I’m not sure if there has been a Tui billboard that argues against the pundits when it comes to Waiheke Island wines. And having tasted less than a dozen perhaps I shouldn’t cast doubts either, but judging from the lack of criticism of my stance from others in different wine regions of New Zealand I think there is support for the construct. Sour grapes? Perhaps, but that depends if you think the grapes are being used to make wine or in the mouths of others.
Vineyards on Waiheke Island have a very short history, going back only as far as 1978 when vines were planted at Goldwater Estate. Today there are some 26 individual vineyards, many with cellar doors. However if you want to taste wine on Waiheke go on a weekend, go later in the summer than we did, and call ahead for an appointment; see the web site for details. Only 10 vineyards/cellar doors were open when we visited and a number of them closed by 4pm. So don’t linger in the villages or over the scenery, as we did, because it will severely cut down on your time with wine.
Waiheke Island is best reached by ferry from The Ferry Building in Auckland (a Link stop on Customs St will get you close). The trip takes about 35 minutes and if you are feeling lucky you can leave the organization of island transport until you the reach the ferry terminal on the island. I had emailed both hire car companies the night before about the possibility of reservations and they were ready for us as walked up to their booths. Pity I didn’t have my California Drivers’ License with me. Fortunately Ngaire, my cousin, and her husband Chris had flown in from Australia at 1 am that morning. Chris looked awake enough to sign up as our chauffer.
The first order of business was to find the Waiheke Wine Centre. Touted as having all available Waiheke wines, as well as tastings of wines and local olive oils, it seemed like the ideal first port of call. Wine centers with official sounding names are big in New Zealand. We had visited the New Zealand Winemakers Centre in Auckland thinking that it was something put together by New Zealand winemakers. But it was just a privately run wine shop. It was the same with the Waiheke Wine Centre. Just a simple bottle shop, but with an impressive selection of wines. We spent a good half an hour just looking before we decided to ask what was on the tasting bench. The line-up was of Waiheke Island wines, 3 wines for $15NZD. That seemed a little steep, even if it did come with local olive oils and dukkah. There was the Passage Rock 2006 Rose and 2006 Viognier, and the Obsidian Weeping Sands 2005 Merlot/Cabernet. We were allowed to sit out the back of the shop, on a very, very small balcony with an ocean view, while we tasted our wines. I didn’t make any notes because, well I was simply not moved to do so. The wines were ordinary at best. The others kept asking me what I thought, did the wines seem to be lacking in flavor, and did I think that there was enough there in terms of structure? At least the olive oils seemed attractive. Maybe we should go and have lunch?
Miranda had figured out where she wanted to go, Te Whau. But we didn’t have a reservation for what has been described as "One of the Best Restaurants in the World for Wine Lovers" by the Wine Spectator. If we couldn’t get in we could at least get a few pictures of the magnificent views back towards Auckland. As soon as we walked in the door we were asked if we had a reservation. No? Well, sorry but we are fully booked. All we can give you is the next hour. No problem, we can eat lunch in an hour. And we did. The food was impressive, the service attentive and the views the best I have had from any vineyard restaurant. I had the Lemon Pepper Roasted Rump of Lamb with fennel and capsicum pickle, and lemongrass puree and a glass of the 2004 Te Whau The Point. The other wine tasted (by Chris) was the 2005 Te Whau Chardonnay. Both wines were clear improvements over our earlier tasting and as we snapped a few final pictures outside the restaurant I held high hopes for the next winery on the list, Stonyridge.
Stonyridge makes the flagship wine of Waiheke. Its a Bordeaux blend called Larose that is sold largely en primeur. A cult wine, among a stable of expensive wines, none of which is less that $55NZD/bottle. Is this reputation deserved? A PDF on the web site notes that the 1994 and 1996 Larose produced record sales at auction in New Zealand in February 2003, “which makes this one of the best investments anyone can make!” An interesting claim to make on a web site!
The Larose was not on the tasting list but many of the stable were, and we could pick any three for the princely sum of $30NZD! We chose the 2004 Row 10 Chardonnay ($65NZD), 2004 Luna Negra – Hill Side Malbec ($75NZD) and the 2004 Pilgrim, a Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre blend ($90NZD). A second label, Fallen Angel, made from grapes sourced off Waiheke was also available for tasting at a more reasonable $10NZD for three wines. Here we picked the 2006 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($26NZD), 2005 Central Otago Pinot Noir ($59NZD) and the 2004 Gisbourne Semillon/Gewurztraminer dessert wine ($36NZD). It may have been the almost gale force winds that forced us to fiercely protect our glasses (how do they keep leaves, let alone berries on the vines here?), or the entertaining conversations with another table about the wind, New Zealand beating Australia at rugby, and anyone beating England at cricket, but I was again unmoved by the wines. No, that is not quite true. The Sauvignon Blanc was quite a passable example and the Semillon/Gewurztraminer blend a pleasant little sticky. The Stonyridge wines, although presenting some attractive flavors, attacked the palate from all angles. Balance and structure seemed to have been carried off by the wind. The rest of our time on the island was spent exploring the scenery and trying to get lost on the narrow, sometimes poorly marked, roads.
That evening, back in Auckland we opened a bottle of Penninsula Estate Zeno Syrah 2002 ($35.95NZD) that I had purchased from Accent on Wine in Parnell. Initially muted with white pepper over a little mint and spice it developed mocha, earthy, and dusty oak notes. Almost medium weight on the palate, it presented the mouth with inky, earthy, lengthy flavors mixed with graphite and surrounded by firm astringency and overt acidity. Again, there was that angularity and lack of balance. With time things may come together. (2, 2, 3.5, 9.0 = 16.5/20, 83/100. 13.3% alcohol). The one interesting observation was that the aromas of the Zeno did evolve over several hours; trying, perhaps in vain, to become more Old than New World. A similar event occurred the following evening where a bottle of the 2004 Passage Rock Syrah ($80NZD at Accent on Wine) faced off against the 2004 Lagier Meredith Syrah (Mt Veeder, California). The Passage Rock, although suffering the fate of sinking to the bottom or near the bottom among a group of eight wines, did evolve some interesting flavors over several hours. (Note: Link - Scroll down to see tasting notes by Max Marriott on the wines from the evening.)
Am I being too hard on Waiheke Island wines? Given our New Zealand wine experiences, especially those of the following days? No. The Waiheke Island wines that we tried simply do not warrant consideration at the prices being asked. Limited production and the idea of Bordeaux style wine is not a recipe that will lead to success in the wine world of the 21st century. There may be wineries on Waiheke that let the wine speak of the vineyards, I hope there are.