Lying in the middle of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke Island has gained a reputation as a weekend escape for stressed-out city dwellers. Its sunny warm climate, fantastic golden beaches and highly regarded cellar doors and restaurants draw visitors keen to explore this increasingly important region.
Waiheke is a small island, only 92km² in area and at some points only a kilometre wide. It’s part of a volcanic chain that formed around 14 million years ago, with intense geological activity weathering the rock. In the warm, relatively moist Auckland climate, this meant the soil that formed was comprised mainly of clay minerals.
These soils are the island’s secret weapon; they help retain water and provide much-needed moisture for the later ripening varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon. But Waiheke benefits from a varied soil profile; in the valley floors there are richer alluvial deposits while at the eastern end of the island, volcanic ash soils are prevalent. The topography of the island is distinct and diverse. It’s this lack of homogeneity that allows winemakers to experiment with a number of different grape varieties and styles.
Although only 35 minutes from Auckland by ferry, Waiheke enjoys a more benign climate than the mainland. The temperatures are usually a degree or two warmer and the annual rainfall is less than two-thirds of that in Auckland’s other regions such as Matakana and Kumeu. Maritime breezes help reduce the humidity although growers still have to be mindful of the ever-present risk of botrytis.
Waiheke’s winemakers are a diverse bunch: a mixture of island-bred locals, retired entrepreneurs, and those from both within New Zealand and overseas who want to work in the sun-drenched vineyards. There are around 25 producers and where a decade ago some of these were hobbyists rather than true professionals, today that is changing. As a result, the quality of the wines has never been higher.
One of the pioneering producers is Stonyridge Vineyards (stonyridge.com). Its flagship wine, Larose, showed the rest of the country that the island was capable of producing world-class reds. Owner Stephen White returned to New Zealand in 1981 after sailing in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race and skippering yachts in the Mediterranean. Strongly influenced by the wines he’d drunk overseas, he came back determined to make an ultra-premium red, styled on the wines of the Médoc.
White decided Waiheke’s favourable climate was just what he was looking for and settled on a sheltered north-facing slope in the Onetangi Valley. Although his vision was firmly on producing reds, being the consummate showman, he soon realised that in addition to making great wine, being controversial was a good way to get his winery noticed. Tales of White’s vineyard parties (one featuring a naked Lady Godiva riding in on horseback) are legendary but since those days, the estate has moved gracefully into middle age, concentrating on producing some of the country’s most sought-after wines. Larose, a blend of six varieties (cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec, merlot, cabernet franc and carménère) is initially offered en primeur to mailing list subscribers for around NZ$150. I tasted the 2013 Larose early last year; it was just starting to show delightful bottle-aged characters while still retaining great freshness and poise, suggesting a long life ahead. With its proven track record and ability to cellar for at least a decade, Larose appeals to serious collectors of New Zealand wine – the 2013 vintage now retails for close to NZ$450.
For those looking to dine, Stonyridge’s Veranda Cafe is one of the most popular lunching spots on the island. The menu, designed by executive chef Nic Watt, focuses on local produce, while the extensive wine list offers both a full selection of Stonyridge current releases and carefully cellared older vintages of Larose. For those seeking a more laid-back experience, the Tasting Lounge has a selection of wine flights or you can move to the Yoga Deck for a lighter tapas menu, which can be enjoyed either on the deck or picnic-style overlooking the vines.
Next door to Stonyridge is Te Motu (temotu.co.nz), another of Waiheke’s pioneering wineries. Having initially considered Hawke’s Bay, in 1988 the Dunleavy family chose the sheltered Onetangi Valley as the perfect location to produce high-class cabernet sauvignon. While older vintages of Te Motu have proved to be a little hit or miss, since the new generation has taken charge, the quality of the wines has increased significantly. A lot of this can be attributed to Sam Dunleavy, who rejoined Te Motu as winemaker in 2015. His wines are more polished, with a purity of fruit, silken tannins – crafted for mid- to long-term cellaring. But recognising that not everyone has the patience to wait, Te Motu also produces The Strip Cabernet Merlot, a more approachable wine, designed for earlier drinking.
Sam’s cousin Rory Dunleavy is general manager and on the day I visited, he was busy getting ready to re-open the winery’s restaurant after the Covid-19 lockdown. The Shed has a relaxed, rustic atmosphere, with patrons dining on a covered deck overlooking the vineyards. The dishes are a brilliant example of modern New Zealand cuisine. Dunleavy has persuaded the highly regarded chef Yutak Son to move from North Canterbury’s Black Estate to Te Motu, and the pair are planning a new menu with a strong focus on using local produce, such as Te Matuku oysters, Waiheke olive oil and vegetables grown on the estate. The adjoining small cellar door offers a chance to taste aged cellar wines alongside the current releases.
Some of the most highly regarded winemakers here are more recent arrivals. One of these is Chloe Somerset, winemaker at Cable Bay Vineyards (cablebay.nz). Somerset zig-zagged around the world, working vintages in Hawke’s Bay and Central Otago, as well as in the Okanagan, Santorini and Sonoma County. She also spent time in the Hunter Valley, at Brokenwood Wines and then at Tower Estate. When a position at Cable Bay came up in 2013 she moved back across the Tasman, first as assistant winemaker, before taking on the chief winemaker role in 2015.
