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Stories from our Travelers

Stunning Wine and Vistas on New Zealand's Waiheke Island

Sea kayak centre at Onetangi

Vineyards and view from Te Whau

Antipasto platter at Stonyridge
by Nick Walton

[From Fall 2010] The wind dies down quickly as the powerful Fullers Quick Cat ferry slows and enters Onetangi Bay. We had just crossed Auckland Harbour and part of the Hauraki Gulf, passing in the shadow of Rangitoto, an extinct volcano. Now, at our 35-minute journey's end, crowds of locals can be seen joking and chatting with one another on the pier while they wait for another load of city folk to embark on their island hideaway.

This is Waiheke, a quirky beautiful little island in the heart of Auckland Harbour, in New Zealand. It's famed for its hippies and nudist beaches, its boutique art galleries and café culture, and for its stunning wineries, the production of which, although small by commercial standards, regularly matches up with the region's greatest drops.

On the dock to greet us is my great friend Eve Robinson, an islander through and through. Wine runs through her family; her parents, Jenny and Nigel, run Ananda Tours, the island's top wine tour company, while her sister Brooke studied wine marketing and now works at one of the island's leading vineyards, Mudbrick. Having started off with small, personalised tours, Ananda now regularly deals with larger groups, especially during the summer months when the various wineries hold large outdoor events. However, Nigel's just as happy escorting a handful of inquisitive visitors down the island's narrow rural roads and through its rustic villages. We clamber into Ananda's bus with a handful of tourists from across the globe and head up the quiet main road towards Onetangi Town and our first vineyard, Te Whau.

Waiheke is like the New Zealand of my childhood; there are old boat sheds that get a new coat of paint each year, roads that have well-worn dirt paths instead of sidewalks, and a sense of timelessness that the city folk back in Auckland have lost. Over the past two decades, ever since the launch of high speed ferry services, an increasing number of Aucklanders have moved to Waiheke, to commute to offices in the city or to seek a sea change – some even to join the burgeoning wine and olive oil industries.

Te Whau is one of the poster boys of the Waiheke wine scene. With Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec planted on steep slopes overlooking a deserted but postcard-perfect bay, they produce fantastic red wines, with the best, The Point, a regular prize winner. Te Whau prides itself on hand harvesting, and being one of the founders of New Zealand's sustainable viticulture movement, which seeks to promote environmentally sustainable wine making. In fact, the winery is in the process of converting to fully organic and biodynamic production.

We taste Te Whau's ruby red drops in a modern tasting room and restaurant overlooking the island's craggy shoreline, before piling back into the mini bus and chugging our way down the hill, past herds of curious Alpacas, to nearby Jurassic Ridge Winery.

Jurassic Ridge is on a mission to make the island's best single vineyard wines. Produced on an estate at Church Bay, for the wine makers here, it's all about the 155 million-year-old, clay-based soil. Their red wines, including full-bodied Syrah and Cabernet Franc, are made from selected hand-picked grapes and then matured in French and American oak. They also make a 'blush' Pinot Grigio made in the dry Italian style, and well as a Syrah rosé, which typically sells out before it's even bottled. The wines are produced by Lucuana, a practicing neurologist, and Lance, a geologist turned self-appointed viticulturist, with emotional support from Neko, the vineyard cat.

From Jurassic it's a quick trip to Mudbrick, whose restaurant, wreathed in manicured gardens and with views to die for, is one of the island's most popular spots for lunch. We try some of their stunning wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and even a Viognier, each of which is made from grapes grown at the estate's two vineyards: Church Bay, where the restaurant and tasting room is, and Shepherd's Point overlooking Onetangi. When we arrive, the restaurant is full, and the tasting room sees a constant flow of visitors, both from Auckland and further afield, some on tours, some simply popping in for a bite and a lingering glass of wine.

The last stop on the official tour is Stonyridge, host of some of the island's largest open-air events. Makers of premium organic red wines, including their Airfield Claret, Luna Negra Malbec and famed Bordeaux-styled Larose, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot grapes grown in organic vineyards and described as one of the top 100 wines in the world by Arcigola Slow Food, the world's largest wine publication. Here, in the semi-al fresco dining room, we feast on antipasto platters of Pacific Rock oysters with citrus ginger sorbet, smoked South Island salmon, Kapati Coast cheese, proscuitto and plenty of extra virgin olive oil from the island's own groves and press.

After a day of so-so skies, the sun finally emerges, flooding the restaurant in golden light and turning the rural landscape emerald green, and I remembered instantly why I always come back to Waikeke Island.

If You Go:
Summer in New Zealand, in the southern hemisphere, coincides with winter in the northern hemisphere (typically December - March).
For Waiheke Island wine tours, go to Ananda Tours, Tel. +64 9 372 7530
Wineries we visited:
Jurassic Ridge, 144 Church Bay Road, RD1 Oneroa, Waiheke Island, Tel. +64 9 950 3175
Mudbrick Winery, Church Bay Road, Oneroa, Waiheke Island, Tel. + 64 9 372 9050
Stonyridge, 80 Onetangi Road, Waiheke Island, Tel. +64 9 372 8822
Te Whau, 218 Te Whau Drive, Oneroa, Waiheki Island, Tel. +64 9 372 7191

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