In January 2011, I took a few days after the Central Otago Pinot Celebration festivities to boldly go in search of further flung sub-regions of the area that I hadn’t previously explored. Setting-out early the morning after the culmination party to drive to Alexandra – about an hour’s worth of over-indulgence accentuating twists and turns round the mountains from Queenstown – I visited one of the few producers with the necessary mix of self-confidence and reclusiveness to be based out in this neck of the rugged terrain: Two Paddocks.
It’s important to explain that the sub-regions of Central Otago are as distant and as disparate as you’ll find anywhere in Europe. Having driven the length and breadth of Burgundy many times, to put the area into perspective driving from Bannockburn, home of Felton Road and Mt Difficulty, to Two Paddocks is a similar to driving from Gevrey-Chambertin to Pommard. Not only do the sheer distances between Central Otago’s vineyard areas result in sub-regionally definable climatic differences, but equally important this region possesses considerable variations in topography, precipitation patterns and soil types when you consider the breath-taking effects of tectonic plate and glacial movements that created the dramatic mountains, gentler undulations and alluvial deposits that define the sub-areas. Therefore while most consumers may not be finding consistently distinctive “terroir” influences in the precocious wines of the individual sub-regions and single vineyards of Central Otago today, that Pinot Noir vines eventually mature into communicators of their place suggests this is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. Already the locals and keen observers with palates calibrated to the subtle differences emerging from Central Otago fruit speak of the lighter soils and cooler ripening seasons in the Gibbston sub-region producing red berry / bramble fruit characters and lighter, more delicate, perfumed and sometimes herbal laced wines, certainly compared with the dark fruited, heavier, solidly structured wines of Bannockburn and other areas of the Cromwell Basin.
Two Paddocks straddles the east and west extremes of Central Otago’s vineyard areas with sites located in the moderate to cool sub-regions of Alexandra and Gibbston. Alexandra extends to the east and slightly south of Bannockburn and Cromwell, with Gibbston existing to the west, closest to the city of Queenstown. Gibbston is one of the coolest, more marginal areas of Central Otago with a slightly higher annual rainfall than other areas. Putting down vines here has been considered risky business…and still is by some. This sub-region is the home of the first Two Paddocks vineyard, aptly called “First Paddock”. Initially planted in 1993 to Pinot Noir clone 5 as a somewhat cautious testing ground within this notoriously difficult area, after a good run of successful harvests this small, trial-sized 2 hectare vineyard was expanded to 5 hectares in 2008 and more clones were introduced: 10/5, 943 and 115.
In 1998 a second vineyard was purchased in the more ‘moderate’ Otago climate of Alexandra as something of an insurance policy given the unpredictability of Gibbston. This 3 hectare site, called “Alex Paddock”, is around 50 kilometers’ drive east from “First Paddock”, comparable to driving from Rully to Gevrey-Chambertin. Now considered by the Two Paddocks team to be their finest Pinot vineyard, most vintages it produces small quantities of a single vineyard wine called “The Last Chance” referring to a river running through the property that was formerly panned by miners during the region’s Gold Rush. Here along with the clone 5 and 115 that are part of the First Paddock mix, there’s some clone 6, 777 and the legendary Able clone (so named after the customs officer that confiscated this ‘DRC’ smuggled cutting, subjecting it to quarantine before propagating it himself).
Two Paddocks’ Cellar Door
I met with my host Mark Field, the General Manager of Two Paddocks, at the property’s third vineyard site of around 5.5 hectares planted mainly to Pinot Noir with a little Riesling (2 ha): “Redbank Paddocks”. A real mixed-bag of Pinot clones - 115, 10/5, 667, 777 and 114 - was planted here in 2000 and 2001, with the vines relatively densely spaced at 5500 vines per hectare. In recent years this vineyard has been producing the lion’s share of the Two Paddocks Pinot Noir, a label that is currently made as an Alexandra / Gibbston blend.