The winery takes fruit from Marlborough, but spend time in Somerset’s company and it’s clear her passion lies in exploring what her island vineyards can produce. On the 2019 Master of Wine NZ visit, several MWs described her 2015 Cable Bay Syrah as one of the best they had tasted, a medium-bodied wine that had a delightful floral aroma and silky, mid-palate richness instead of the more overt pepper notes and bolder structure found in Hawke’s Bay examples.
While the syrah was growing so well, Somerset was disappointed her two viognier plots didn’t live up to her expectations so moved one to marsanne and planted some roussanne, too. I had a taste of the 2019 roussanne from barrel and was really impressed, but unfortunately these wines are made in tiny quantities (one barrel of marsanne last year) so will only be sold through the winery’s restaurant and cellar door. I also tasted the 2018 Waiheke Chardonnay, a wine that has an appealing fresh citrus and white peach character enhanced by crisp acidity.
Cable Bay is home to one of the island’s leading winery restaurants with much of the produce coming from the large organic kitchen garden. The 2,500 manuka trees provide pollen for the estate’s bees and in 2016, Cable Bay took ownership of a local olive grove and now produces its own oil.
The dining room’s large covered verandah has a magnificent outlook over the harbour and the proximity to the ferry terminal (a 20-minute walk away) means it is very popular with daytrippers who make a final call here to enjoy a glass of wine and a wood-fired pizza. There is a dedicated cellar door, overlooking the barrel hall, where you can concentrate on tasting a selection of the winery releases without being distracted by the views.
Also in the Onetangi Valley, Tantalus Estate (tantalus.co.nz) is a relatively new producer – the vineyard was planted in 1998 – and is aimed at the ultra-premium end of the market. The estate’s owners have spared no expense creating a stylish, modern restaurant and if you can tear your eyes away from the wonderful views out over the vineyard, make sure to look upwards at the unique chandeliers made from decommissioned sauvignon blanc vines.
Alex Perez, who hails from Argentina, is winemaker at Tantalus. It wasn’t a surprise when I asked about the 2020 vintage to find he was very enthusiastic about the quality of this year’s malbec. But when it comes to the estate’s two flagship reds, Perez chooses to make blends rather than single variety wines as he feels this represents the estate better. The Tantalus Évoque Reserve is a merlot-dominant blend while the Tantalus Écluse Reserve is always primarily cabernet sauvignon, with some cabernet franc, merlot and malbec too. Both are made to be cellared and usually released to the market at 3-4 years of age.
Tucked away under the restaurant is the cellar door, a brick-walled space where you can taste the latest releases and purchase a range of gifts including the estate’s own wildflower honey and olive oil. Tantalus also has its own microbrewery and although Perez is a qualified brewer, he is busy looking after the beehives and winery, leaving head brewer Bernard Neate to craft a range of artisan beers. After a long day tasting wine, the cosy Alibi Brewers Lounge offers a chance to enjoy a relaxing beer or two alongside a plate of gourmet pub fare, such as southern fried chicken and burgers.
Several winery restaurants are well off the beaten track and can seat only a small number of diners. It definitely pays to make a booking ahead of time and organise transport to and from the ferry. The excellent Casita Miro (casitamiro.co.nz) serves a Spanish-influenced tapas menu and though one could drink the estate’s wonderful wines, there is a tempting range of sherry listed, too. Further east on the island is Antonio Crisci’s Poderi Crisci (podericrisci.co.nz) . Crisci comes from Naples, and his wines and restaurant are a tribute to his Italian heritage. A large kitchen garden supplies as much of the produce as possible and the wines are all made from estate-grown fruit.
Less well known but worth keeping in mind are Batch Winery (batchwinery.com), an up-and-coming producer where winemaker Daniel Struckman crafts precise wines from island-grown fruit and grapes brought in from other regions, and Frenchmans Hill Estate (frenchmanshillestate.co.nz), home to French/Kiwi winemaker Luc Desbonnets.
The only downside is that as a small island producer, Waiheke wines are always going to be more expensive than those on the mainland. The cost of vineyard land continues to rise in value, the price driven upwards by the demand for housing. And although many of the wines more than justify their lofty price tags, there are some, it could be argued, that ride on the coat tails of more illustrious names.
Although it attracts a huge number of visitors each year, in some respects the infrastructure of the island hasn’t kept up with demand. If you intend to make a trip to the island, it is wise to do some planning beforehand.
Fullers Ferries runs a regular service from downtown Auckland to Waiheke’s Matiatia Bay but in the height of summer, be prepared to arrive in plenty of time. It’s a very popular destination and the weekend ferries can be heaving with groups ready to enjoy hen or stag parties. Once on the island, the Waiheke Bus Company provides transport and there are a number of privately operated taxis, too. For those wanting a longer stay, the island has a number of options, from simple Airbnb rentals to luxury lodges. Waiheke doesn’t have any large hotels and such is the demand that the best motels and boutique accommodation can be sold out months in advance.
The Oyster Inn is a popular choice for those wanting to be in the centre of the main village, Oneroa, while the Onetangi Beach Apartments are perfectly positioned for those who fancy exploring the other end of the island.
For the foreseeable future it seems international travel will be severely restricted, so what better time to explore the regions on our own doorstep?