Sam Neill's New Zealand vineyard
Like most Pinot Noir vintners, Sam Neill found his original inspiration in the red wines of Burgundy. But "we're hanging by our fingernails" in New Zealand's Central Otago region, he says. Rather than try to imitate Burgundy, Neill says he and the other pioneers in the world's southernmost wine region are finding Central Otago's marginal climate produces wines with "its own kind of excellence." In town for his day job as a Hollywood actor ("Jurassic Park," "The Piano," among his dozens of film credits), Neill sat down with me at the Four Seasons Hotel to talk about his passion for Pinot and his just-about-to-be-released line of Picnic wines. At $28, it's his "affordable" label.
Neill already was living in Central Otago when stone fruit trees started giving way to vineyards in the 1990s. He jumped on the bandwagon, planting 5 acres of Pinot Noir in Gibbston in 1993. He later added vineyards in the Alexandra District and is in the process of further expanding his vineyard acreage. For the 2007 vintage, he will make 1,400 cases of Two Paddocks wine. That's a "good year" in Central Otago, he says. An early frost can virtually wipe out a vintage, as it did in 2005.
"There will only ever be certain pockets for grapes in Central Otago," he says. Small producers will always dominate the local wine culture. That doesn't mean the ambitions are small, he says. "In our own modest way, we want to make the world's best Pinot Noir. And I'm completely delighted about the way things are going." The trick, Neill says, is to control crop yields to produce "concentrated" wines. But in this extremely cool climate, the alcohol levels on even blockbuster wines can be moderate, between 13% and 13.5%. "We're finding a style that is more or less unique to Central Otago," he says. "The tremendous clarity of expression in the Pinot Noir, the vividness of the fruit, I think, is connected to the utter clarity of the light in Central Otago."
The limited production, however, can make tracking down bottles of Two Paddocks a challenge in Los Angeles. That's part of the reason Neill started buying grapes from other New Zealand regions, including Hawkes Bay and Marlborough, to produce 2,000 to 3,000 cases a year of Picnic. In addition to Pinot Noir, he produces a Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling under the new label. The 2006 vintage of Picnic arrives in Los Angeles-area stores next month. The 2006 Two Paddocks will be released in June. Both labels, like the vast majority of New Zealand wines, are closed with screw caps. After losing 25% of his 1999 vintage to cork taint, Neill went screw cap and never looked back. Things are edgy enough on New Zealand's South Island, he says, without worrying about corked wine.
-- Corie Brown
Photo courtesy of Sam Neill