The passionate people behind the perfect pinot in New Zealand

At Mt Difficulty – in the world’s southernmost wine region – some of New Zealand’s best pinot noir is being produced.

Sheltered by a dramatic mountain range that helps create an ideal, continental-style climate, in the world’s southernmost wine region, these New Zealand winemakers are creating extraordinary pinot noirs.

With its low rainfall and hot summers, Central Otago’s unique climate provides the perfect conditions for producing complex, continental-style wines. At Mt Difficulty – in the world’s southernmost wine region – meet some of the passionate people producing some of New Zealand’s best pinot noir.

Pinot noir is an expressive but challenging grape variety that thrives in the rugged South Island region of Central Otago. The unique climate, characterised by low rainfall and humidity – and isolated from New Zealand’s prevailing milder coastal breezes – makes the area ideally suited to producing complex, concentrated wines. 

One of New Zealand’s oldest, best regarded pinot noir producers can be found in the sub-region of Bannockburn. The Mt Difficulty vineyard is on a north-facing escarpment overlooking the Cromwell basin, shielded from inclement weather by the Southern Alps, including the label’s namesake mountain – with knockout views of Bannockburn’s rock and thyme landscape.

Established in the early ’90s, when five newly planted wineries agreed to work under one label, the age of the vines gives these pinots a competitive edge. Mt Difficulty’s soil variability is also reflected in the brand’s range, from its flagship Bannockburn Pinot Noir to its single-vineyard offerings. 

Mt Difficulty has a strong presence in the local market, and 40 percent of its product is exported to 19 countries. Every year, 60,000 wine enthusiasts visit Mt Difficulty’s Cellar Door for tastings or a meal in the restaurant. At the heart of this family-run business are a few key people, whose passion for the terroir is evident in every drop.

Matt Dicey, winemaker and general manager

There’s no such thing as a typical month for Mt Difficulty’s winemaker, Matt Dicey (whose father Robin Dicey was instrumental in starting the winery). Between Christmas and autumn, he’s busy producing the last of the pinot noirs, before preparing the vineyard for the next vintage. After harvest at the start of autumn, he’ll get ready for the first bottlings of the season. 

“We’ve fought hard to produce grapes that give structure in the wine, a sense of weight on the palate,” Matt explains. “So you get that clean, aromatic fruit profile with secondary characters – sweet brown spices, a Christmas cake element – adding depth and complexity. 

“I think of the wines as my children. I love watching their personalities evolve over time. In many respects it’s like a piece of art. You’ve had direct input in how it was conceived but then you sit back and let it develop. It’s really satisfying watching the wines as they age – you just hope that other people enjoy them too. 

“I love the fact that it’s an ongoing process of discovery, that the more you think you understand, the less you realise you know. It’s a humbling experience, and I’m never caught thinking it’s Groundhog Day. The beauty of winemaking is that every wine has its own intriguing expression. You never know what the season will throw at you.”

James Dicey, viticulturalist

It’s James Dicey’s responsibility to grow the grapes, protecting them from frost, fungus, and disease, until they’re at peak condition for harvesting. “You can’t create a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” James says. “We really work hard on the grapes, so my brother [winemaker Matt Dicey] can get the best out of the wines. 

“The critical issue is frost. We use a range of techniques to deal with it: one is through site selection, where you choose a property with a good, sloping, northerly section. You can also use helicopters and water. I started at 4am today, to turn on the wind machines, as we had a mild tickle.

“The other critical things are preventing fungal diseases such as mildew and botrytis. It comes down to cultural controls, how we manage the canopy so it doesn’t get too dense or allow light in, yet allowing it to stay open to aid wind flow. I celebrate and enjoy the influence of site and season on our pinot noir. We can only guarantee one thing: that it’s not going to be the same as last year. 

“Working with my brother is fabulous. There’s an honesty and an understanding that goes beyond a normal relationship. We have some fairly frank and open discussions, which if you’re outsider and you don’t understand the family dynamic, can be intimidating, but by and large, we get on very well and respect each other’s role.”

Werner Hecht-Wendt, head chef

Since he turned the Mt Difficulty Cellar Door café into a restaurant nine years ago, South African-raised, part-German chef Werner Hecht-Wendt has relished the opportunity to showcase Mt Difficulty pinot noir through his modern European food. 

