Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mt Difficulty Winery – A Breath-taking View and Diverse Wines

(Feb. 12, 2010) I love the name “Mt. Difficulty” – what incredible brand uniqueness. It’s almost impossible to forget. The minute I heard the name, I was intrigued as to why someone would name a winery in Central Otago this way. The mystery is solved though, once you arrive, because thrusting up in a craggy mound across a verdant valley filled with vineyards and rivers is a mountain which is named Mt. Difficulty. It was so christened because it was impossible to herd sheep over its steep and unfriendly terrain.

The other cool thing about this winery is the script they use to write the name Mt. Difficulty. It is an antique scrawl with huge curls on the “f’s” – making it even more distinctive. This unique cursive is carved into a large rock signaling the entrance to the winery. The winery, however, is less impressive upon first glimpse. It is composed of a large warehouse to the right of the gravel drive which curves up a rocky desert type landscape to a small building at the top of a hill. This is the tasting room and a small charming restaurant with a breathtaking view of the valley below and Mt. Difficulty in the distance. It has both indoor and outdoor seating, and a menu – that in hindsight – we wish we had succumbed.

We were immediately greeted in a friendly fashion. We asked for Matt Dicey, the winemaker, with whom we had an 11an appointment. It appeared he was slightly delayed, so we were invited to taste some wines while we waited. The selection was quite large with 16 different wines in 3 tiers, starting with the attractively priced Roaring Meg label (named after a waterfall on Highway 6 that we had passed); the estate series, and then the single vineyard designate pinot noirs which were $90NZ and above. We had tasted through about 6 wines when Matt arrived and bustled us down to the winery buildings.

Mt. Difficulty is housed in a modern warehouse type facility, and is growing so fast that they have new tanks and barrels stacked outside. Currently they have 53 hectares of vineyards and produce 30,000 – 40,000 cases annually, and export 40%. They also buy some grapes for the Roaring Meg label from Marlborough. Matt is a friendly, down to earth person with a good sense of humor. He gave us a whirlwind, but thorough explanation of the winery, beginning with the soil which is a combination of clay, schist, Carrick gravel and loam.

In the vineyard, they are on both 6x9 and 4x6 feet spacing, primarily with spur pruning on cordon/VSP. He said they are using the same pinot clones as most other local wineries: a combination of new Dijon (777, 667, etc.), Pommard, and a DRC suitcase clone they refer to as the Able Clone in NZ – since it was brought in from someone with that last name. 40% of the vines are own-rooted with a mix of rootstock on the rest. Phylloxera is an issue since 2001 when it hit a neighboring vineyard. Rainfall is about 300ml per year, and they employ sustainable agriculture, choosing to use Round-up to control weeds. The climate is relatively dry, so there is no downy mildew. They do use sulfur, fertilizer, irrigation (including soil moisture meters which are linked by radio to the winery), and netting for birds.

In terms of winemaking, I asked Matt to focus on the pinot noirs for which are they so well known. He said he uses 80% destem/20% whole cluster, with the higher end pinots coming from older vineyards. He does a 5 to 10 day cold soak and uses natural yeast, but sometimes needs to heat the tanks to start fermentation in stainless. Temperature is usually 30-32C with pigeage 3 times a day in the beginning. The complete maceration usually lasts 22 to 30 days. Towards the end he uses nitrogen to protect the wine. It is then gently pressed and allowed to settle before moving to barrel where it goes through ML. Higher end pinots are 30% new French oak with 11 months aging, and he never racks – even after ML! Generally they do not need to fine or filter, but will do so if necessary.

After the tour, we returned to the tasting room to finish going through the line-up. Of the pinots, my favorites were the Mt Difficult 2007 Long Gully Single Vineyard ($90NZ) which has a beautiful floral and raspberry nose/palate with excellent concentration and length. The 2008 Mt. Difficulty Estate Series Pinot ($45) was also wonderful with dark berries and spice – a true classic Central Otago pinot. Other favorites included the 2008 Mt. Difficulty Riesling with lemon, lime, grass –but no diesel. Very refreshing. I also fell in love with the 2008 Mt. Difficulty Pinot Gris with a nose of white peach blossom. Finally I also enjoyed the 2009 Mt. Difficulty Target Gully Riesling with had a deliciously high acid of 9.5 with 40 g/l sugar – but so beautifully balanced that you hardly noticed the sugar and focused instead on the juicy citrus notes.

Since our appointment was at 11am, and we finished around 12:30, we decided to go into the nearby town of Cromwell for lunch. What a mistake – the town really didn’t have any charming restaurants, even though they had a lovely historic area by the river. What’s going on with wine tourism in Cromwell? There isn’t any. It seems strange for such a historic town (gold rush and all) in the middle of many wineries. Why isn’t the town pulling together to capitalize on the opportunity? Why aren’t they showing off their beautiful river front acerage?

Anyway, we wished we had stayed for lunch at Mt Difficulty, but felt rather silly going back again, so we kept searching. Eventually we ended up at a rather strange, but charming place called The Big Picture back on Highway 6. We had a nice fresh salad at an outdoor table next to the vineyard with very friendly service.

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