Actor Sam Neill is modest about his acting skills but immensely proud of the wine made at his Two Paddocks vineyard in the Central Otago region at the base of New Zealand’s south island.
A tasting of his riesling and pinot noir confirmed that Neill is right to be proud of his wine. He describes the premium range as “second to none” and this is no idle boast.
As a child, Neill holidayed in Central Otago and grew to love the area so much he decided to live there. “When I started getting some money from acting I was able to buy a property, and I have pretty much based myself here since the 1990s.”
Two Paddocks started in 1993 with modest ambitions. Five acres of pinot noir were planted at the original vineyard at Gibbston in Central Otago. At the same time, film director Roger Donaldson planted the land next door; hence the name Two Paddocks.
Donaldson also makes wine, though he started later than Neill. His brand, Sleeping Dogs, takes its name from the first film the pair made together. Neill’s performance led to other major roles, including the lead in the Jurassic Park series.
Neill said he initially wanted to produce a good pinot noir that family and friends would enjoy. “Frankly, my friends will pretty much drink anything, so this didn’t seem too hard.” Neill is charmingly modest about his wine.
He said the first vintage in 1997 was much better than expected, despite a difficult growing season. Neill noted that 1998 was a more distinguished vintage and in 1999 “we were astounded to produce a pinot that was, we thought, world class”.
Central Otago, which I visited in February-March 2009, has a striking geography. Parts of it look like barren moonscape, the result of using water to flush away topsoil during the gold-mining era of the 1860s. This lack of topsoil forces vines to work hard and the resulting stress concentrates flavours.
Central Otago is actually several geographical sub-regions which produce quite distinct wines. They include Alexandra, Bannockburn, Bendigo, Cromwell and Gibbston, though Wanaka is included even though it is some distance from the region.
Neill subsequently acquired two vineyards in the Alexandra district: Alex Paddocks consists of a seven-acre vineyard on a terrace above the Earnscleugh Valley under rocky headlands. “We planted it with Burgundian pinot vines (5, 6, 115) in 1998. Two Paddocks’ The Last Chance pinot noir is from this single vineyard.”
The Last Chance name, Neill said on his blog, comes from a gold miners’ watercourse dating from the 1860s that runs through the area.
In 2000 Neill acquired Redbank, a 130-acre farm also nestled under rocky escarpments in Alexandra. It has become the main vineyard, complete with tasting room.
I tasted the 2010 Picnic riesling as well as the 2009 Picnic pinot noir and the 2008 Two Paddocks pint noir. The Picnic range can be consumed young, but it should never be considered a second label. These wines tend to be fresher and more fruit-driven.
The riesling has a lively aroma of freshly-cut lime and white honey, combined with the sensation of river pebbles dried in the sun — that elusive concept of “minerality” — in the mouth. It has a zingy acid texture that gives the wine strength and body. It is slightly sweet but the acidity balances the sweetness nicely.
The Picnic pinot probably needs a new name because of the association of picnics with easily quaffable wine. This is a good quality pinot with aromas of almost-ripe plums and savoury herbs like thyme that is a bargain price.
The tasting highlight was the 2008 Two Paddocks pinot, which is almost seductive in the way it sings in one’s mouth. The tasting notes talk of “brambles, blackcurrants and dusty blackberry with dried herbal notes”. But it is more than that.
The wine has elegance and great length and speaks with integrity of the region in which it is made. And, after all, isn’t that what we all seek in memorable wine? Neill is justified in the pride he has for his wines.
* Published in China Post, 6 November 2012, page 10. Find a link here.