In Queenstown and the Alexandra-Clyde basin of Central Otago in New Zealand, Sam Neill is as well known for his Pinot Noir wine growing as for his acting. His two vineyards, “Red Bank” and “Last Chance” in the Basin are to be found alongside Earnscleugh Road, south of the Clutha River.
The establishment of Neill’s winegrowing was greatly assisted by Verdun Burgess, the highly personable and rustic pioneer wine grower in the Alexandra basin and historically amongst the most important in the whole of Central Otago. Neill consulted Burgess on the best property to acquire, which Burgess insisted should be as “Hot!” as his own internationally famous and much longer-established “Black Ridge” vineyard on Conroy Road, just off Earnscleugh Road. On Verdun’s excellent advice Neill acquired the property on which he developed his “Last Chance” vineyard, to complement his Gibbston Valley and Red Bank plots.
A recognised expert on Pinot Noir growing in the district, Verdun Burgess has, over some 30 years, been very generous with his advice to budding wine growers such as Neill and, in his instance, most successfully as witnessed by Sam’s recent Gold Medal success in London.
As well as growing Pinot Noir grapes on his Earnscleugh vineyards, Sam cultivates Lavender (from which he extracts the oil), and Saffron, both very demanding species in terms of growing and extraction of essence, in the case of Lavender, and the dye and spice in the case of Saffron.
Another distinction claimed by Sam Neill, in 2004, was his launching of his “Socialist Chardonnay” which he grew, bottled and promoted in the wake of a very public and somewhat amusing altercation that he had with the Queenstown Mayor of the time, principally over land conservation.
Sam’s Gold Medal success in London was shared with the brilliant and vastly experienced Burgundy and Bordeaux winemaker Grant Taylor of “Valli Vineyards” at Gibbston Valley and North Otago.
In 2005 Grant had the distinction of winning the prestigious solid-gold medal Feraud Award, in a competition recognizing the premier vintage of that year and the contributions made by local growers, cooperatively, to the development of Pinot Noir wine growing over some two decades in Alexandra and Queenstown and the Bannockburn areas of Central Otago. Regrettably, Sam was too preoccupied elsewhere to enter the competition or to speak at the highly successful, festive and entertaining inaugural Feraud Banquet at Olivers Restaurant & Lodge in Clyde which followed the wine judging of the competition by the three distinguished judges Oliver Masters, Sue Courtney, and John Slater.
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