A-list actor Sam Neill plans to retire to his vineyard in Central Otago. Until then he’s happy just to talk about – and drink – his beloved Pinot Noir. By ADAM LECHMERE
Sam Neill sees New Zealand with a film maker’s eye. It’s the light in his native Central Otago that defines the magic of the region.
‘Bright and vivid,’ he says. ‘The air is like crystal. In France the light is gorgeously diffuse – I know this from making films there – but in New Zealand it’s clear. There is nothing to blur the image of that rock you can see from 50 miles away.’
That light, he says, has something to do with the quality of the fruit you can grow in Otago. ‘There is a vividness to it. I’m not a scientist but my suspicion is that it’s the light that does it.’
Neill is one of those A-list actors who is familiar to millions – but people can’t place him. ‘The name rings a bell,’ was the response to a straw poll in the office when I said I was going to interview him. ‘What’s he been in?’
Well, Jurassic Parks I and III for a start. And The Piano, and Dead Calm. And then a clutch (the Internet Movie Database website lists 72 appearances since the mid-1970s) of mini-series such as 1983’s Reilly: Ace of Spies, TV movies, horror flicks and the rest.
He’s filming at the moment but ‘itching to get back to walk the course’ – his vineyards in New Zealand. Eventually, he said, he’ll become ‘vineyard bound’ and wind down his acting.
He has 10 hectares in Central Otago, the ruggedly beautiful region of lakes and mountains on South Island. It’s the world’s most southerly wine-growing region, and Neill first planted Pinot Noir there in 1993.
The wine is called Two Paddocks but in fact there are three – the last was bought in 2000. That too has Pinot, though he says he may do some more Riesling, or Chardonnay. He makes the former already – ‘I sell it to the locals – it’s awfully drinkable’. The Pinot is highly rated by such critics as Jancis Robinson MW, but made in such tiny quantities that little of it gets to Europe.
Neill, 56, is a laconic, soft-spoken antipodean. His words are measured, and his conversation is peppered with disclaimers: ‘If that doesn’t sound too pretentious’; ‘I don’t want to sound like a jerk; ‘I’m not a winemaker, but…’
Wine is in his background. His New Zealand father and English mother emigrated from Northern Ireland when he was three, and set up a wine importing business. ‘They bought in French wine and made a top-selling brandy called Beehive. The reason it was a bestseller was because people could pronounce the name.’
Crossing new frontiers
In the middle-class Neill household wine was always on the table. But it was cask wine, so he feels he didn’t develop any sort of palate until he got to London at the end of the 1970s.
‘I was living off the Edgware Road, near a good wine shop. I was picking up fabulous Burgundies for a tenner – Puligny Montrachets, Meursaults – then I started on the reds.’
He knows his wine, and he knows the land. He speaks in depth about the science of winemaking, but he really gets into his stride when he’s discussing his beloved Pinot. He talks about its ‘subtlety and nuance’, its femininity, and its fickleness. He enthuses about the longer growing season on the South Island. ‘We don’t pick till late April or May – time for the grapes to develop wonderful flavours.’
He’s never been to Burgundy. Is it an inspiration to him? ‘It continues to be so. But we are in the process of producing a region that will match – and in some cases already does – the best of the Old World. I’ve drunk wines from Central Otago that are as good as anything from Burgundy but they are most definitely NOT from Burgundy.’
What are his favourites – apart from his own wines? Pinot is his first love. After the great Burgundies he goes for Australian: ‘I love Coldstream Hills Reserve and Stonier Reserve Pinots. They have such structure and complexity. There are other labels I’m confident about buying – Peter Lehmann and Petaluma are always good value for money.’
What about Australia’s top drop – Grange? ‘I always say Penfolds are brilliantly made and very good value – except for Grange, which to my mind is outrageously overrated and overpriced.’
He also loves Riesling, namechecking the great German producers – ‘my second favourite is Austrian’ – he enjoys and collects (Fritz Haag, Brueur, JJ Prum, Ernie Loosen, Dr Burkin Wolf) and suggesting the Germans are due a rennaissance. ‘There has been much disservice done to the German market over the years but at its best it’s hard to beat.’
Neill obviously feels deeply about certain issues, in a controlled way. When he pours scorn on the local government ‘fools’ in the beautiful but increasingly touristy corner of Otago where he lives, you sense he’s a guy you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
What is he really passionate about? ‘I hate the word “passion”, but – and I don’t want to sound pretentious – drinking wine I’ve made is a very rich part of my life.’
Written by Adam Lechmere