Mark Field explained that there have been a lot of changes and developments since their first vintage in 1997, but the wines are always made from 100% estate grown fruit, something of a philosophical stance itself particularly in a country where grapes have become a major commodity and the use of purchased fruit for labels is common. Field gathered the bottles for my tasting in a small picnic-bench area of a shed that is the unadvertised ‘cellar door’ of Two Paddocks, located alongside a 50+ hectare farm of various crops producing lavender for essential oil, saffron and cherries, amongst other foods and a menagerie of beasts. At this stage I have not met or even given much thought to the owner, but if the lonesome remoteness of this place, the simple artistry mixed with functionality of the shed and a farm that is as bio-diverse as it is holistic were giving me an insight into his personality, I’d have been guessing he was an ascetic, sandal-wearing hermit-of-the-earth, preferring a barefooted stroll amongst the compost to the lime-lit shuffle of brogues on the red carpet.
Two Paddocks’ Sam Neill, In Asia
In March 2011, Sam Neill travelled to Asia to attend the Burghound events and host his own wine event in Singapore. His event was a meeting of his two worlds: a Two Paddocks and Sam Neill film night at “The Screening Room”, a restaurant and small, cozy living-room style cinema in the heart of the city’s Chinatown. There I met with Neill at the roof-top bar with views over Singapore’s financial district for a glass of his Riesling and a chat before watching a film in which he stars as a reincarnated spaniel, “Dean Spanley”.
Sam Neill comes across a soft-spoken, humble yet unmistakably erudite man, with a constant smile playing at the edges of his poker face – a tell that gives away an underlying dry sense of humor. He grew up in Dunedin, a coastal town located in Otago, south-east of the now famous wine regions. “We used to go to Central Otago for holidays,” he begins, “for camping and fishing in the summer and skiing in the winter.”
Neill’s family has a long history in the wine trade in New Zealand. About the time of the Gold Rush, Neill’s grandfather arrived from Northern Ireland. In 1861 the family business of wine and spirits imports emerged. “My great-grandfather P.C. Neill founded Neill & Co in 1861, (at the tender age of 19 - I just worked it out the other day), having just got off the boat in Dunedin from Belfast,” Neill informed me. “On the way, he managed to line up a bride, a woman he met in Australia, one Miss Fyans, who subsequently bore him at least 12 children. She must have been taller than him, as he was famously short, and all subsequent Neills have been rather tall. His timing was immaculate – the same year he arrived gold was discovered in Central Otago (where I now grow my wine), and this resulted in one of the biggest gold rushes anywhere in history. Just the place for a bold, young entrepreneur, who set up a firm of importers and exporters, and prospered. The core business of Neill & Co, which passed on to my grandfather and father, was wines and spirits. Mainly from Bordeaux as it happens. And Scotland too – Scotch was very popular then.”
After a spate in the army, Neill’s father joined the family business. “My father was an officer in the British Army and when he retired he took over the firm. He probably wasn’t a brilliant businessman, far too dreamy, but he was smart enough to merge the business with another old family firm, Wilson & Co. Wilson & Neill did very well, and for a while was perhaps the biggest player in NZ liquor. Sadly however, the firm eventually fell into the wrong hands, was asset stripped, and went bung. Thankfully this was after my father’s death, as it would have broken his heart. An undignified end to an old institution, and I remain quietly enraged to this day.”
So in many ways the decision to become a wine producer after school would have been a more logical career descision than an actor. “The family business was intrinsically about alcohol and I grew up with wine on the table,” Neill tells me. “Dad was well traveled too and whenever we went on holiday to Central Otago he would wonder (with monotonous regularity) why no one was growing wine there – it reminded him so much of places he knew so well in France and Italy. Well, we are now. So the old boy I guess was something of a prophet, we just didn’t know it.”
If family history foretold that the wine business would be something of a destiny, then how did Neill come there via the silver screen? “I became an actor because there was nothing else I could do at the time,” he grinned matter-of-factly. Funny, that was always my excuse for going into the wine trade.
Early on in his career, Neill met the legendary actor James Mason. Mason advised the budding young performer, “There are two things you need to know about acting. Never smoke in a scene or you’ll be smoking forever and die. Never eat in a scene or you’ll be eating forever and die.” It was James Mason that re-introduced him to fine wine and opened his eyes to great Pinot Noir. They sat having a meal and Mason opened a bottle. Neill tasted it, “This is really something. What is this?” Mason replied, “This is Burgundy.” Apparently Mason never told him not to drink Pinot Noir in a scene.
