to backwater status after decades of semi-prohibition. Grape-growing was revived in this cool and relatively dry region in the 1950s.

© Copyright 2000, Wine Spectator. Posted with the permission of the publisher.

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