Mount Difficulty   
Visiting Central Otago's largest winery
, in a series on New Zealand's most southerly wine region



This was my second visit to Mount Difficulty (a report on the first visit is below this one). This time I was with Matt Dicey (below). We had a look at the view across Bannockburn, and then went to have a closer look at the Long Gully vineyard, which Matt's father Robin planted some 22 years ago, which is ancient history for this region.

‘My father came down on a ski trip with the family in the late 1980s,’ says Matt. ‘They looked around (he's a viticulturist) and loved the look of the land. He met Rolfe Mills and had a discussion, and helped Rolfe out a bit. Then he found a plot of land at the end of Felton Road and bought it in 1990. He grew his own cuttings in 1991, and moved here in 1992 to plant the first of his vineyards. Vineyard planting continued through 1993-1996.’

Mount Difficulty a big producer by Central Otago standards, with 1100 tons going through the winery in a typical vintage. The bulk of this is Pinot Noir (65-70%), with a big portion of this being the successful entry-level Pinot Roaring Meg. There are 10 000 cases of the estate Pinot, with small quantities of single vineyard Pinots, and also the growers series.

Winemaking has changed a bit over the years. 'We now use much gentler handling than initially,' says Matt. 'The older vines give more structure, and you need to extract less.'

'As a region we have been accused of being too fruit bomb dominated,' he adds. 'Our single vineyard wines and growers’ series wines are a path away from this.'

'There's an evolutionary relationship with the vines,' says Matt. 'You never stand still.' For the next 10 years? 'There will be a lot more understanding, a lot more precision, more substance, tension and flow.' Exploration is another theme: 'We will explore subregional sites and what they mean.'

'What are these wines and where are they coming from? We are moving beyond fruit-driven styles: they are fully valid but they don't talk of place very much. We are talking more about texture, structure and acidity, and development of the wine in those terms rather than fruit – the cusp of interest, moving to something that is more esoteric.'

What are his goals in the vineyard? 'Viticulture and winemaking are having to move together: we want to see clarity of site, clarity of expression. We don't talk about clones anymore: they were interesting in the days gone by but they are no longer drivers. It is about the interaction of vine with site, and our interaction with that.'


Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir 2007 Central Otago, New Zealand
2007 was plush and rich on release. Matt Dicey says that this was unfairly cast as a vintage lacking concentration and density, but he thinks they have nice texture and precision. Almost seven years on this is nicely supple, smooth and pure with silkiness and direct cherry and plum fruit. Supple, ripe and elegant with some raspberry notes. Still primary with lovely texture. 94/100

Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir 2008 Central Otago, New Zealand
On release the 2008s were a bit angular but they have refined, and according to Matt this wine has become focused with a lovely flow that isn't interrupted by the coarse angularity it had in its youth. Fresh and quite fine. Supple, pure and liner with firm but appealing spicy tannic structure. Some savoury mineral notes here, too. Lovely purity of red cherry and raspberry fruit. 93/100

Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir 2009 Central Otago, New Zealand
2009 and 2010 had similar yields; 09 was slightly cooler than normal, 10, slightly warmer. Fresh, supple, open and direct with some restraint. Good acidity and tannin under the fresh cherry and plum fruit. Linear and pure with great focus and freshness. Subtle green notes add interest. Good structure here. Needs time. 94/100

Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir 2010 Central Otago, New Zealand
Chocolatey, spicy edge to the bright dark fruits, with black cherry to the fore. Structured and quite savoury with some spicy, chocolatey notes. Still has some flesh but there's real grip here. A little closed in on itself, but has potential. 93/100

Mount Difficulty Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Long Gully 2008 Central Otago, New Zealand
'For us this vineyard always delivers a core of pure fruit that has a focal point through the wine,' says Matt Dicey. Nervous and fine on the nose with pretty notes of spice, herb and sweet cherry. Floral with great finesse. Very silky and fine on the palate with lovely texture and fine-grained tannins. Such pretty cherry fruit, harmonious and pure. 96/100

Mount Difficulty Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Target Gully 2009 Central Otago, New Zealand
A very different site to Long Gully, higher in elevation. Fresh and vivid with some spice and herbs. A bit angular in the mouth with a tingly acid core. Ripe and generous on the palate, showing fresh raspberry fruit and nice cherries, as well as plums and spice. 93/100

