Wine Wednesday Series: Waiheke Island, New Zealand
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TPG Managing Editor Eric Rosen has a background as a food and wine writer and has covered wine regions all over the globe including Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Austria and many of those in his native California, so we decided to launch a new #WineWednesday series where every week we give you a brief snapshot of wine regions all over the globe and insight on how to get there, where to stay and a couple places you might want to visit while there. We kicked off the series with Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and Napa, but today we’re heading across the Pacific (and the Equator and the International Date Line) to New Zealand to visit a beautiful little place called: Waiheke Island.
When someone mentions New Zealand wine, the first region that comes to mind is the country’s Sauvignon Blanc powerhouse, Marlborough (which we’ll cover in a later post!), on the South Island. But New Zealand actually has about a dozen major wine regions spread across both islands, and one of the smallest and most beautiful is Waiheke Island.
The island is just a short ferry trip from Auckland, making it the perfect spot for a wine-tasting day trip. Wine grapes were first planted here in 1977 and since then over 20 wineries sprung up on its hilly shores and now produce some of New Zealand’s most award-winning red wines. It was the Bordeaux-style reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that first put the island on the map, though now you’ll find popular Syrahs, Chardonnays and Pinot Gris being made here as well.
Waiheke Island is just a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland through the island-dotted Hauraki Gulf for $35 NZD ($29 USD) roundtrip. Ferries depart on the hour every hour from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, with extra sailings in the morning and evening.
The ferry company actually offers tours, but visitors are packed on big buses and driven to the same few wineries every time, so I’d suggest either doing a self-guided day on your own or hiring a tour company like Ananda Tours, whose owners Jenny McDonald and Nigel Robinson have been living on the island since the 1970’s and who know many of the winemakers personally.
In terms of getting to Waiheke in general, Auckland will be your major gateway. The main airline here is Air New Zealand (of course), which is a member of Star Alliance and which flies to New Zealand from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver on the West Coast as well as Honolulu.
The LAX flights are aboard the airline’s 777-300ER’s, which are outfitted with its newest classes of service including “Skycouches” in economy, space pod seats in Premium Economy, and the latest Business Premier product. To get here aboard Air New Zealand from North America using miles, you would need 80,000/135,000 United miles for economy or business respectively; or 80,000/110,000 US Airways miles for coach or business respectively – one of the best values in US Airways’ partner award chart.
If your miles are with one of the other alliances, the airport is also service by Cathay Pacific, LAN and Qantas in Oneworld; Korean Air and China Southern in SkyTeam; non-alliance airlines like Virgin Australia and Emirates, as well as other Star Alliance carriers like Singapore and Thai Airways if you’re coming from other regions.
Where To Stay
Although there are plenty of small accommodations on the island itself, its proximity to Auckland makes it much easier to stay in the city if you’re already visiting and just to take the ferry out for the day.
In terms of hotels where you can earn or use points, there’s a nice, contemporary Hilton Auckland (Category 7, 50,000 points) right on the water’s edge at Prince’s Wharf near Viaduct Harbour between the Central Business District and the recently revived Wynyard Quarter with tons of shops, restaurants and bars.
There are no Visa Signature or Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts in Auckland, but if you’re looking for some upscale options, there’s the old-school (some might say stuffy) luxury Langham hotel about a mile from the city center on the corner of Symonds Street and Karangahape Road. There’s also a small luxury boutique hotel called Mollies, which is in the tony suburb of St. Mary’s Bay and is a member of Relais & Chateaux.
Because Waiheke is such a small place, you can hit a lot of wineries with quick visits in one day. I’d suggest a sampling of those along the coast with some up in the hills for a good cross-section.
Many of the island’s wineries are in the western and central regions of the island within a quick drive of the ferry landing at Matiatia and close to the main town of Oneroa (where there are also a few good little bistros for a leisurely lunch).
One of the best-known is Mudbrick Vineyard, which is tucked up on a hill with panoramic views of the bay and Auckland on a clear day. They serve a wide range of wines with their tastings and their award-winning restaurant is a great spot to enjoy lunch, though if you just want to taste the wines, you can do so seven days a week without an appointment. The regular tasting is $10 NZD ($8.40 USD), but go for the premium tasting for $15 NZD ($12.50 USD) instead to get a sampling of the good stuff.
Not far from Mudbrick is another winery you might have heard about in the US called Cable Bay Vineyards. Though the winery is on Waiheke, they’re actually well known for their Marlborough “Savvies,” as New Zealanders call their Sauvignon Blanc. The winery itself is an understated, modern building with a gourmet restaurant, a tiny tasting bar and an expansive lawn with contemporary sculptures and picture-perfect water views that stretch all the way to Auckland in the distance.
Other wineries to consider include Stony Ridge, whose Larose Cabernet blend has been winning raves and the ambiance is festive, Te Whau Vineyard, with a modern winery and vines cascading down steep slopes to the bay waters below, and Miro Vineyards, whose restaurant serves fresh, seasonal gourmet cuisine and has won several awards. On the far side of the island is another distinguished winery called Man O’ War, which produces some highly sought-after island wines. If you like a bit of history in your glass, try a visit to Goldwater Estate, where the first grape vines on Waiheke were planted in 1977.
Apart from wine-tasting, think about spending some time on the sandy crescent of Onetangi Beach where locals and tourists alike come to soak up a little sun.
Thanks to its proximity to Auckland, some internationally recognized wines, great restaurants, sandy beaches and a friendly Kiwi welcome, Waiheke Island has to be one of my favorite regions for a little casual wine-tasting during a visit to New Zealand.