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Mt. Difficulty Winemaker’s Dinner at ’21′ Club

Tuesday, July 19th 2011

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a sumptuous wine dinner at New York City’s ’21′ Club, hosted by Matt Dicey, the winemaker of Mt. Difficulty Wines in Central Otago, New Zealand.  The dinner was held in the elegant, upstairs dining room, Upstairs at ’21′, surrounded by vibrant murals of New York landmarks created exclusively for ’21′ by Brooklyn-based artist Wynne Evans.

Mt. Difficulty is a boutique winery located in Bannockburn in Central Otago, New Zealand and owns some of the region’s oldest vineyards.  Central Otago is the world’s most southern vineyard area and has unique, unpredictable temperature fluctuations on a daily basis, as well as from season to season, which turns out to be a plus for growing finicky Pinot Noir.  The distinctive microclimate of Bannockburn provides hot summers and cool autumns, coaxing the very best out its Pinot Noir grapes.  The namesake of the nearby mountain that shelters the vineyards, Mt. Difficulty Wines is an exceptional New Zealand producer.

Here at The Wine Cellarage, we’ve been fans of Mt. Difficulty for quite some time, which is why we were thrilled to find out that Matt Dicey was coming to town and jumped at the opportunity to partner with ’21′ Club for this special wine dinner. Matt is a fourth generation winemaker and has been making Mt. Difficulty Wines since 1999.  Matt was a wonderful host and gave captivating introductions for each of the wines that we tasted, going into the differences in soil types, the mixture of clays and gravels found in the region, along with the influence of the region’s climate on grape-growing there. Matt’s jovial disposition and informative dialogues made the evening truly memorable.

Guests were welcomed with a glass of the 2010 Roaring Meg Pinot Gris and a delicious selection of passed canapés, including tuna tartare and lobster and crab salad.  The Pinot Gris was crisp and refreshing, cooling everyone down as they came in from the intense heat!

The dinner, prepared by Executive Chef John Greeley, began with seared sea scallops over English pea risotto, razor clam nage and kefir.  The scallops were paired with the 2008 Mt. Difficulty Estate Pinot Gris and the 2008 Mt. Difficulty Estate Sauvignon Blanc, offering an interesting juxtaposition.  The Pinot Gris complimented the dish perfectly, enhancing the inherent sweetness of the scallops and peas with its aromatics, floral and tropical qualities.  The Sauvignon Blanc had a more racy acidity that cut right through the richness of the dish, while its herbaceous notes played harmoniously alongside the pea risotto.  Both wines were a great pairing, but I preferred the Estate Pinot Gris.

Next up, we were presented with sockeye salmon, a fricassee of mushrooms, sweet corn purée, lemon butter and dry chilis.  This lovely salmon was paired with the 2006 Mt. Difficulty Estate Chardonnay and the 2009 Roaring Meg Pinot Noir, both working marvelously with different elements in the dish and really demonstrated that both varietals can offer an enticing pairing for salmon.  The Estate Chardonnay’s red apple notes had a pleasant interplay with the corn purée, while the wine’s creaminess highlighted the splendid richness of the sockeye and lemon butter, finishing with palate cleansing, fresh minerality.  On the other hand, the Roaring Meg Pinot Noir complimented the earthiness of the mushroom medley and provided a refreshing contrast to the salmon’s rich texture and flavor.

By the time the third course arrived, animated conversation was as plentiful as the wine being poured and our table had covered a range of topics including biodynamic farming, sustainable energy and the differences between salmon from New Zealand and that from the Atlantic.  The grilled lamb chop (cooked beautifully on the rare side) and belly were presented with an array of accompaniments – fine herbs with honey mustard, cherry tomatoes, zucchini blossom and smoked bacon. The lamb was paired with the 2008 Estate Pinot Noir and the single-vineyard 2008 Long Gully Pinot Noir,providing the opportunity to compare different bottlings from the same vintage.

The Estate Pinot Noir showed rich, black fruit and prevalent, balanced tannins and acidity, making for a wonderful pairing.  Both Pinots shared rich dark fruit, black cherry and blackberry characteristics, yet the Long Gully had greater complexity and finesse.  The Long Gully displayed wild berry flavors, currants and cassis, along with floral and violet aromas, velvety tannins and harmonious acidity that carried through on the long, sweet fruit finish.

The final course, a Pavlova filled with passion fruit coulis and exotic sorbets, was paired with the 2008 Roaring Meg Riesling.  This vibrant dessert was the perfect finale to the dinner, where each element came together and made for an enchanting evening of magnificent wine, incredible food, flawless service and delightful ambiance.