“It’s pretty easy, because the venison and the lamb have beautiful, robust herbs such as wild thyme, and pinot holds up really well to that,” Werner says. “I love the Packspur and the single-vineyard Pipeclay Terrace, which is very full-bodied, similar to the Rioja and tempranillo I used to drink when I lived in Europe. 

“If I’m doing venison and it has a strong jus, I’ll use a pinot jus which gives more oomph to the sauce and blends well with the meat. 

“All our meals are wine-matched, which I do in conjunction with Jacqui [Rose-Anderson], our Cellar Door manager. Every time I create a new dish, I’ll plate it up and taste the food with the wine. It’s a hard job, eh – actually, it’s only hard when you’re doing it at 10am!

“Before I took this job, I just thought wine was wine. I never thought, as a chef, that my job would be so involved with the wine, but it is and I’ve really enjoyed it. You learn so much about how wine changes – in six months’ time, it’s not the same.”

Fraser Mackenzie, sales and marketing

New Zealand-born Fraser Mackenzie previously worked in the wine industry in Dubai and New York, and moved with his young family to Central Otago to take on the role at Mt Difficulty. It’s his job to market the wine locally and overseas.

“I live and breathe the winery and interact with the winemakers every day,” Fraser says. “We have a fantastic Cellar Door where I can entertain international distributors and press. I also get to travel – about 50 percent of my time is about taking the product out to the world. I’m immensely proud to represent such an iconic New Zealand brand.

“Keeping on top of all of our markets has its challenges: time-zone differences, new markets, balancing all those wants and needs in the first few hours of the day. 

“Australia, the UK and the US are our top three, but we’re now starting to see southeast Asia as an emerging market. 

“My favourite is the Bannockburn Pinot Noir, our flagship wine, the one we hang our hat on. It represents Bannockburn and is the legacy of the Dicey family, pioneering grape growers and winemakers. It epitomises New Zealand as a contemporary wine-producing country that forged new grape-growing areas on the extremity of what’s possible.”

Jacqui Rose-Anderson, cellar door manager

For 13 years, Jacqui has run Mt Difficulty’s cellar door, where pinot enthusiasts can enjoy tastings and visit the restaurant, while taking in the magnificent views. The cellar door sits high over the winery, perched on a rocky outcrop looking across the Cromwell basin to Lake Dunstan.

“Nearly everyone who walks in the door is excited to be here, loves the wines or looks forward to learning about them,” says Jacqui, whose car number plate is Pin0t.

“We do incredible numbers, driven largely by word of mouth. When we opened [the cellar door] in 2003, it was a small kitchen where you could get a platter or order from a very simple menu. Then in 2011, we extended it so there’s a tasting room separate from the restaurant. In the summer, we’ll get 160-plus diners for lunch a day. 

“I came here after working in wine retail for seven years. I had my own wine shop, and got the bug. But it really started when I did a course in viticulture with Robin Dicey [father of winemaker Matt and viticulturalist James]. I sit down with Matt once a year, and do a full tasting with him, although generally I stay out of the winemaker’s way. When Werner [Hecht-Wendt] changes the menu, we’ll taste the food and decide which wine will go with it. I’m a sucker for the Long Gully Pinot from Robin’s block, it has a lovely, dark chocolate element.

“We’re down-to-earth as a company so it’s a really comfortable environment, the product is great, and we have the best view in the world.”

Travel Tips

Mt Difficulty is in Bannockburn, 45 minutes’ drive from the resort towns of Queenstown and Wanaka in Central Otago. Queenstown has an international airport and you could hire a car or join an organised tour such as those provided by Queenstown Wine Trail. 

With more than 200 wineries in the Central Otago region producing a range of wines as well as top restaurants such as Queenstown’s Rata - by Michelin-trained New Zealand chef Josh Emett, there is plenty for food and wine lovers to explore.

Adrenalin junkies can try their hand at jet boating on a fast-moving river with Shotover Jet, or bungy jumping off bridges with the world-famous AJ Hackett company. Golf lovers will enjoy the championship course at Millbrook Resort with views of The Remarkables mountain range.