Actor’s wine takes starring role

Sam Neill has been in Northern Ireland to promote his range of New Zealand wines
Sam Neill has been in Northern Ireland to promote his range of New Zealand wines

Holywood legend Sam Neill’s range of New Zealand wines have been toasted across the Province in recent years. ADRIENNE MCGILL met up with the movie star to savour his thoughts on Pinot Noir and get a flavour of his latest acting role

Northern Ireland born Hollywood star Sam Neill is proving that his wine producing talents are every bit as stellar as his brilliant acting career.

The film icon, whose box office hits include the Piano, Jurassic Park, the Hunt for Red October, and Omen III was in the Province last week for a three day tour to promote his acclaimed range of luscious New Zealand wines and showcase his Pinot Noirs and Rieslings which have just become available here.

‘Two Paddocks’ is produced from Sam’s Two Paddocks artisan winery which he founded in 1993 with vineyards in Ortago, South Island, New Zealand. The wines have become highly coveted for their pure New Zealand style with a uniqueness carrying, in the most pronounced way, the taste of the land from which they hail - and that is what makes Two Paddocks so exceptional.

During his stay, Sam covered all six counties of Northern Ireland hosting wine tastings in restaurants and hotels starting in Belfast before heading to Londonderry, Enniskillen, Armagh, Portadown and also Omagh, where he was born.

I caught up with the film legend at the Seagoe Hotel in Portadown where the previous evening he had hosted a wine tasting event and dinner with wine merchants Robb Brothers who are the wholesalers appointed as the Northern Ireland Distributor for the Two Paddocks range of wines and who will be responsible for distribution Province wide. At the event guests had bottles of the Pinot Noir signed by the actor.

And in fact our meeting at the hotel was rather reminiscent of a scene from the Piano where rolling mists dominate the New Zealand landscape.

It was 8.30am and a light fog had descended on Portadown. As I approached the front of the hotel I saw none other than Sam himself standing outside encircled in the mist. Despite the grey dankness, he seemed to be concentrating on an article in a wine magazine. I interrupted him mid-read but he was totally charming as I introduced myself.

We settled ourselves inside - just the two of us -in a quiet and discreet corner to discuss the finer points of operating a specialised wine business, managing vineyards and leading a hectic acting career.

With his soft, unhurried New Zealand lilt, he told me:

“It is hard work producing wine. The weather can be very fickle. The problem with Pinot Noir is that you must grow it in a very marginal area where you are always teetering on the edge of disaster and oblivion because you need to grow it in a cool climate. The grapes take a long time to develop and ripen. You need that time to allow those marvellous subtle flavours to develop in the grape.

“Every year is different and some years are better than others - but if it was predictable it would be half the fun. It is a ridiculously time and money-consuming business. I would not do it if it was not so satisfying and fun. I’m financing the wines rather than them financing me but I love the business - it’s in the genes.”

Sam was born in Omagh, the second son of Dermot Neill, a Harrow and Sandhurst-educated army officer and third-generation New Zealander, and his English wife, Priscilla. At the time of Sam’s birth, his father was stationed in Northern Ireland, serving with the Irish Guards. The Neills owned Neill and Co, the largest liquor retailers in New Zealand - hence Sam’s reference to liquor being in his genes.

In 1954, Sam returned with his family to New Zealand, where he attended the Anglican boys’ boarding school Christ’s College in Christchurch. He then went on to study English literature at the University of Canterbury where he had his first exposure to acting. While at university he lived at College House. He then moved to Wellington to continue his tertiary education and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English literature.

He now lives in Queenstown, South Island, which he calls home for 4-5 months of the year and which is a premium Pinot Noir region. He also has homes in Wellington, North Island and Sydney, Australia.

Now in his 60s, and having starred in more than 50 movies, he is busier than ever with several movies planned for 2013. He will also star in a new BBC Two drama, Peaky Blinders, which has just started shooting with cast including Cillian Murphy and Helen McCrory in Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool. The story begins in 1919 in the lawless slum neighbourhoods of post war Birmingham. Sam plays a ruthless new Police Chief, CI. Campbell who arrives in town from Belfast to clean up the city.

I asked him how he was getting on with the Northern Ireland accent to which he replied “it’s goin’ not too bad” with a very plausible twang and then added:

“I’m also getting a wee bit of help from Liam Neeeson and James Nesbitt just so that I get it right.

“I have done three movies this year and a couple of television productions. I got a few days off from this job I am doing for the BBC and thought it would be a great opportunity to come to Northern Ireland, look at the country of my birth and introduce the people to my wines.”

Also as part of Sam’s visit to the Province he visited Bureau By The Lough in Whiteabbey, the first bar-restaurant in Ireland to list the Two Paddocks wine. Its sister business, The Light House Wine Store also in Whiteabbey, is one of the first off-licences to retail it.

At the special tasting lunch at Bureau By The Lough, among the wines sampled was his Two Paddocks Pinot Noir 2010, an award-winner recently when it picked up an outstanding gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.

Sam established his Two Paddocks winery with a planting of 5 acres of Pinot Noir on a small vineyard at Gibbston, Central Otago. Since 2001, Two Paddocks has an interest in the winery The Central Otago Wine Company, and has an approximate production of 3,000 cases of wine a year.

The original vineyard, First Paddock, was augmented by two other small vineyards in the Alexandra district. Alex Paddocks is a 7-acre vineyard on a terrace above the Earnscleugh Valley under some striking rocky headlands. It was planted with Burgundian Pinot vines in 1998. In 2000 the company acquired Redbank Paddocks, a sheltered 60 acres also in the Earnscleugh Valley, which nestles between two rocky escarpments. It is planted with more Burgundian clones and some Riesling.

“The Last Chance” Pinot Noir is a single vineyard bottling from the Alex Paddocks plot, with its first vintage in 2002. The company also produces a second label, Picnic, largely with sourced fruit, with bottlings of Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling varietals. Two Paddocks also grows medicinal and culinary herbs, such as lavender oil and saffron.

I felt it was only right to admit to Sam that despite his love for his Pinot Noirs, that as a white wine aficionado, he would have to convert me.

He told me; “If you are a white wine drinker, I would advise you to take an adventure and go to Pinot Noir. It is a much more useful and flexible wine - it can be drunk with game or chicken or fish - whatever you like. It is very subtle, it is a very good wine to drink, it is a very difficult wine to produce but that is what makes it so special. I would say to white wine drinkers - have a Pinot Noir - you don’t know what you’re missing.”

Sam’s Last Chance Pinot Noir and First Paddock Pinot Noir are single vineyard wines only made during exceptional vintages, so they are very limited in supply. But such is its speciality, Two Paddocks is a totally unique find.

“Two Paddocks wines are always in short supply, since our vineyards are by any standard small. However we do set aside a proportion of our output for export. So now a fortunate few in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and Hong Kong can find Two Paddocks,” says Sam with a smile “and now of course in Northern Ireland.”

With more than 1,800 bottles of his wine sold at signings across the Province, it is clear that Two Paddocks is going down very well here.

Northern Ireland can certainly raise a glass to its re-newed relationship with Sam Neill whose heart and soul has been poured into producing wines for generations to come.