Waiheke’s wine reputation has more than ripened in the last decade. With over twenty vineyards on the island, producing stunning Bordeaux reds and first-class restaurants, it has exploded. Grapes love sun, slopes, a little moisture and ridges that trap in the heat, so Waiheke with its natural amphitheatres, sunny slopes and microclimate, is ideal for growing them. Over the years, the island has attracted outliers looking for a life-style change and many owners have a story of turning up with a dream and endless soil to toil. Now, the 35 minute ferry ride from Auckland is always packed full of people hoping to experience some of that fantasy lifestyle for a few days, sometimes even a few hours.
Here’s our pick of vineyards from zealous viticulturists to those offering long lunches.
Stonyridge turned the world’s wine noses towards Waiheke Island back in the 80’s. Stephen White, the owner and wine-maker, fell for the great reds of France, Tuscany and California skippering yachts in the Mediterranean and working in wineries. In 1982 he returned to New Zealand and decided Waiheke Island had what was needed to produce world-class Bordeaux red wine. Five years later he produced the 1987 Larose that put Stonyridge on the world stage, hailed at the time, as the greatest New Zealand red wine. Today, Stonyridge is still winning accolades and their handsome cellar door feels timeless. Enjoy platters in their restaurant, overlooking the vines or take a tour of the cellar or vineyards on a Saturday or Sunday, starting at 11.30am. Please note that bookings are essential and you don’t want to miss out!
This family run vineyard may be small on production but it is large on gusto. Lance Blumhardt and wife, Luciana, do everything from pruning to tractor driving to winemaking. Lance was a geologist before becoming a viticulturist, giving him a good grasp of what grapes need, and they’re producing excellent Syrah, Blush Pinot Grigio, Montepulciano and award-winning Cabernet Franc. The cellar’s received some bad reviews from people who don’t get Lance. Don’t go if you’re only interested in the inebriated effects of wine. Do go if you’re a wine buff, as Lance will entertain you with tales about wine and 155-year-old-million rocks from the Jurassic Period.
Every Waiheke “to do” list recommends Mudbrick because it always delivers - on top-notch food and wine. On striking décor and gardens. On spectacular sunset views of Auckland. And the best part is the story. In 1992, two accountants in their mid twenties, Robyn and Nicholas Jones, rashly bought some bare land on Waiheke. With no winemaking or hospitality experience you’d think they were nuts but they approached their venture with dedication, trial and error. As accountants do. And it worked, right down to their whacky idea to build their cellar out of mud bricks to control the temperature for ageing wine. The cellar door is open 7 days a week, but with slightly shorter hours in the winter months. Tastings cost $10 - $15 dollars and you will need to book if you are with 9 or more friends.
Sadly, you probably won’t get to every vineyard on the island and some vineyards have no cellar doors. However, Waiheke Wine Centre, in Oneroa, stocks the vast majority and have an Italian animatic - which dispenses healthy pours. So pop in there and try the likes of Cedallion, Woodside Hill, Obsidian (great range), Kennedy Point (organic) and Michael’s.
Destiny Bay’s founder, Sean Spratt, quotes Saint Germaine when talking about his patch on Waiheke, “Wine symbolizes the alchemical marriage betwixt Heaven and Earth.” Sean has a heavenly spot on earth with vines of unfaultable lineage and he’s a stickler for excellence and sustainability. Destiny Bay’s found at restaurants like Peter Gordon’s The Providores in London, Michael Mina at The Bellagio, Las Vegas, and luxury resorts and restaurants around NZ. Destiny Bay’s a must-have purchase for serious wine lovers and collectors. There’s no cellar door but go to the Oyster Inn, with the best wine list on Waiheke, and try some.
