New Zealand actor Sam Neil explains why one particular wine will be 'an extraordinary vintage' in 20 years time
What celebrity do you most associate with New Zealand? Please say Sam Neill, because I have to admit, it was a bit of a thrill when I saw him standing by the baggage collection area when I landed in Central Otago on a recent trip to New Zealand. It gets better. His car was parked beside the one I was leaving in, and a day later I met him at a Pinot Noir wine tasting.
While some wine-making celebrities are loosely associated with the wines behind their mugs, Sam Neill is a serious double jobber, spending as much time in his Two Paddocks vineyard as he does on set. He planted his first vines in 1993 and now has four organic vineyards, stretching across the three main valleys of Central Otago - the Gibbston, the Alexandra and the Cromwell basins. It's about an hour and a half's drive to cover the distance between the four of them, so you're getting a slight variation in climate which results in slightly different flavour characteristics in the wines from each region. This is not wine-making on a big industrial scale - Last Chance, the smallest vineyard, is just seven acres - it's about planting the right vines in the right places, looking after them carefully and giving them time to find their own way.
Sam first got into planting vines because his friend next door was giving it a go, but it was very much uncharted territory. "It was a little scary because no one quite knew what was going to happen," he says. "The first planting was at the end of a valley where no one had planted before. And no one had done any real scientific temperature tests. We just planted and waited to see what happened. It was a big gamble but it was only five acres, so it's not like we were betting the farm on it. We are right on the periphery of things. My Last Chance vineyard is arguably the southern-most vineyard in the world. That means we're going to be more subject than most to the vagaries of weather. So you're always going to get variations year by year. That's part of the dynamics of wine-making. And also the thrill of the gamble. You can be plunged into despair. We have been a couple of times - the 2000 and 2005 vintages were grisly. I can safely say, I've never been in it for the money, it's more a matter of personal satisfaction. So, heartbreak and exhilaration, those are the variables, those are the extremes."
Although New Zealand is considered to be the 'new world' when it comes to wine, the quality of its Pinot Noir is increasingly attracting attention. "We have had some wonderful vintages. In 20 years' time, 2017 will be seen as an extraordinary vintage," says Sam. "It was apparent 20 years ago that we were going to be producing world class wines. We think of it as a gradual evolution, but in a world sense, that's an extraordinary leap."
Graham Norton Sauvignon Blanc
€12-15, 13pc, from SuperValu, Centra and Tesco
National hero, Graham Norton, has been spectacularly successful with his multi-awarded Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. With a fresh herbal character, this is crisp on the palate with plenty of ripe citrus and tropical flavours.
Two Paddock 'Estate' Pinot Noir 2016
€45.95, 13pc, from Gibney's in Malahide, and Winehouse, Meath
This is a bit of a treat. It drinks beautifully now with an intensity of red berries, spice and darker core of plum and wild herbs, but it will age beautifully. Perfect as a Christening gift to be saved for an 18th or 21st birthday.
Peter Yealands Pinot Noir 2017
€17, 13pc, from Dunnes, Jus de Vine, D.SIX, Joyce's, O'Donovan's, O'Driscoll's, JC Savage's and Deveney's Fresh and juicy with delicious flavours of raspberry and red cherry, this Pinot from Marlborough has a touch of spice layered with a savoury quality. Look out for it when it's on offer in Dunnes.
Running from March 4-6, winemakers visiting Kelly's Resort in Rosslare for the annual Wine Tasting events include organic producers Samuel Baron from Touraine and Eric de Suremain from Château de Monthélie in Burgundy, as well as Master of Wine, Richard Kelley from South Africa. The event finishes with a special wine tasting dinner. Five-day midweek rates from €645 per person full board or four-day midweek from €545 per person.