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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sip a day away on New Zealand's Island of Wine

By Rosemary McClure
Los Angeles Times

WHERE: Waiheke island, Auckland, New Zealand.

New Zealand offers a great escape, a misty dreamland of tranquil fiords, rugged peaks, frosty glaciers, turquoise alpine lakes and verdant rain forests.

But with its wines now ranked alongside some of the world's best, New Zealand also offers visitors a grape escape as well a first-class wine destination where travelers can find hundreds of tasting rooms. Given the choice of plunging off a cliff tethered by an elastic band or whiling away the day sipping fine wines well, you get my point.

New Zealand now has more than 540 wineries, some producing internationally known wines. Its sauvignon blanc has achieved worldwide acclaim, and its pinot noir is gaining ground in America and Britain.

Auckland, the arrival point for most visitors from the United States, is an ideal place to get your bearings, adjust to the time difference and learn to appreciate New Zealand wines before moving south to the country's better-known wine and tourist regions.

A great place to start is Waiheke, 11 miles offshore from Auckland. From the North Island's capital, I hopped aboard a boat for the 35-minute trip to the island known for its fine red wines and gallery-filled town.

As the boat pulled up to the dock, I saw green hills, white sandy beaches and a small port. I'd arranged a winery tour and before long, I was delivered to the rustic tasting room at Stonyridge Vineyard and Cafe, a boutique winery known internationally for its Bordeaux-style reds.

Its Larose is legendary in New Zealand; six bottles sold at auction last spring for $3,700. The winery also produces Fallen Angel wines (80 Onetangi Road, 011-64-9-372-8822, http://stonyridge.co.nz).

Many of the island's tasting rooms offer free sips; those that charge often deduct the price from any bottles you buy. Stonyridge had started my day off right; I was ready to taste more.

My next stop was Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant, where I paused in the tasting room before having lunch (126 Church Bay Road, Oneroa 011-64-9-372-9050, http://mudbrick.co.nz).

Some of the best chefs in New Zealand work their culinary magic at vineyard cafes. Mudbrick's Provence-style restaurant, set on a hilltop overlooking the sea, is one of these. I was tempted to stay all day. But tasting called.

Known as the Island of Wine, Waiheke has more than a dozen wineries. Until recently, the island was populated mainly by artists, hippies and others pursuing alternative lifestyles. Now it draws wine growers, weekenders and commuters who use it as a pricey suburb of Auckland. It's an ideal stop for international travelers before or after a long flight.

IF YOU GO: Seasons are reversed Down Under, so right now it's summer. Tasting rooms are open throughout the year, but warmer weather means you can taste at outdoor patios rather than indoor cellars.

Waiheke island accommodations range from about $22 a night for backpackers to the high-end $500-a-night luxury digs at the Boatshed, a Nantucket, Mass.-inspired Down Under-style lodge with a three-story lighthouse suite overlooking the sea. http://boatshed.co.nz.

For a complete guide to Waiheke, see http://waiheke.co.nz.