Waiheke Island is a center of boutique New Zealand wine production. Its climate is similar to a Mediterranean island, with summer average temperatures slightly warmer than Bordeaux and Napa, but a lower deviation from the mean means less variation from early to late summer. In other words, its warmer on Waiheke in late spring and early fall, but cooler in the height of summer.
Due to the island’s small size (only 35.5 square miles) and rough, volcanic terrain, none of its producers are able to make large quantities of wine. So they focus on quality over quantity. Of course, this means that very little wine leaves the island and even less leaves the country. Good luck finding a Waiheke wine in your local shop. If you want to try it, you’ve got to come to the source.
Our day of tasting began with a quick trip to the Ostend market, where we found locally produced crafts and artisanal goods. We stopped by the burger truck run by our hosts Dave and Sue for a few sandwiches to-go and set out on our bikes toward Onetangi.
Our first stop was Obsidian vineyards, known for its Montepulciano varietal. And unfortunately they were still in winter hibernation. We took a peek into their tasting room, and it was reminiscent of some tiny producers we’d visited in the Southern Rhone a few summer ago, all the way down to the intimidating price list scrawled on a chalkboard. Oh well, one more added to the to-do list. Fortunately, Obsidian is adjacent to Miro vineyards and we tramped through the mud separating their fields up to Casita Miro, their café/tasting room.
Miro was a great experience. The young barman (who was headed to a degree in viticulture the following year) guided us through a tasting of five of their wines, from rosé all the way to dessert wine. Each was unique and excellent. The rosé was light and dry, very delicate and floral. A great wine for the beach. We learned that they grow merlot grapes for the express purpose of making their rosé, while most vineyards use the leftover from their full-bodied red blends as an afterthought. The care showed.
Their most interesting wine was a syrah/viognier blend. I can’t recall ever drinking (or even hearing of) a blend of red and white grapes, but this was very good. It had heavy spearmint and pepper on the nose, and a crazy chocolate/clove finish.
Make Miro a stop on any Waiheke wine tour. It’s a bit out of the way, but a few hundred yards down the hill on Seaview Road there’s a nice public picnic spot with a breathtaking view overlooking Onetangi Bay. From there you can also walk down a path to the beach and find very fine, soft sand and calm surf. There are beach front bars and cafés just steps away. Charley Farley’s came recommended, though we never made it there. After you’ve had your fill of the beach and are ready for more wine, take Onetangi Road back toward where you began in Ostend and visit one of the three vineyards clustered together on the way.
Stonyridge is one of the oldest (established in 1982) and definitely the most well-known producer on Waiheke. This is probably because its Larose Bordeaux blend has been rated higher than Chateau Mouton Rothschild by people that are paid to do this. Heavier reds aren’t generally my taste, but if the simple malbec/merlot blend we tasted was an indication of their higher-ticket wines, I can believe the hype. A taste of the Larose was available for $15, so don’t forget your credit card.
Neighboring Stonyridge are Wild on Waiheke, which also features a brewery and some outdoor activities, and Te Motu, which was another early-80s pioneer of wine on the island. You could easily spend a few hours here without getting back into the car.
Waiheke Island wines may not be household names, but that’s not for lack of quality. The producers that we visited make tremendous wines in the little space that they have. If you care about wine, it should be a stop on your New Zealand itinerary. Add in the fact that the only way to taste these wines is at the vineyards where they’re made, and its a can’t-miss. Just think of how jealous your wine-nerd friends at home will be!
Waiheke Island is 40 minutes from Auckland by ferry ($35 round trip). Car ($80) and scooter ($50) rentals are available a short walk from the ferry. There’s also an hourly bus (up to $3.70) that runs from the ferry landing to many of the island’s vineyards. The population quadruples on summer weekends, so if you want to escape the crowds, come weekdays or off-season.