A 40-minute ferry ride from the Auckland Harbor is a beautiful island called Waiheke Island. We packed as much as we could into a Day trip. The ferry ride provided nice views of Auckland as well as providing evidence of the dozens of volcanos that created, and whose underlying faults still shake the region on each island that we passed.
The island has a year-round population of 12,000 people, but generally triples in the summer season when people flock for vacations, a weekend getaway or even a day trip. It offers something for everyone: several beaches, miles walking and biking trails, sailing, golf courses, some very good restaurants and about 30 wineries, many of which produce much better wines than we had ever expected. The island is also the source of Te Matuku oysters, one of the region’s most popular bivalves. And this does not count the island’s olive oil (which we did not have a chance to taste), its many art galleries (which we did not have time to explore) nor its annual outdoor sculpture exhibition (which was to begin the week after we left).
We began our tour with a bargain (when bought in conjunction with a round-trip ferry ticket) sightseeing tour on the Island Explorer bus. The bus gave us a drive-through visit to the main town of Oneroa and its beach (the most popular on the island). We went through the center of the island and its trades center of Ostend, past the sailboats and marshes of Anzac Bay and out to the large, pretty Onetangi Beach. We then circled back, heading up hills to panoramic views of the island, its bays and some of its lovely vacation homes. And all the while, we took full advantage of the bus’ hop-on; hop-off feature to stop at four wineries, a restaurant and the home of the island’s famous oysters.
Waiheke Island Wines
We had never even heard of Waiheke Island, much less its wines before we got to Auckland. And even after we heard of them, and not seeing any on the Auckland restaurant wine lists we perused, we didn’t expect much. Boy, were we surprised.
The island has thin, stony, clay soils with good drainage, high mineral content (especially iron and manganese) and a layer of volcanic ash that imparts taste and spice. Just as importantly, the island has a climate that is relatively similar to that of Bordeaux, the Rhone and Napa while its proximity to the ocean moderates the temperatures in a way that often produces longer growing seasons than these other regions.
Not surprising, the region specializes primarily in Bordeaux and Rhone varietals: Merlot and Syrah are its most widely planted varietals, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and other Bordeaux varietals. Three of the four wineries that we visited (out of the island’s 24 total wineries) do very good jobs with these grapes. Most of the reds that we tasted had deep colors, primarily reddish fruit, were smooth with light tannins and most of the syrahs (the primary grape grown on the island) had subtle, subdued spices. Most can be enjoyed today, but, depending on varietal and winemaking style.
The wines we most enjoyed at the wineries we visited were:
- Te Motu, our favorite of the wineries we visited, where we enjoyed practically every wine we had and were particularly enticed by the 2015 Dunleavy “Grafter” Single Vineyard syrah; and especially its two Bordeaux blends: 2013 Kokoro Right Bank-like merlot-dominant blend and its premier 2008 Te Motu Left-Bank-like Cab-based blend.
- Stonyridge, where we enjoyed the 2015 Pilgrim (a Syrah-dominant Rhone blend) 2015 Luna Negra Hillside Malbec; and 2014 Larose Left Bank Bordeaux Blend;
- Mudbrick, where we enjoyed the 2016 Reserve Syrah, 2016 Reserve Merlot/Cab and especially the aptly-named 2015 Velvet Cab-based (65 percent) blend whose smooth textures and light tannins are achieved by aging their wines in a higher percentage of new oak for shorter periods;
- Cable Bay, where we only tasted the two premium reds that are produced from grapes grown on the island (rather than the whites and off-island reds). Although we weren’t excited by either of them (2015 Syrah or 2014 Five Hills Malbec-led blend), Cable Bay has one of the most impressive wineries, event venues and views on the island.
Of those wines we most enjoyed, the most common characteristics were deep colors, concentrated flavors, soft tannins, smooth finishes and elegance. And one other thing: Many are relatively expensive. Price tags of $70 to $100 are common and a few, like Mudbrick Velvet ($140) and Te Motu ($195) are well over $100.
Why have we never heard of these wines, and why are they even so hard to find on Auckland wine lists? Primarily because the wineries are very small, with even the larger ones producing only a few thousand cases per year. Moreover, the island, and the wineries draw thousands of thirsty visitors per year (including many Auckland residents who join their wine clubs), many have restaurants that serve their wines and some of the larger ones have big event venues, in which they host weddings and other wine-drinking affairs.
Waiheke Island Oysters and Restaurants
Our short, day-trip visit gave us a chance to sample only one of the island’s restaurants and oysters at the center-island’s primary fish market.
- Ostend Fish Market, where we sampled, and then resampled the island’s famous Te Matuku oysters. Although the market offers oysters both shucked and unshucked, those that are shucked have been preshucked and sold in shrink-wrapped packages. But for a $1.50 per oyster, we put up with the less than optimal tasting conditions. We were more than amply rewarded by a dozen large, plump, juicy and briny bivalves; virtually everything we look for in an oyster. So good, in fact, that we couldn’t confine ourselves to a dozen. And the second dozen went down just as easily as the first.
- Te Motu Restaurant, where we had four dishes, accompanied by two wines. We began with chicken liver parfait with sour cherry mostardo, pickled shallots and rye sunflower sourdough toast on which to spread the liver. We then shared three small plates: Wairapapa octopus with smoked chili, skordalia and tomato; smoked venison tartare with cured (although slightly overcooked) egg yolk, anchovy, pickled asparagus, pecorino, capers and house-made potato chips; and mushroom perogi with braised Taupo beef, horseradish cream and smoked oyster mushrooms. We enjoyed the entire meal (despite the egg yolk), appreciated the knowledgeable and friendly service and enjoyed the wines: the 2013 Kokoro that we so enjoyed at our pre-lunch tasting and the 2016 Obsidian pinot gris from a neighboring winery that we did not have a chance to visit.
Unfortunately, there were too many things we did not get a chance to do on this lovely island. Hopefully we will have a chance to return, spend more time, explore more wineries and restaurants, and take advantage of many of the things we did not have time for on a short, day trip.