Mount Difficulty Growers Series Packspur Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
This is a high site (360-380 m) between Burn Cottage and Lowburn, planted with 0.6 hectares of Pinot Noir in 1993. The first vintage Mount Difficulty did with this site was 2009. Lovely fresh, nervous perfume with floral red cherries. Such finesse. The silky, elegant palate shows expressive fruit with a lovely mineral dimension. So fine and elegant. 96/100

Mount Difficulty Single Vineyard Long Gully Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
Lovely floral perfume here: fresh and elegant with nice red cherry fruit. Floral and expressive. Quite rich on the palate with nice depth of fruit, and some fine spiciness. Silky and pure with a mineral, savoury tension. 95/100

Mount Difficulty Single Vineyard Target Gully Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
Fresh, vivid raspberry and cherry nose. The palate is concentrated, fresh, ripe and has some angular acidity under the fresh, vivid, concentrated cherry and raspberry fruit. Very different texture to the Long Gully. Grippy and angular but also has nice generosity and purity. 93/100

Wines tasted 02/14

Gibbston Valley
Chard Farm
Wooing Tree
Folding Hill
Mount Difficulty
Lowburn Ferry
Grasshopper Rock

A report from a visit in February 2010:

Looking down from the Black Rabbit vineyard towards Cromwell

Mount Difficulty is the biggest of the Central Otago producers. They started out as a consortium of five vineyards each privately held but working together under the Mount Difficulty brand, but in 2003 the structure of the company changed and Mount Difficulty became a company in its own right with shareholders. A new winery was built in Bannockburn in 2001, and the nearby cellar door facilities and restaurant were opened in 2003.

I visited on a gloriously sunny day, with sales and marketing manager Michael Herrick (below). We took a trip out to see some of the vineyards that are part of the project (they’re all owned and managed by the various shareholders, even if they aren’t owned by the company itself), and then had lunch and a tasting in the stylish cellar door restaurant.

The winery, viewed from the cellar door

A wide range of wines is made here, in two tiers. Roaring Meg is the entry level brand, but the wines are still fairly serious. The idea is to make more fruit forward wines with less structure, and because the yields can be a bit higher, they're competitively priced in an otherwise fairly expensive region. The Roaring Meg Pinot Noir, for example, is now Mount Difficulty's biggest selling wine, with 25 000 cases produced each year.

Pinot Noir is three-quarters of the production, but Mike reckons that the region is as much as 85% Pinot Noir. ‘What Sauvignon Blanc is to Marlborough, Pinot Noir is to Central Otago.’ Three vineyards are capable of making a single-vineyard Pinot Noir, but not every one does each year. These are Pipeclay Terrace, Target Gully and Long Gully.

The sluicings in Bannockburn, a relic of the 19th century gold mining

Chardonnay is made, but it is gradually being pulled out and replaced by Pinot Gris, which is New Zealand's fastest growing white variety. Some Chardonnay will be left, because winemakers enjoy working with it, but just 500 cases a year are made.

The Rieslings impress. 'We're huge Riesling fans, although the market hasn't quite caught up with our enthusiasm,' says Mike. I particularly like the way that a range of different Riesling styles are made, and they’re all interesting.


Mount Difficulty Sauvignon Blanc 2009 Central Otago
Nicely aromatic: fresh with fine green herby methoxypyrazine notes and some ripe aromatics. The palate is vibrant with nice herbiness. Fresh, overtly fruity and stylish. 88/100

Mount Difficulty Dry Riesling 2008 Central Otago
12.5% alcohol. Fermented at 9-13 °C. Very fresh, pure, transparent, minerally nose. The palate is minerally and precise with no harsh edges. Nicely lemony but not overtly fruity. Stylish stuff – a shame that just 200 cases are made. 90/100

Roaring Meg Riesling 2008 Central Otago
11.5% alcohol. Bright, vivid and citrussy with lovely rounded fruit and some sweetness. Nice intensity and balance. An off-dry style. 88/100

Mount Difficulty Target Gully Riesling Medium 2009 Central Otago
9.5% alcohol, 35 g/litre residual sugar. Very appealing bright, fruity, subtly lemony Riesling with some nice melony richness and a bit of sweetness, although it is not too sweet. Lovely wine. 89/100

