Waiheke – The Island of Wine

I’m en route wine region #4 here in stunning New Zealand. (I’m all out of adjectives to describe this country’s beauty….feel free to help. Also, region numbers are strictly based on my travel itinerary)

To date I’ve been razor focused on the South Island’s viniferous offerings specifically from regions Waipara, Central Otago and Marlborough. Now I’m back from whence I started my journey, in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland.

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The hills of Waiheke

Region 4 is Waiheke Island, another Kiwi wine destination that, I think it’s fair to say, lives in the shadow of the South Island big guns. Waiheke is a 45-minute ferry ride from Auckland and it’s a glorious, 21-degree fall day here in wonderland. I’m on the ferry making my way east. Verdant green hills sparkle in the distance. No evidence of fall here yet. Everything glows emerald, except for the sandstone rock hugging the coast.

Today’s plan is to stop in the island’s central hub Oneroa, to fuel up so I’m not doing tastings on an empty stomach. I’ve done that a few times already and it makes for a long day. (It is perfectly fine to spit although I appreciate at a winery it can be challenging to do this discretely…).

There are about 45 vineyards on the island and 20 odd cellar door operations. I’ll be hoofing it today. The island is full of walking paths and I’m keen to check them out. My goal is three wineries….let’s see how far I get.

I stop for directions at the incredible Waiheke Wine Centre. If you’re looking for local Waiheke wine or a good selection of regional New Zealand wines, this is ground zero. A local map covers a good chunk of the wall and the scale of the island gives me pause. I grab a quick flat white and quiche and head on out.

Directions don’t seem to help, and I spend the first hour on this gorgeous island walking in the wrong direction (I wish my less directionally challenged daughter and travel companion was with me but sadly she’s opted to spend the day shopping on the mainland).

Of course my first destination is uphill. The only flat geography in New Zealand seems to be water. Thirty minutes of “tramping” – the Kiwi word for hiking – gets me to Cable Bay Vineyards.

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Cable Bay on Waiheke Island

The vineyard sits on a gorgeous parcel of land overlooking Hauraki Gulf and views from the verandah are truly beautiful. Cable Bay launched their vineyards in 1998 and bottled the first vintage in 2002.  I could certainly see wiling away a day on this verandah. The cellar door manager tells me the island draws 25,000 people on a busy summer day, the advantage of having a winery and restaurant close to a major business district.

Today Cable Bay is tasting 5 wines. I’m a tad disappointed to see two of them are from other regions in New Zealand, which means they grow and press locally and then send the juice by truck across the country. The marketer in me doesn’t want to hear this; full marks to Cable Bay for transparency and they want to showcase their full line of varietals. But from a romancing the wine/storytelling perspective, it doesn’t sit well. Just sayin’.

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Cable Bay – Sauvignon Blanc & Pinot Gris

It’s also interesting that three of the wines on the Cable Bay list are whites. Waiheke’s bread and butter is red wine and if we drill down on terroir, it’s really the maritime climate that shapes this core offering of red grape growing. The proximity of the ocean and Auckland’s protection from the colder west and southwest maritime winds makes Waiheke drier and warmer than the mainland. The ocean’s moderating effect also produces warmer mean summer temperatures and a longer growing season. All these conditions make it ideal for grapes that need longer ripening time. Planting data confirms the red focus with Syrah representing 19% of grapes grown, Merlot – 22%, Cabernet Sauvignon – 9% and Cab Franc and Malbec coming in at 8% and 6% respectively.

Geological records also show an abundance of moisture loving clay, alluvial gravels, mudstone, sandstone and greywacke giving growers lots of site and grape planting options. Add to that, volcanic ash (which winemakers love!!) and Waiheke soils tend to be highly mineralized and low in pH. Clay is also considered a perfect companion to Merlot (think Pomerol) and Syrah (Hermitage) so bring it on!

The three Cable Bay Waiheke Island wines we taste – in addition to a Marlborough 2015 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and 2014 Central Otago Pinot Noir – include a lees-y, very dry 2015 Pinot Gris, a 2014 Chardonnay and a 2014 Syrah. The Chardonnay is a blend of three blocks grown on clay soils. It’s Cable Bay’s signature white and it’s a delicate mix of baked apple, mandarin orange and stone fruit with good acidity backbone.

The closer is the Syrah, which is grown on a north-facing block, the warmest plot in the vineyard. It’s a delicate wine, co-fermented with 2% Viognier and oozing blueberry, spice and black pepper. The 2013 Reserve Syrah is sadly not on tap today, but is helping cement Cable Bay’s reputation as an esteemed producer of lighter styled Syrah.

Mudbrick

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The manicured gardens at Mudbrick

My next stop requires a serious hike up the hill. It’s worth it though. Mudbrick is a beautifully choreographed winery both inside and out. The restaurant gardener gets a big shout-out…the lavender should also be bottled. I’m told by cellar staff that the vineyard is booked for weekend weddings for the next three years.

I ask cellar staff to wow me and we work our way through six wines: a 2015 Reserve Chardonnay, a rich, viscous 2015 Viognier and a 2015 Reserve Tempranillo barreled in French oak and offering layers of dark ripe fruit, tobacco, low tannins and a long finish. I would be happy to stop here.

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Mudbrick 2015 Reserve Syrah

We move into some big reds including the 2015 Reserve Syrah, which says licorice and black pepper, and a smooth, rich, Merlot-dominant Bordeaux Blend with great richness and ripe blue and black fruit. The 2014 Mudbrick Velvet Bordeaux Blend – the final wine in the “wow-me” flight – delivers on its name in spades. The ripe broad palate of black and cassis fruit is supported with a celebration of coffee and mocha on the nose and palate. I found all of these reds to have gentle but structure defining tannins. The wine is ready to drink but can easily spend more time lingering and melding in the bottle.

Mudbrick was a delight and I would have lingered but the ferry beckoned. My plan to fit three wineries into my day was clearly ambitious. Proximity to Auckland makes Waiheke Island a gift. I’m going back, no question….there’s just too much more to taste.

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Can I stay?

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