Tantalus is the newest old spot on Waiheke, the place to dine when you’re up for something special. A young couple bought the old vineyard and building, described by their architect as “a warehouse in thin drag: a couple of stilettos and some hasty makeup,” and gave it a stunning makeover. The modern building is rich with details like hand painted tiled walls and vine clippings dangling with the ceiling lights. The restaurant, headed by Joe Vasiloff, is a class act, and you must save room for dessert. Even the old vines had a makeover and their Evoque Reserve 2014 Cabernet Franc is another must. Fully accredited under the NZ Sustainable Winegrowing Programme Tantalus is the definitely the place to go, the wine to drink.
Te Motu’s a boutique vineyard producing wines described as ‘elegant and approachable’ – a bit like the surroundings. The terrace garden, with views over the valley, is a relaxed and unpretentious spot to try the Bordeaux-style wines. When the Dunleavy family bought their land back in 1988 they had the pick of the valley, making Te Motu vines some of the oldest on Waiheke. A few years ago, Master of Wine, Sam Harrop, joined the Te Motu team. And it shows. So do make sure you try the award-winning Kokoro - or pop a bottle or two in your boot (trunk). Their restaurant, The Shed, has gained applause recently for elegant meals, well matched to the wine, so as you head back to Oneroa, this is a great place to stop. Especailly if you’re there on a Friday when they are open for dinner as well as lunch. (Please phone ahead to check opening hours as they operate slightly shorter hours over the winter months.
When a restaurant’s run by a ‘Hospitality Personality Of The Year’ and a winemaker goes by the name of Dr Bond, you know a place will be high on character and charm. Cat Vosper creates an atmosphere of compartir (Spanish for sharing) at Casita Miro. Whether dining inside or outside the elevated glass pavilion, you share raciones, (large platters) of a multifarious mix of Spanish tapas and Moroccan food, on shared tables. And if you partake in any of Cat and Dr Bond’s Spanish sherry you’ll be sharing jokes for hours. Some say Casita Miro’s the most beautiful dining room on Waiheke. Another option is to book (bookings essential) into one of Casita Miros tutored tastings of 5 of their wines, accompanied by a food match. Delicious!
If you’ve been “tasting” wonderful wines at Man O’War and Passage Rock, now is the time to eat. Because Poderi Crisci is the place to feast. Famous for long lunches and year round al fresco dining, you can trust them to serve you the best lunch imaginable with five courses over just as many hours, all based on the chef’s recommendations. Or there’s simple, delicious pizza too. The owners, Antonio Crisci and Vivienne Farnell, have opened three restaurants including the institution, Non Solo Pizza in Auckland. Raised in Napoli, Antonio grew up around foodies and wine lovers and he’s all about quality ingredients, taste and minimal intervention with his wine.
If you’ve found your way out to Man O’War then you should knock off Passage Rock because the wine is the most awarded on Waiheke. With 18 gold medals and 6 trophies, the Passage Rock Reserve Syrah could fill up a wheelbarrow of gongs. The vineyard’s setting is quintessential South of France, with a bistro set amongst the vines, and views over the bay. Passage Rock’s a good place to try a variety of different grapes. They release a Cabernet Merlot when the season allows, about four times a decade, and their Chardonnay, Viognier and Pinot Gris are popular with locals. Grab a table and indulge in a glass of wine of your choice whilst dining on their fabulous wood fired pizzas - or some other deliciousness from their bistro menu.
You know you’re on an island when you can dunk your feet into the ocean after wandering out of a tasting room. Man O’War, on the far eastern side of Waiheke is a place to lose a few hours. Easily. There’s the excellent wine, which they don’t charge tasting fees for, the superb platters, the history of the place including ancient kauri relics, the staff’s knowledge of the place and wine-making, and the games: lawn cricket and swing ball. But if that sounds too strenuous then escape to the beach with a bottle to enjoy under the shade of a Pohutukawa tree. Be prepared for a bit of a journey as Man O’War is reached by an “adventurous drive” down a gravel road, but once you’re there, tastings of their Flagship and Estate Ranges will leave you clamouring for more. Subscribing to the view that great wine is made in the vineyard, Man O’War carefully tend the vines, harvest by hand and then combine Old World techniques with innovative ideas to create wines that are elegant, balanced and textured.