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While each vine has more space to extend its roots to support the more expansive canopy, some viticulturists would counter that with fewer vines per hectare and a large canopy each vine may not be able to ripen its fruit as effectively.
With experience working or consulting in most viticultural regions of New Zealand, Robin Dicey has a clear idea of the variability in the phenology of vines in different parts of the country. He uses Central Otago and Pinot Noir as his example. Bud break is usually in the first week of October, four or five weeks after Auckland, but there is local variability within Central: ‘Gibbston will be ten days later. He describes the Central Otago bud break as ‘absolutely instantaneous and it’s generally 100 per cent. Blind buds, sleepy buds, long-drawn buds, crescent buds, are almost unknown here. He attributes this uniformity to the depth of winter chill, even though ‘the experts will tell us that vines actually require very little winter chilling’. He concedes that the experts are probably right but that the vines still benefit from Central’s cold winter. On the north side of Felton Road where the Diceys Full Circle vineyard is located, flowering is mid-December and veraison in the second half of February into the first week of March. The Diceys are usually picking by mid-April. Since their first vintage in Central Otago, their picking date for Pinot Noir has varied by no more than ten days.
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The Diceys started their own contract winery called Longburn Wines which began in a makeshift leased building in Cromwell and was the forerunner of the Mt Difficulty winery on Felton Road:
Five of us, now four, started out getting together under one label called Mt Difficulty to enlarge our blending base and for security of supply. So [that] when they ring up from America and say ‘We’d like 5000 cases’, we don’t have to say ‘We’ve got our last 14, would you be interested in that?’
By 2010 their total area under production was 46 hectares and they had clearly established themselves as one of the four largest enterprises in Central Otago.
Mt Difficulty is a refined form of co-operative; the four participating growers describe it as a joint venture. With co-operatives being common in French, Italian and Spanish winegrowing and having served the New Zealand dairy industry well, why are they rare in this country’s wine production? The answer lies partly in the nature of the primary material being produced. Compared with milk, grapes for wine are highly differentiable. Moreover, the quality of the grapes supplied to co-operatives tends to drift towards the lowest common denominator. In some seasons, producing a crop with the balance of sugar, acid and flavours to make wines of quality is very difficult despite the best efforts of those growing the grapes. Robin Dicey had managed a large co-operative in South Africa and was fully aware of such problems. To overcome the problem of variability in quality of grapes from different sources the four participants in Mt Difficulty agreed to restrict yields. With Pinot Noir, for instance, they aim for 7 tonnes per hectare.
Robin Dicey expresses a similar view to many local and international grape growers and winemakers when he calls Pinot Noir ‘a finicky sort of thing’. In Central Otago: it comes to physiological ripeness very nicely, sugar ripeness with a decent degree of residual acidity. One of those elements is always likely to drop off somewhere further north.
Central Otago has another natural advantage over many other regions growing Pinot Noir, including Burgundy. Low rainfall in autumn means that botrytis has never been a severe problem. In almost all regions where Pinot Noir is grown, humid conditions and the onset of fungoid diseases compromises the decision on when to pick. In too many places where this variety is grown the vigneron’s hand is forced before the grapes have reached physiological maturity and the flavours have fully developed. In the distinctive atmospheric conditions of Central Otago, growers are often able to leave grapes on the vine in the autumn without them being spoiled. Recounting his own experience of picking Pinot Noir at 27 brix, Robin marvels: ‘It’s unheard of because no one can hang Pinot to 27 brix without it rotting!’