Wednesday, 26 May 2010

What is more important, the grape or the Winemaker - Waiheke Island, NZ, May 2010

It was a clear blue-sky Auckland morning with some ominous thunderstorms hanging off in the distance that greeted us as we boarded the Fullers ferry at the viaduct for a short 40min ride out to Waiheke Island. Despite having lived in Auckland for over a year some time ago, and numerous visits before and since, it was my first venture out to Waiheke.

We cruised on the Hauraki Gulf, past Rangitoto Island, whose extinct volcano dominates the Auckland coastal skyline. Suddenly the ferry was surrounded by sea birds flying low across the sea with rapid wing beats, interspersed with glides at times. They kept up with the ferry till, in unison, they turned and headed back to the mainland.

Waiheke, taken to mean 'Cascading Water' has emerged from a recluse for hippies and artisans in the early 50s to a glamorous destination for wine and food lovers. The small resident population, many of whom commute to work on the mainland sometimes taking less time to arrive in the CBD than those in outer Auckland, can almost treble on popular weekends. All stratas of wealth were represented with the luxury multimillion mansions to the more humble yet elegant wooden beach bach which still commands a premium.

We met Nigel Robinson, a friend of a friend in Hong Kong, who runs a popular wine and food tour company based on Waiheke. According to Nigel, no single Maori tribe established dominance on the island. Rather, several tribes came and went. Reflecting this is the local Marae (meeting house) which is called Piritahi or 'one for all'. A third of the island is in private hands with restricted access, however the abundance of stunning vistas and public beaches leave no one wanting. Nigel's history of having lived in a remote town in Fiji with his missionary parents in the 1950s has some significance for me, coincidentally a town my sister was a doctor in much later on. He subsequently arrived in Waiheke in the 1970s and has been captivated by it ever since.

We boarded the Ananda (meaning bliss in sanskrit) van and joined his tour through three vineyards. First stop was a small boutique production, only 600 bottles a variety a season, some which had won awards in a recent London showing. We had the unique pleasure the company of one of the owners on a walk through the vineyard, resplendent in their autumn colours. While being on an island, the attention to detail was never far from the surface. Alongside the vines were gorgeous olive groves whose fruit are centrifugally spun and the 'first press' olive oil is extracted.

The unloading of fresh French oak barrels and their being unwrapped from their packaging greeted us at the second stop. A crushing barrel with stained mats was drying in the sun, set carelessly againt a brick wall peppered with snaking vines. Suddenly it was like we were in a old chateau. This masked a sleek upmarket affair with expansive decking overlooking rolling hills and valleys, one of the favoured locations for large parties and 'hens' nights. One of the few organic vineyards that produce a blend of the five bordeaux grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, their flagship commanding over 220nzd a bottle. Having just returned from a wine tour of the Yarra Valley in Victoria I took advantage to learn more about the barrels they were using. The French oak is left to air dry longer and the staves are split rather than sawn across the grain when compared to their American cousins. the barrels are then toasted, the degree to toasting determines the effect it has on the wine stored inside. We were permitted to stick our nose into the barrel and the complex aromas emanating were intoxicating to say the least, almost a most pleasurable assault on the senses.. all this perhaps magnified by the wine tasting so far!

Next stop was a vineyard run by a former neurosurgeon now dedicated to wine and olive oil production. His wines were complex and moody perhaps reflecting the different terroir and production. Had quite a long discussion on olive oil production. Apparently NZ production laws re extra virgin olive oil classification are much more stringent than most other areas known for commercial production volumes. Even to my uneducated pallate I did find the olive oil here to reflect the taste of the olives without any rancidity much more distinctly. This was by far my favourite visit and I parted with a bottle of this exquisite nectar.

We wrapped all this off with a late lunch consisting of a delightful bottle of pinot noir, a seafood and antipasto platter and lightly crumbed calamari. Smoked salmon and trout, oysters, grilled prawns, onion jam, freshly baked crusty bread, sliced of smoked ham and pesto all combined well to give us a warm glow amplified by the sun hanging low in the stormy afternoon sky. Eve, Nigel's daughter joined us and her sister Brooke popped in for a chat when she was free from her other duties. The family conversation, like many others, reflected the daily trials and triumphs of life and the closely knit community on Waiheke.

Like all gatherings involving great food and wine the day ended somewhat philosophically with discussions on the growing reputation of the island and whether its the wine maker or the grape that defines the quality of the wine. We all agreed, that this 90 odd sq kilometer of land, defined by its beauty, lifestyle and quality of life, not surprisingly has become home to people coming from far flung corners of the earth and from vastly different backgrounds, all united somewhat in their passion for life. It was a suitably decadent end to the day.

We did manage to catch the 4pm ferry back to Auckland, sharing a sandwich with another Waiheke resident, for yet another indulgent dinner but that is another story.

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