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Sam Neill and Nigel Greening on what makes a great Pinot Noir producer

Published:  02 June, 2014

Two of New Zealand's leading Pinot Noir producers, Sam Neill of Two Paddocks and film star fame, and Nigel Greening of Felton Road, set out at a special tasting last week in London what it is that has drawn them in to trying to create award Pinot Noir from the Central Otago.


Pinot Noir pioneers: Nigel Greening and Sam Neill Pinot Noir pioneers: Nigel Greening and Sam NeillSource: Colin Hampden-WhiteNigel Greening and Sam Neill on what it takes to make award winning Pinot Noir from New Zealand's Central Otago


Two of New Zealand's leading Pinot Noir producers, Sam Neill of Two Paddocks and film star fame, and Nigel Greening of Felton Road, set out at a special tasting last week in London what it is that has drawn them in to trying to create award Pinot Noir from the Central Otago.

They told their story to Anne Krebiehl, at London's Naval Club, as Neill is in the UK filming the sequel to the award winning BBC-drama series 'Peaky Blinders'.

When was the point you knew and decided you wanted to make Pinot Noir?

Nigel Greening: 1998. I had a moment when in fact one of Sam's neighbours, Dry Gully, had won a trophy and I thought I'm going to go and taste that wine. I went to Bill and Sybilla's house and I managed to buy a case from him. The interesting thing was, talking to Bill I found out that he had no experience. He just decided 'got bit of dirt, put some vines in, see how it goes'. So I came away thinking 'bugger, maybe anybody can do this, maybe you don't have to have a special qualification'. That was when the seed started, maybe I could? It was the same month Felton Road released their first wine with Stuart [Elms, Felton Road's founder and previous owner] and Dry Gully, they both released their 1997s in May 1998, and almost straightaway there were two wine shows and Felton Road won one and Dry Gully the other.

Sam Neill: It wasn't quite such a road to Damascus, it was a crawl to Damascus rather than a bolt out of the heavens. I realised I loved Pinot Noir in 1979 when I first drank Burgundy. And then Rolfe Mills [of Rippon in Wanaka] who was an old friend started to grow it and I thought this is really interesting, the wine I like best is being grown down the road from me. [Neill is a Dunedin native, and had built a house near Queenstown in the mid 1980s]. We'd go and visit Rolfe and buy a couple of cases which got better and better each year and then in 1991 and 1992 we tasted the Rudi vintages [see here a review of Rudi Bauer wines when winemaker at Rippon

Greening: Aren't they amazing? I still think those were the greatest Pinots from Central I've ever tasted.

Neill: Those were a real call to arms, those two vintages, and I thought, just like Nigel, maybe if Rolfe can do it I should be looking and I talked to Rolfe who was very encouraging and said absolutely, you should do that. I thought I'd plant in front of my house on a north-facing slope but he said no, look somewhere else. And that's when I bought my first land, planted it in 1993 and our first vintage was in 1997, released in 1998. While it would not have won a show that year we were amazed by how good it was, we weren't expecting that. [Nigel says 1997 was one of the toughest years in Gibbston Valley]. It had Pinot things about it and we all looked at each other in astonishment and realised we were good to go.

So pioneers had already done the work?

Greening: I think the first generation were established: Gibbston, Rippon , Black Ridge, Chard Farm, and the second generation really started with that 1997 gang: Felton Raod, Two Paddocks, Mount Difficulty one year later, and Olssens had just started. This second wave started behind those pioneers.

As a Central Otago native, having seen it as very poor farming country, are you happy with what has happened to the region?

Neill: Look, I am slightly nostalgic for the days when it was just three rabbits and one and a half sheep, because it was sort of amazing, but now with irrigation and a whole lot of people who would never have considered growing anything like a vine it has been transformative.

Effectively this has given the world a new world-class Pinot Noir region, who would have thought that even 30 years ago?

Neill: Certainly not the government.