Mount Difficulty Long Gully Late Harvest Riesling 2009 Central Otago
This is made in very small quantities. The region is very dry and so there isn't any botrytis, and this weighs in with 120 g/litre residual sugar and 9.5% alcohol. Very bold and pure with lemony, melony fruit. Quite sweet with lovely rich texture. A nice wine with real purity. 91/100

Mount Difficulty Pinot Gris 2008 Central Otago
Fresh, crisp and fruity with some lemony notes and good acidity. A bit simple but very fruity. 86/100

Mount Difficulty Mansons Farm Pinot Gris 2007 Central Otago
Richly grapey and fruity with nice melon character and smooth texture. An off-dry, textured, fruity style. 88/100

Roaring Meg Pinot Gris 2008 Central Otago
Lively, bright, fruity and crisp with some sweetness and good fruity purity. A nice fruity style. 14 g/litre residual sugar. 85/100

Mount Difficulty Chardonnay 2007 Central Otago
500 cases of this made each year. Taut, mineralic, slightly herby nose with a bit of reduction. There’s a green herby edge to the rich but fresh fruit. Hints of fig and toast with some lemony notes. 87/100

Roaring Meg Pinot Noir 2008 Central Otago
Fresh, bright cherry and herb nose. Nice aromatics. The palate is fresh juicy and cherryish with bright fruit and nice acidity. 88/100

Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir 2008 Central Otago
Fresh, aromatic cherry fruit nose is nicely fruity with bright, juicy cherry and berry fruits. Very appealing with some spiciness and a bit of structure. Nicely focused. 90/100

Mount Difficulty Long Gully Pinot Noir 2007 Central Otago
Very appealing fruity aromatics on the nose, which shows sweet dark cherry fruit. The palate is concentrated and full with nice spicy depth and structure to the cherry and plum fruit. Quite dense and very stylish. 93/100

A short film of the visit, with Mike explaining the sluicings, the vineyards and the town:

Felton Road
Mount Difficulty
Pisa Range 
Gibbston Valley

Wines tasted as 02/10  
Find these wines with

An earlier report, from 2002:

Central Otago is New Zealand’s coolest wine region, and with its location – almost at the bottom of South Island – it is one of the world’s most southerly wine regions. But despite what looks like on paper to be a questionable climate, with heat summations seemingly below that required for viticulture, the local mesoclimates in certain subregions turn out to be well suited to growing Pinot Noir, that most fickle of grapes. It’s a continental climate, with hot summers/cold winters and hot summer days/cold nights.

This is definitely a happening region. Most wineries are less than a decade old, and explosive growth has taken place here in the last few years. New plantings continue apace, with the successful Pinot Noir joined by Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay.

Mount Difficulty began in 1998 with a production of just 1000 cases. The latest vintage, 2001, produced 15 000 cases. It is a partnership between four privately owned vineyards with 45 ha of vines in all and a spanking new winery. The four wines tasted here all showed well; it will be interesting to see whether some time in bottle adds complexity to the cool climate elegance they already display.

Dry Riesling 2001, Central Otago
Quite a rich style, with an open nose showing rounded citrus fruit. The palate is rich, spicy, limey and youthful. Quite crisp, but full flavoured. Very good (c. £10)

Sauvignon Blanc 2001, Central Otago
There’s a distinctly herbal edge to the grassy, blackcurrant-edged nose. The rounded palate is full flavoured and quite rich. A richer style. Very good+ (c. £10)

Chardonnay 1999, Central Otago
Quite a crisp, cool-climate style of Chardonnay. The inviting nose displays rich fruit with a herby edge. The palate is crisp and spicy, very full flavoured and quite savoury in style. Very good+ (c. £13)

Pinot Noir 2000, Central Otago
Quite deep coloured. Pronounced intense nose of ripe berry fruit: it’s slightly sweet with a herbaceous edge. The palate is full flavoured and concentrated. There’s lots of fresh bright fruit here with an almost chocolatey edge. Quite intense, but if I’m being picky, perhaps there is just a hint of unripeness here? Very good+ (c. £16)

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