New Zealand's 'upstart' pinot noir thrives beyond Burgundy

New Zealand actor Sam Neill has a faraway look as he recounts his first glass of fine Burgundy wine 34 years ago -- an epiphany that inspired him to become a pioneer of French-style pinot noir in his homeland.

"It was so incredible, a moment like Paul on the road to Damascus," the "Jurassic Park" star told AFP, proudly clutching a bottle from his own Two Paddocks vineyard in South Island's Central Otago.

Neill is one of a growing number of New Zealand pinot noir producers who gathered this week to display their wares to international wine critics and buyers at a four-day expo in the capital Wellington.

While the country is best known for crisp sauvignon blancs, the Pinot Noir NZ 2013 event aims to show it also produces world-class examples of the red varietal, which originated in France's Burgundy region.

"In a matter of about 30 years we've come an enormously long way," Neill said. "We have great confidence in our own pinot, it has its own unique qualities.

Neill's Two Paddocks in Central Otago, the southernmost wine-producing region in the world, opened in 1993, when only a few specialists had planted pinot noir vines, renowned as the most difficult type to grow.

"They don't call it the heartbreak grape for nothing... (but) pinot is the only grape that generates such enthusiasm," Neill said. "I can't imagine a four-day merlot celebration, it doesn't happen.

"People are obsessive about it, it just does things to people and it's difficult to explain why."

Neill's obsession began in 1980, when he was on his first European film shoot and staying with his mentor, English actor James Mason, in Switzerland.

Mason took him to what had been Charlie Chaplin's favourite restaurant in Lausanne and ordered a bottle of Burgundy, sparking a love affair that has never waned.

"I asked him what it was and he said 'it's Burgundy, you must never forget that'," Neill explained. "I never did, pinot noir became my favourite grape and 13 years later I planted my own."

New Zealand's pinot is gaining acclaim and Neill's Two Paddocks won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London last year, with the judges pithily describing the wine as "pretty darn good stuff".

The actor's neighbours at the Valli Gibbston Vineyard were awarded top prize at the same show.

-- Closing the gap on Burgundy --

However, the benchmark the international community uses to measure pinot noir remains Burgundy in central France, where the variety has been grown for centuries.

"A lot of people would say Burgundy is the epitome of top wine, simply because of its history," said Alastair Maling, chairman of this week's pinot expo and chief winemaker at the Villa Maria vineyard.

"But New Zealand is closing the gap quickly and it would be hard to deny that, on a quality-to-price ratio, New Zealand far exceeds Burgundy."

Maling said New Zealand's cool, coastal climate provided the perfect environment for pinot noir and vines planted three decades ago were now producing wines with a complexity to match those of Burgundy.

"It's not about whether or not we can grow pinot noir, it's about how good it can get here," he told AFP.

"Pinot noir has a fantastic future in New Zealand, it's intriguing how it's evolving."

Neill suspects New Zealand growers are regarded as upstarts by their French counterparts but said they were developing their own style, not trying to clone Burgundy wines.

"I think of us as being the bastards of pinot noir," he said. "We're like the illegitimate child, unacknowledged by our parent (Burgundy), unwanted and ignored, but we don't care.

"My guess is it makes some people in Burgundy a little anxious, but there's no need to be because we don't want to make Burgundy, we want to make our own wine."

-- Export volumes triple --

Deciphering wine-speak can be difficult for those unfamiliar with it, but Neill and Maling consistently use adjectives such as "fresh", "bright" and "vital" when asked to describe New Zealand pinot noir's qualities.

It is now New Zealand second largest wine export, with volumes almost tripling to 10.6 million litres (2.3 million gallons) between 2006 and 2012 amid growing international interest.

Maling said that was still only about 10 percent of the country's total wine exports, with the grape's low yield and relatively high price meaning it is unlikely to supplant sauvignon blanc (60 percent) as the industry mainstay.

"I don't think it would ever overtake sauvignon blanc, purely because you're never going to have the same volume of pinot noir," he said.

Neill, who admitted sometimes being frustrated as his acting commitments mean he is away from his vineyard up to eight months a year, said producing even small amounts of top pinot noir would only enhance the international overall reputation of New Zealand's wines.

"It doesn't matter how much wine in the world, even if we're drowning in a lake of wine, there'll always be a shortage of great wine," he said. "There's never enough great wine."