Wonders of Waiheke
Twelve miles off of the coast of the North Island lays one of the wonders of New Zealand, Waiheke Island. Named by Maori for “Cascading Waters,” it is the second largest island in the gulf. As New Zealand’s third most populated island, it is home to roughly eight thousand permanent residents.
Its close proximity to mainland and breathtaking scenery attracts plenty of tourists.
Last August I was fortunate to be one of them. I spent two days traversing the 36 square miles of this pristine, hilly paradise, visiting several stunning beaches and a half-dozen wineries. My main focus was various representations of New Zealand wine. I arrived in Auckland, having spent several days in Marlborough and Martinborough, so wine was very much on my mind when I stepped off the ferry in Waiheke.
The island is home to two dozen wineries that mostly focus on Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec and Chardonnay. There is some Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc made predominantly from grapes sourced from the mainland. Generally, it is too warm on the island to grow Pinot Noir. However, there are a couple of wineries that are located in cooler microclimates that do a great job.
I started at Man O’War Vineyards at the far northeastern end of the island intending to work back toward the ferry landing. The area is rich in history. In 1769, Captain James Cook marked the sight due to the abundance of majestic Kauri trees. The trees were ideally suited for making masts for the Royal Navy’s Man O’War ships, hence the name.
Man O’ War’s vineyards are planted on a five thousand acre farm, occupying 76 scattered individual blocks, comprising 150 acres. The current owners bought the estate in the early eighties. They produce Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Semillon, Viognier, Bordeaux varietals and Syrah. They also make a small amount of Blanc de Blanc, Methode Traditionnelle sparkling wine called Tulia, named after their granddaughter.
Winemaker Duncan McTavish is a fellow with a twinkle in his eye and an easy-going, unassuming attitude, who crafts some rather incredible wines. Duncan’s background includes winemaking stints in Australia, Germany, California and New Zealand. His wines showcase local terroir, with its depth of concentration and vivid minerality. His vines bear fruit that is chock full of varietal character and have personality to spare due to long growing season, wide diversity of topography/soil structure and a maritime climate.
I loved every bottling that I tasted. My main standouts were a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend titled Gravestone. It showed great purity, delineation, vibrancy and intense tropical aromatics. Also noteworthy was the Bellerophon Syrah Viognier blend, sourced from several vineyards, two of which are titled Lunatic and Madman. I went mad for its intense, gorgeous bouquet of dark fruit and violet aromatics enhanced with a plush, round mid-palate. I would venture a guess that it will only improve in the cellar.
The winery grounds are quite striking, and well worth the effort of seeking out.
My next stop, Te Motu Vineyard, was one of my favorite experiences. The Dunleavy family acquired this Onetangi Valley acreage back in the late eighties with the idea of putting in a world-class vineyard to produce Bordeaux varietals. The name “Te Motu” is the original Maori name for Waiheke Island. Without a doubt, winemaker John Dunleavy has captured the magical spirit of the island in his extraordinary wines. Made in a modest shed behind the outdoor dining area, they were my favorite Bordeaux-inspired wines from Waiheke.
Te Motu makes two series of wines, single vineyard and varietal. The lively Shed dry rosé, made in Provence style, is wonderful. Aromas of red and white currants, exotic spice and floral undertones and crisp, bright acidity make this one of New Zealand’s unique rosés. The Bordeaux blend called The Strip, named after the vineyard’s proximity to Waiheke Air Strip, is spectacular. Channeling California with its bold, fruit driven style; its unique island characters are inherently seductive, with deeply floral, herbal and blue fruit undertones.
The winery also features a marvelous restaurant called The Shed, named the “Best Rural Restaurant in New Zealand” in 2014. Chef Bronwen Laigh delivers a modern menu featuring produce from the winery’s organic farm.
Next on my itinerary, I was quite taken with the beauty of Kennedy Point Vineyard. Overlooking open water on the southwestern side of the island, it is a majestic stop. Kennedy Point Vineyard was established in 1996 by Neal Kunimura and Susan McCarthy. It specializes in Bordeaux varieties, specifically Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It is Waiheke Island’s only certified organic vineyard. I tasted wines produced from grapes from all five of their vineyards. The Reserve Malbec and Reserve Merlot are both superb featuring lush fruit and well-integrated tannins. I also loved their Sauvignon Blanc and Rose.
Boasting the title of the producer of New Zealand highest rated wine (Anthony Dias Blue awarded them 98/100 points in 2007 for their Magna Praemia), Destiny Bay Vineyards is Waiheke Island’s destination for Cabernet blends. New Zealand’s first fully certified sustainable winery takes enormous pride in crafting world-class red blends.
Mudbrick Vineyard is one of the larger and better known estates on the island. The property was acquired in 1992 by a couple of young accountants from Auckland, Robyn and Nicholas Jones. Commuting to the property on weekends, they managed to plant and develop the estate with the help of family and friends. Today, Mudbrick is a one of the Island’s prime destinations, featuring a highly regarded Provence-style restaurant made of mud brick and a stellar portfolio of wines. Their vineyard is planted to Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Their Syrahs and Merlots perpetually get accolades from local and international press. I’ve become a fan of their rather tasty Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which represents a great value for the money.
My last stop of the day was Cable Bay Vineyards. It is one of New Zealand’s most popular destinations, and it was easy to see why. The winery features a contemporary, well-appointed hospitality center, award-winning restaurant and great customer service. Cable Bay has estate vineyard holdings both on Waiheke Island and in Marlborough, planted to Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet. Their extensive portfolio of wines struck me as consistent, high quality and quite creative.
Sadly some of the wines I tried on that trip are not available outside the immediate area, however, trying them gave me invaluable insight into the island winemaking.
There are a bevy of reasons to visit New Zealand, and Waiheke certainly ranks at the top of that list. It is a place of fine wines, calm seas, and pastoral views. If you’d like to be magically transported to a world filled with quiet serenity and natural harmony, come to Waiheke and experience its wonders for yourself.