No Difficulty Tasting a Vertical of New Zealand Pinot Noirs

by Chuck Hayward

No Difficulty Tasting a Vertical of New Zealand Pinot Noir

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 2nd, 2011

New Zealand is a relative newcomer to the wine scene in the United States. Though the arrival of the 2011 vintage will mark my 20th year working with Kiwi wines, their real growth in America has only occurred over the past decade. Given that New Zealand is a Johnny-come-lately to our shores, there aren’t many chances for a retrospective look at older vintages of any wine. Unless someone in the States actually saves multiple vintages of the wine (how would I find them?) or a winery pulls them from their cellar and ships them over (an expensive proposition), the only option is to cross the date line and taste them in New Zealand (even more expensive).

A vertical tasting of Mt. Difficulty arranged horizontally

So when I heard Mt. Difficulty was going to host a vertical tasting of seven vintages of their estate wine, I cleared the calendar. Sourcing fruit from their vineyards located in the Bannockburn subregion of Central Otago, Mt. Difficulty is one of the region's leading pinot noir producers. Their estate pinots show the rich and concentrated, yet soft, style that comes from that particular appellation. One of the few New Zealand wineries with a long-term history in the United States, sales date back to the 1998, their first-ever release.

Matt Dicey picking out wines for dinner

Fortunate enough to have tasted a similar vertical lineup last year, this was my second opportunity to go back in time and see how well their pinots have aged. Hosting this recent tasting was winemaker Matt Dicey, with the winery since its inception, and their classic estate-bottled pinot noir was the focus. Over the years, Matt and his team have honed in on specific sites that consistently grow remarkable fruit. In years where quality is deemed exceptional, small amounts (about 300 cases) of single-site wines are made from the three different blocks. 2009 was the first vintage where all three were produced.

Probably what impressed me most at both vertical tastings, though, was the positive impact of screwcaps. All the wines poured were bottled with Stelvin closures, and they showed perfectly. Screwcaps act to slow down the aging process—preserving the primary, youthful fruit flavors and aromas for a longer period of time. While many critics have doubted their effectiveness in aging red wines, an experience with older New Zealand wine proves otherwise. Both tastings reconfirmed that screwcaps are beyond adequate, as the wines performed consistently, accurately reflecting vintage variations, and most importantly, preserving that core of juicy, sweet fruit for longer than expected.

The wines at the two vertical tastings offered up consistent representations of each vintage. Below are brief summaries of each vintage that combine my impressions of the two samples into one note.

*Part II of this blog entry will discuss the newly released single site wines from Mt. Difficulty and their place in New Zealand's rapidly growing pinot noir market.


This vintage is now perfectly mature with translucent coloring and a striking balance between youthful primary fruit and secondary notes of dusty spices. At this point, this is a lighter bodied wine showing more delicacy than power with the ethereal style that is very easy to appreciate. Drink over the next 3-4 years.


The 2004 remains kind of a foursquare wine defined by more masculine, structured features than elegance and finesse. The color retains youthful dark ruby tones and both examples showed concentration of fruit at the backpalate, along with balancing acidity to give the finish a youthful expression. This will go another 3-5 years before reaching maturity.


A clear favorite at both tastings, the fruit aromas and textures have expanded considerably yet still maintain a youthful presence. No signs of mature, secondary qualities at this point, they are most likely a few years down the road. Very seductive with multi-layered complexity, this will provide delicious drinking over the next five years.


This vintage has much in common with the 2004 harvest in regards to its general palate profile. Overall, the flavors are firm with a more structured presence and a bouquet that is closed and backward. Try again in a few years. Or for those looking for a softer, more open style of wine, look to the odd- numbered years.


From a riper vintage, this wine was originally more reserved last year but has started to open up and reveal some broad, soft textures. Each bottle exhibited viscous, juicy fruit components along with just enough acidity to keep the palate reined in and focused. Wait a year or two and it should start to reach the peaks of the 2005.


Both tastings revealed a wine not as showy as other vintages, indicating more restraint than exuberance. Although there was considerable density of fruit on the palate, it was not as developed as some of the earlier vintages. Interestingly, both wines shared a common spicy component on the nose, something the winemaker has seen more frequently as the vineyard matures. Decant now or wait a few years to open up.


Compared to the older wines being presented, this release comes across as brash and unrefined with gobs of youthful, primary fruit. Where the older vintages have shed some of those puppy-fat qualities and taken on a more refined presence, there are clearly a few years to go before this vintage takes on those softer guises of a middle-aged wine. Nevertheless, this is very drinkable right now.