Acclaimed actor Sam Neill raises a glass to the history of Australian wine in a new documentary
Best known for his skills on-screen, Sam Neill is also a wine lover and producer, so it was a no-brainer for him to front a documentary exploring the rise of Australian drops, writes GEORGINA SAFE.
When Sam Neill calls delicious., he’s in Albany in Australia’s far west filming Rams, an Englishlanguage remake of the hit Icelandic film about two estranged farming brothers who must reconcile to save their sheep. Neill plays one of the farmers.
This role follows Neill’s turn as grumpy Mr McGregor in Peter Rabbit and his starring to great acclaim as a man who flees into the New Zealand bush in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
“I seem to be doing a lot of rural characters these days. Maybe my other job is seeping into my career,” he laughs. That other job is owner of Two Paddocks, the Central Otago vineyard and farm Neill founded in 1993, the same year he starred in Jurassic Park and The Piano.
“I suppose looking back it was quite a landmark year, but I didn’t really realise it at the time,” says Neill. “I just ran into a friend who said ‘A bunch of us are buying this land and we’re going to divide it into six vineyards. Do you want to come in on it?’ and I said yes.”
The move to helming vineyards may seem an odd one for the acclaimed actor. But it makes sense when you consider his background is steeped in alcohol: his great-great-great-grandfather’s brother was a Marsala magnate who supplied the British navy and his greatgrandfather set up a wine and spirits importing company in 1861 in the UK, which his father later took over.
“My family were in wines and spirits for at least 150 years,” says Neill. “That’s generations of people selling booze and there was always wine on the table at home, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the ’90s when I thought it might be possible to produce my own.”
The OBE-awarded actor’s first foray into viticulture was planting two hectares of pinot noir in Gibbston Valley (the ‘first paddock’), then he bought the ‘second paddock’ six years later, a plot of nearly three hectares in Alexandra that supplies his Proprietor’s Reserve bottling called The Last Chance, a singlevineyard wine that in 2012 won a trophy in the prestigious International Wine Challenge. In 2000 he bought a farm called Red Bank, also in Alexandra, now the headquarters of Two Paddocks and his rural home. A fourth and final vineyard – the Fusilier – came in 2013 in Bannockburn as part of the evolution of what began as a simple idea to provide family and friends with a decent quaff to a more lofty desire. “We have become outrageously ambitious – we want to produce, year after year, the world’s best pinot noir,” says Neill.
His red obsession was born of first drinking Burgundy when he was living in London in the ’80s.
“I was beginning to earn a bit of disposable income from acting, having been impoverished up to that point, and I realised it was worthwhile spending a bit of money on a bottle of wine,” he says. “I started to drink Burgundy, and red Burgundy is pinot noir. I became fascinated with it – blindsided by it. I’d never drunk anything like it before – and I thought one day I’d love to produce my own.”
Now with two decades of experience under his belt and a raft of wine awards to the Two Paddocks name, Neill moves his focus from New Zealand to Australia with his new documentary, Great Innovators: The Rise of Australian Wine.
Commissioned by National Geographic and two years in the making, the one-hour special sees Neill travel the globe to explore the past century of Australian winemaking and why the country is a world wine leader.
“This was a dream gig for me,” says Neill. “They rang up and said ‘would you like to participate in a film that explores the history of Australian wine and you’ll get to drink a lot of Australian wine and meet a lot of really interesting people in the Australian wine industry?’ I mean, why would you say no?”
One of the key attractions for Neill was learning about a completely different way of growing wine than what he’s used to in Central Otago.
“I was learning about a different climate, different grapes, a different history and a whole different way of going about things,” he says. “There was so much for me to learn from, and so much to be envious of, to be honest.”
With Neill on the journey is Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago, who describes Neill as “a true gentleman and a proven and accomplished professional in grape-growing and winemaking as well as acting.” Gago visited Neill’s winery as part of the documentary, and says it more than stands up alongside winemaking heavy-hitters featured in the film, including Penfolds.
“I rate these [Two Paddocks] wines very highly,” says Gago. “They’re worldclass pinot noir and justifiably globally accoladed.The exciting thing about these wines is they will only get better over time as the vines age and the winemaking techniques are refined. Sam has a quest for quality – surely greatness awaits.”
More than 20 years since he started in the Antipodean wine industry Neill is proudest of not just surviving, but thriving, in one of the most difficult wine-growing regions in the world.
“When I started it just seemed amazing to me that in the place I loved most in the world you can actually grow wine, and grow really good wine,” he says. “The harshness (of Central Otago) is also the beauty of it, because to grow successful pinot noir you need to be somewhere where things are not easy. This means you’re always on the edge of disaster, because your greatest enemies are frost and snow, but if you can pull it off it’s all worth it.” Great Innovators: The Rise of Australian Wine premieres on 18 October on Foxtel on Demand, Fetch on Demand and the National Geographic app.