On my first Saturday in Auckland I took the ferry to Waiheke Island, crown jewel of the Hauraki Bay islands, New Zealand’s “Island of Wine,” burgeoning Olive capital of New Zealand, playground for rich and not-so-rich Aucklanders, idyllic island paradise, blah blah blah.
I have to say it’s the first place I’ve been on this trip where my reaction was “meh.” It is beautiful in an unexpectedly Mediterranean way (New Zealand is king of the microclimates, one reason why the nation is able to grow a wide range of varietals in a fairly small area), and the ferry ride out was lovely, but overall it’s not my scene.
Photo one: Rangitoto Island in all its volcanic, doomed vermin-infested glory, from the ferry to Waiheke.
Instead of forking over big bucks to take the tourist bus, from the harbor I took the plain ol’ local folks bus about halfway across the island to the Saturday morning market at Ostend (the eastern half of the island, called “the bottom end” by locals, is largely roadless and unpopulated).
The market itself was low-key and full of the stuff you see at markets in any touristy spot: overpriced and imported local produce, overpriced antiques and old stuff not yet antiquey, overpriced local and faux-local foodstuffs and crafts and the ever-present yet inexplicable profusion of New Age crystals.
I bought a cheese scone with great expectations but sadly found it damp and rubbery. This is the second scone I’ve had in New Zealand and, quite frankly, the second disappointment. In both cases, the scones were flavorless, slightly damp (not moist, just damp, like a dried out sponge that’s been used to clean up the tub) and had the texture of white bread. Come on, Kiwis!! You’ve kept up the British tradition of whacky potato chip flavors brilliantly… why have you abandoned the scone??
Okay, I admit I am passionate about scones. I feel about scones the way some people feel about wine or chocolate.
My quest for a proper Antipodean scone continues…
There was one bright spot at the market… a guy selling “gourmet hand-stuffed olives.” When I asked him, he admitted the olives were from Greece* but added that they were stuffed right on Waiheke (at his kitchen table by his young children who were milling about, no doubt).
*The lack of “real” Waiheke goods, along with the disastrous scone, likely was what put me in a bad mood. Every vendor I asked admitted that their wares came from the mainland, Asia or Europe. Like I said, meh.
Anyway, Olive Man had free samples so I tried a few and wow. Wow. I don’t care if he got his olives from Chernobyl, they were amazing. The texture plump and the taste just sublime. I couldn’t decide between the blue cheese-stuffed or the spring herb-marinated but opted for the latter, paying an extortionate amount for a small container without regrets. They were truly amazing.
And I am not ashamed to say I ate every single one while hiking westward to Goldwater Winery.
Photo two: A shot of the vines looking southwest toward Hauraki Bay and metro Auckland.
Goldwater was the first Waiheke winery; according to the woman at the tasting, the government strongly urged the owners not to do something crazy like try and grow grapes on the island. They’ve gone on to win a bunch of awards and clear the way for the dozens of other wineries now spread across the island.
Waiheke’s biggest claim to fame are its French Bordeaux varietals, though they are also gaining attention for their Chardonnay. I’m not a big fan of any of those, and their price was way out of my range (Waiheke produces the most expensive New Zealand wines) so I wasn’t expecting much. That said, the Chardonnay I tried at Goldwater was excellent. The first Chardonnay I’ve ever had that I didn’t want to spit out, which believe me is high praise indeed.
From Goldwater I continued westward on foot through countryside and village… Photo three is for all my bacon-worshipping friends who are not just carnivores but carniphiles.
(In case you can’t read the motto, it’s “All animals are equal but some are tastier than others!”)
Up another hill (there sure are a lot of them around here!), I snapped photo four looking southwest again toward Auckland.
I stopped in at another winery, very curious to try their Viognier, but ducked right back out again. Bad vibe… lots of Art. on display (as in the kind of Art. that exudes pretentious smuggery. And yes, on my blog, “smuggery” is a word) and the tasting room was packed full of overgroomed, pretentious smuggables who wouldn’t move when I said “excuse me” as I tried to get to the actual tasting bar.
Meh. They can keep their Viognier and NZ$5 tasting fee.
Much better was Mudbrick, a large and well-known winery (at the top of a hill, of course) with super-friendly, fun staff and a laidback but classy feel. Perhaps most importantly, I had a coupon for a FREE premium tasting, valued at $10. (Side note: I also had a coupon for 10 percent off the ferry fare… if you come to New Zealand, grab all the tourist literature piled around the airport arrivals hall. While most of it is the usual glossy oversell, several publications have tons of great coupons and discounts).
Mudbrick was also showcasing some wines from the Marlborough area of the South Island, including a scrumptious Riesling that was not syrupy or sickly-sweet at all (I make this note for friends of mine who roll their eyes when I say, unapologetically, that Riesling is my fave varietal). Their Waiheke reds were all excellently crafted though really not my thing, except for a Reserve Syrah that was extraordinary. I don’t usually cotton to Syrah, but this was beautiful and worth the NZ$50 for a bottle.
If you go to one winery on Waiheke, make it Mudbrick. Gorgeous setting, nice staff and excellent wines.
After my tasting, it was back on the trail (downhill at last!). Photo five was shot from near the entrance to the Mudbrick grounds, looking westward towards Rangitoto.
And one more photo, from the harbor where, having just missed one ferry, I killed time for an hour without complaint scouring the tourist literature for more coupons.