Wine Club: More than a cameo role

Nigel Greening of Felton Road vineyard
Nigel Greening of Felton Road vineyard
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Wines from actor Sam Neill’s New Zealand vineyard are deservedly earning top accolades, writes Christine Austin.

SAM neill takes all his roles seriously and this is no exception. “There are advantages to being both an actor and a vigneron. Doors open for you which might not otherwise, but there are disadvantages too. Once someone realises that you are the actor from the film they didn’t like they tend not to take you very seriously, but I am very serious about making wine.”

Now with two Gold medals and a Trophy from the 2014 International Wine Challenge it is clear that Neill’s Two Paddocks in Central Otago, New Zealand, is much more than just a hobby vineyard. The star of Jurassic Park, The Tudors and more recently Peaky Blinders which was filmed in Yorkshire, was clearly thrilled about this international recognition for his wines. He was in London last week to talk about them but just so this didn’t become mere puff for his own vineyard he teamed up with fellow vigneron Nigel Greening, of Felton Road, to talk about Central Otago and the challenges of growing grapes in this, the most southerly vineyard in the world.

Leeds-born Nigel, who now divides his time between Devon and New Zealand, started off with a little history. “Everyone thinks that Central Otago is a new winemaking region, but vines were planted there in the 1860s. This was a gold-mining area and a Frenchman, Jean Desire Feraud, struck lucky with gold and bought 100 acres of land which he planted with trees, herbs and vines.” But despite the early start and even a government report in the 1890s which declared that “There is no better country on the face of the earth for the production of Burgundy grapes than Central Otago”, grape growing did not really start to take off until the mid 1970s.

Now there are 1,600 hectares of vines in the region, strung out across three key valleys, Gibbston, Alexandra and Cromwell. Seventy per cent of the region is planted to Pinot Noir which shows that the 1890s government report was right but not everywhere is suitable.

“We have a vineyard called The Last Chance, named after the water race which was dug out by hand by the gold miners,” said Sam. “It sits on a ridge and is the most southerly vineyard in the world. There are some vines in this plot which really struggle to produce a crop.” But despite the difficulties of the site, clearly this is a top-quality vineyard since the 2010 vintage won the IWC Trophy. “I really like this vineyard; I feel good when I go stand in it.” And Sam does get involved in the whole business of looking after his vines. “I like walking through the vineyards and mowing between the rows. That’s when I talk to my vines.”

Nigel began to explain the uniqueness of Central Otago. “What makes this region so different is the difference between day and night temperatures and the amount of UV light. Central is very similar to Chablis, but because of the hole in the ozone layer, we get four times as much UV light. And our nights are much colder, so the patterns of ripening are different. Increased UV means the grapes develop their own sun screen in the form of more pigment, so Otago wines are deeper in colour than those from less sunny climates, and the cooler nights help retain acidity and sweetness, giving vibrant flavours.”

Yet it was clear from the tasting that Central Otago is moving away from the early “fruit bombs” of flavour that used to be the signature of wines from this region. “Our Alexandra vineyard gives wonderful aromatics of thyme and floral notes while Gibbston is deeper, more beetroot and black bramble fruit although it struggles to ripen in cooler years,” said Sam. Nigel also has identified different characteristics between his vineyards with his Calvert vineyard producing tight, elegant wines, while the nearby Cornish Point gives more vibrant, lively flavours.

Even this assessment may change as the vines become older. “The average age of vines in Central Otago is just reaching double figures, so not only are the vines becoming more established but the winemakers too are learning how to work with them,” said Nigel. “We can’t compare Central Otago with Burgundy yet; they have a 900 year start on us.”

Both Sam and Nigel agreed that their wines were starting to move on from the first flush of youth and that greater consistency and greater expression of place was developing in them. But trial and error is still a factor in this region, especially when it comes to selecting the right clones of Pinot to plant. “We find that some clones are fabulous one year and disappointing the next, although that may change as the vines settle down,” said Sam.

Tasting through the wines there were clear differences in style, but both labels shone with fruit and style. Here are my favourites.

Felton Road

Bannockburn Chardonnay 2012: Biodynamic cultivation gives this wine extraordinary depth and concentration, with silky fruit and racy acidity. Field & Fawcett, York (01904 489073), £21.75.

Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2012: From calcareous soil, this is packed with exciting, vibrant, juicy fruit. Field & Fawcett £34.60.

Calvert Pinot Noir 2012: Opulent, rich nose with ripe elegant, black cherry fruit and a fine, tight structure. Needs time. Field & Fawcett £34.60.

Block 5 Pinot Noir 2009: This single vineyard wine is deep and concentrated with dark cherry and plum fruit and a savoury freshness. Field & Fawcett £45.

Two Paddocks

Sadly I have not found Two Paddocks on sale in Yorkshire. Contact Noel Young Wines, Cambridgeshire, 01223 566744 for stock.

Two Paddocks Riesling 2012: Sam’s wife prefers white wines, and so tiny amounts of this wine are produced. Vibrant with apricot and lime fruit and fabulous acidity. £18.60 for the “Picnic” 2013 vintage.

First Paddock 2010, Pinot Noir: A Gold medal wine from Gibbston Valley. Bright, intense cherry fruit with herbal notes and elegant, silky tannins. Noel Young, £49.

Last Chance 2010, Pinot Noir: Tiny quantities produced in this challenging vineyard. Dark cherry fruit, layered with minerally spice and savoury complexity. Still needs time. Noel Young, £49.

Two Paddocks 2011, Pinot Noir: A blend of Redbank and Last Chance fruit, this is perfumed and lively, with vibrant red fruit and a balanced, silky finish. Noel Young, around £32.