While actor Sam Neill may be modest about his theatrical skills, he’s immensely proud of the wine made at Two Paddocks, his vineyard in the Central Otago region at the base of New Zealand’s south island.
Neill describes the premium range as “second to none” and this is no idle boast — a tasting confirmed that the actor is right to take pride in his wine.
As a child, Neill holidayed in Central Otago and grew to love the area so much that 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,” he said.
Neill launched Two Paddocks in 1993 with modest ambitions — just two hectares 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, which is how Two Paddocks got its name.
Donaldson’s brand, Sleeping Dogs, takes its name from the pair’s first film, which launched Neill’s career and allowed him to pursue high stakes roles, including the lead in “Jurassic Park.”
Neill said his initial goal was just to produce a good pinot noir that his family and friends would enjoy. “Frankly, my friends will pretty much drink anything, so this didn’t seem too hard,” Neill said.
He added that he was pleasantly surprised by his first vintage in 1997, 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’s landscapes are striking — 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 flavors.
Central Otago’s geographical sub-regions produce distinct wines, including Alexandra, Bannockburn, Bendigo, Cromwell and Gibbston Valley.
Neill subsequently acquired two vineyards in the Alexandra district: Alex Paddocks, which consists of a 2.8-hectare vineyard on a terrace above the Earnscleugh Valley under rocky headlands.
“We planted it with Burgundian pinot vines in 1998. Two Paddocks’ The Last Chance pinot noir is from this single vineyard,” he said.
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 53-hectare farm also nestled under rocky escarpments in Alexandra. It has become the main vineyard, complete with tasting room.
I tasted the 2010 Picnic riesling, 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. The acidity balances the slight sweetness nicely.
The Picnic pinot probably needs a new name because of the association of picnics with cheap wine. Despite the name, this is a good quality pinot with aromas of almost-ripe plums and savory herbs like thyme, and it’s priced competitively.