Today Mt Difficulty Estate is comprised of six vineyards; Templars Hill, Pipeclay Terrace, Menzies Terrace, Mansons Farm, Target Gully and Long Gully – total plantings of 40 hectares protected by the rain shadow of Mount Difficulty in Bannockburn, Central Otago. The region provides New Zealand’s only “continental” style climate combined with unique soils ideally suited for growing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.
It all began in the early 1990's, when the owners of five newly-planted vineyards in Bannockburn shook hands and decided to work together to produce wine under one label, Mt Difficulty. The handshake bound the owners of Molyneux, Mansons Farm, Verboeket Estate and Full Circle until 2004 when Mt Difficulty Wines Ltd was formed, and the majority of the individual vineyards passed into the ownership of the company.
As a result, Mt Difficulty Wines Ltd now owns some of the oldest vineyards in the Bannockburn sub-region of Central Otago in New Zealand's rugged South Island. The vine age gives our wines, particularly the Pinot Noirs, extra complexity and concentration. The Bannockburn area is internationally recognised as one of the few places in the world outside Burgundy where the pernickety Pinot Noir variety has found a home. Parts of New Zealand and cooler areas on the western seaboard of the United States are the only other regions where Pinot Noir seems to truly flourish.
The unique microclimate of the Bannockburn area is partially created by the presence of Mount Difficulty which overlooks the southern Cromwell basin, and is the namesake of Mt Difficulty Wines. Mount Difficulty is integral in providing low rainfall and humidity for the region. Bannockburn enjoys hot summers, a large diurnal temperature variation and long cool autumns; conditions which bring the best out of the Pinot Noir grapes. These conditions, along with soils which are ideal for viticulture, provide an excellent basis not only for Pinot Noir, but also for Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Chardonnay. The soils are a mix of clay and gravels, but all feature a high pH level; grapes produce their best wines on sweet soils.
The Mt Difficulty brand started in 1998 with a very small production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, made by Grant Taylor of Gibbston Valley Wines (now of Valli Wines). Prior to this the Gang sold their grapes to either Gibbston Valley or Chard Farm. The Air New Zealand wine awards in 1999 put Mt Difficulty on the map, with our 1998 Pinot Noir winning a gold medal and the Chardonnay, silver.
In 1999 Matt Dicey came on board as winemaker, and he made the 1999 and 2000 vintage wines at Longburn Winery in Cromwell's budding industrial area. In 1999 the range was increased to include Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc; while Gewürztraminer and Riesling were added in 2000. Gewürztraminer proved to be too difficult to grow economically (the variety often has a poor fruit-set) and the vines were pulled out prior to 2001. More recently the Mt Difficulty Chardonnay vineyards in Bannockburn have been replaced with other vines, including Chenin Blanc, leaving the Growers Series label (introduced in 2011 to showcase the terroir of other sub-regions) to fly the Chardonnay flag from 2010.
The vintage release in October 2001 marked a progression for Mt Difficulty Wines, with several Single Vineyard wines being seen for the first time. The 2001 white wines included two later-pick Rieslings and a late pick Pinot Gris, plus two Single Vineyard Pinot Noirs from the 2000 vintage. The philosophy of Single Vineyard wines is to display the unique characteristics that are particular to their site. With such a mixture of soils, microclimates and grape clones the difference in the wines from each vineyard site is quite noticeable and significant.
The next major change to the portfolio happened in 2004, when our second label Roaring Meg was launched. The first release consisted of a Pinot Noir and a Merlot from the 2003 vintage, with Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc following on a few years later. The Merlot was a short lived label, only appearing in 2003 and 2004. The varietal proved a little too thick skinned to achieve optimal ripening in Central Otago, but did at least give assistant winemaker Roger deGrauw the chance to hone his Rosé making skills in 2005 before the vines on Templars Hill were replaced by Pinot Gris. The fruit driven, early drinking style of the Roaring Meg wines struck a chord with the market and the brand has been the main source of growth for Mt Difficulty Wines since 2007.
The Mt Difficulty Winery and Cellar Door
Commonly referred to as "Downstairs" and "Upstairs"
In late 2000 Mt Difficulty commissioned a new winery among the vines in Templars Hill vineyard on Felton Road. The winery was specially designed to produce quality Pinot Noir, but included separate facilities for other varieties and a specific barrel hall for Chardonnay. The building was completed just prior to Christmas 2001 and included an on-site Cellar Door which received many enthusiastic visitors over the busy summer holiday period. As the Mt Difficulty brand became better known, the small Cellar Door outgrew its premises in the winery and a new architecturally designed building was built high above the winery on Templars Hill. This building opened in February 2003 and visitors were able, for the first time, to enjoy a glass of wine over a light platter lunch in the small café while marvelling at the views.
Today the Cellar Door and Restaurant at Mt Difficulty Wines showcase the Mt Difficulty brand to thousands of New Zealand and international visitors annually. Though still small, the café has evolved to become a destination restaurant, with people travelling here for the food as well as the wine. Our popularity with diners has necessitated yet another extension, with a new wine tasting area having been opened in May 2012. We anticipate that this will improve the experience of wine enthusiasts and diners alike.
While the Cellar Door extension was taking place, a much bigger project was also occurring. The size of the winery had been growing incrementally for many years, with warehouse space being taken over by tank rooms. In 2012 the 30 hectares of Roaring Meg vines from Station Block were coming into full maturity and so the need for more winemaking space, and in particular a new barrel hall, was evident. The revolutionary design was completed just in time to see the first grapes come into the winery from the 2012 harvest. The hall is topped by New Zealand's largest semi-extensive living roof, and is a testament to Mt Difficulty's commitment to sustainable winegrowing.