Greening: There was something between a warning and a policy statement.

Neill: I think this was in the 1970s, the government weren't interested. This distinguished professor of something or other said we don't think anyone should grow any wine at all on the whole of the South Island.

Greening: It has to be said in defence of those people that if we hadn't had Dr Richard Smart we probably wouldn't have ever been able to because what he did in developing cool climate viticulture and his ideas for canopy management were really the basis for so many cool climate regions, including in Europe. It took new insights in viticulture as well.

So you both realised you could make wine, then you realised that your wine stands up pretty well next to numerous other Pinot Noirs in this world. In what way did your endeavours change?

Greening: It didn't. I think we always had an inner confidence about it, whether that was well-founded or not, the one thing that we didn't do early on, was that we didn't really sign up to the idea that this is a venture that's going to take decades before it will show what it can really do, that is going to need absolute dedication to single sites and understanding them, learning them, expressing them. In the early days we probably still thought the whole Burgundy terroir thing was a little bit of bullshit. As you work your own land, that opinion changes because if you get to know your own land and how it behaves you get to understand very clearly that your children are all different, so you change sides. But in the early days we weren't thinking that we were going to be setting up something that was the equivalent of a Burgundy domaine which is the structure we have now.

And Sam, how did your endeavours change, from something that you could drink to a wine that is served in Michelin-starred restaurants?

Neill: What happens, as in so many things in life, you get an impulse and that impulse turns into blind, raging ambition which is never healthy and gets the better of you. It certainly got the better of me. What started off as a little, modest five acres on a back road has turned into four vineyards and my wife now barely speaks to me.

What has changed in your outlook because you both came to this from very different careers?

Greening: One big difference was that I gave up my day-job, so I had to make this work from day one, I had no other income stream at all and I had spent everything I had earned on earth buying it. So for me it was an absolute full-time, seven-days-a-week job from day one. It's only now that I am pulling back a little bit from that. I think when you're working on it flat out like that, you're much more focussed on the now than the future, it really took us probably seven or eight years before we could really think we don't have to think is it all going to fall over this year. The training wheels are off, we're riding this thing now. Then you can turn your eyes ahead and start thinking longer term, actually, what are we doing this for, how are we going to be doing this in 30 years?

Neill: I'd say it's a bit like printing a photograph, in the old days we used to print our own photographs, put them into the bath and swish them around, then the image would become clear. So you go blind for a bit, feeling your way. Like Nigel, I've poured my whole life and every penny into this damn thing, so it'd better work. And then you realise when at best you are breaking even you must look for the long run. That is where I am heading. I confidently expect to be in profit by the turn of the next century, in which case I'll keep my day job.

The tasting, which Greening dubbed "a news update with some refreshments" touched, as is usual when such imaginative, well-travelled minds meet, upon topics as wide-ranging as politics, playing music to wines, biodynamic zeal, ripening patterns as part of terroir, ideal picking windows, Chinese exports and characterisations of the different valleys and growing regions in Central Otago.

Greening explained that the average vine age for Pinot Noir in Central Otago is only just getting into double-figures, remarking how young this region really is and how much there is to look forward to. Illustrating his long-term view and generational decision-horizon, he told us of his just planted McMuir vineyard (next to Calvert) which Felton Road will not expect to use fruit from until its 20th year.

Showing their respective wines, among them a peony-scented, floral First Paddock 2010 Pinot Noir from Two Paddocks (Gibbston Valley), a spicy, savoury Calvert Pinot Noir 2012 from Felton Road as well as Felton Road's stupendous, brooding and lifted Block 5 2009 Pinot Noir, Greening said: "Central Otago is growing up. It was known for its fruit bombs. Do you see this here? No. We've all grown up. These wines show the tendency of Central Otago for elegance. With better understanding, vine age and more self-confidence in winemakers, nobody's trying too hard anymore."

Neill agreed: "I am looking forward to consistency."