Sam Neill has made about 50 films, most notably the blockbuster “Jurassic Park” and Jane Campion’s academy award winner, “The Piano”. In Singapore we watched “Dean Spanley” together – a black comedy about loss, British stoicism and life-after-dog-death, all rolled together with a wine theme, namely “Imperial Tokaji”. Neill plays a Dean who, upon the merest sniff and taste of an Imperial Tokaji, is transported back to his former life as a spaniel. After the film, during the dinner part of the evening, Neill moves easily from discussing Two Paddocks to the film’s mortality theme, a very sobering underbelly to this twisted comedy of manners. As it is so often the case, he explained the film was shot out of sequence with the last scene of the film done first. This scene is a soliloquy that Neill recites to the other three main characters in the film, amongst them Peter O’Toole. In the film O’Toole’s character is gripped by the story that unfolds from Neill’s transported Dean Spanley. O’Toole’s piercing eyes imperceptibly transform throughout the scene from a callused, bitter old man to a young boy mourning his lost dog and then the father of a son killed in the Anglo-Boer Wars. Neill is in fact giving this edifying performance as the dog reincarnated, presumably O’Toole’s dog – ‘one of the seven great dogs’. The film’s story is fantastically off-beat, made both tragic and very funny by the dry, pithy execution and down-to-earth personality that has taken Neill from the bucolic mountains and lakes of Otago to Hollywood’s glimmering celluloid hills and eventually back home again.
Back on the topic of wine, Neill told me how his second career, destiny or not, was something of a fortuitous happenstance too. “Really the first site (First Paddock) was an accident,” Neill confessed. “I was vaguely thinking of planting some grapes and ran into a friend (Greg Hay of Chard Farm and Peregrine) who said he’d found some land at Gibbston, was dividing it into 6, and would plant it in Pinot, and did I want to be in? I thought about it for about 2 minutes and then said yes, and asked him which was the best block? Greg recommended the least promising looking block, I thought, but I took his word for it. And it turns out he was right. I had no particular ambitions for this our first site - I would have been happy to produce something drinkable for the table, for my thirsty friends. But to our great surprise almost from the very first vintage, First Paddock has produced remarkable Pinots – silky and elegant and quite feminine.”
Two additional vineyards later, Redbank in Alexandra is Neill’s main vineyard and Two Paddocks’ ‘headquarters’. “As well as being our biggest vineyard it is also a kind of mini farm,” Neill explained, “we have a couple of rather naughty goats, some quite attractive sheep, a charming pig, chickens, vegetables, cherry orchards, a saffron field, lavender paddocks and so on. Here we have extensive Pinot vineyards, and Riesling too – easily my favorite white variety. It’s a beautiful place. One day we will make a single vineyard Pinot here, but in the meantime it is the backbone of our premium Two Paddocks Pinot Noir. A couple of blocks here we are happy to direct towards our Picnic Pinot as they don’t seem to be first rate just yet. But we understand more every year about all our vineyards, and a great deal of love and care are lavished upon them using a combination of biodynamic and organic techniques. It’s a labour of love, with the stress on both love and labour.”
Has the hard graft and heartbreak of owning a winery tempted Neill to want to eventually make the wines? “No, probably not,” he sighs. Neill’s wines are currently made at the Central Otago Wine Company by highly skilled and much in demand winemaker Dean Shaw. Dean Shaw makes wines at the contract winery for several wineries in Central Otago. When I enquired if one day Shaw might work exclusively for Two Paddocks, Neill pointed out, “I am a partner in The Central Otago Wine Company, and that company has made all our Two Paddocks wines from the first vintage, and Dean Shaw has been the winemaker from the third year. I’d like to imagine that Dean sees Two Paddocks as his flagship (COWCO makes wine for another 6 or 7 other little producers in any given year). But the truth I suspect is that he lavishes the same care on all his wines. He is a wonderful winemaker, and I’m happy to share! Dean has the same philosophy with winemaking as we do – I think there is a somewhat regrettable trend to make some rather obvious, fruit-bomb style Pinots in NZ, but we are resistant to that. We like structure, and we like wines that age. This means that they will be restrained and quiet initially – we do not compete in wine shows, not just because we have trouble with the notion of competition, but we also know our wines need at least 4 or 5 years before they are very attractive. The fruit-bombs will have fallen over by that time. And the truth is we are very, very small, too small to contemplate having our own winemaker. And Dean makes different wines with individual producers; he likes to say he keeps out of the way of the wine, and allows each one to express itself . Which is why there is really nothing the same as Two Paddocks.”
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