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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.

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