November 8, 2019
Wine At Waiheke’s Eastern End
Waiheke Island’s first flirtation with wine occurred in the 1950s when the Gradiska family produced what Kim Goldwater, of Goldie Estate fame, described as a ‘fairly ferocious fortified brew’ from hybrid vines at Ostend.
The island has come a long way since then and ferocious has given way to refined and, frequently, medal-winning. Vineyards on the island’s western side have become the most well-known, no doubt in large part due to their proximity to Waiheke’s passenger ferry terminal. The next cluster of vineyards, centred on Onetangi, are the gateway to the less populated, but no less beautiful, eastern side of the island. Known to many islanders as ‘the bottom end’, this area is sparsely populated and where sheep outweigh humans by a considerable multiple.
If they’re more remote, the vineyards of the eastern end offer benefits that complement their busier western cousins. On the island’s western end you can stumble into a good vineyard merely with the aid of serendipity; out east you need the assistance of a plan and a knowledgeable guide – whether human or printed.
The vineyards of our new Eastern Artisan Experience, delivered in collaboration with our friends at Ananda Tours, give you the chance to sample the wine, food and character of the undisturbed ‘bottom end’. Whilst these are premium vineyards, there is nothing pretentious about these venues; their relaxed ambiance is built as much on their confidence in the quality of what they do as it is on their relatively remote setting.
The Tantalus of today is the latest episode of a story that began in 1998, when the first 5.3ha of vines were planted. The property was latterly purchased by entrepreneurs Campbell Aitken and Carrie Mendell. In a 3-year programme, underperforming vines were ripped out and replaced by new, low-cropping varietals. The winery itself, described by architect Nat Cheshire as “a warehouse in thin drag: a couple of stilettos and some hasty makeup, passing itself off as Dutch or Spanish mission church,” was totally redeveloped. A light-filled restaurant opening out onto the vineyard was established.
Recently, Tantalus Estate became the Supreme Winner at the 2019 Hospitality New Zealand Awards for Excellence. The judges gave the vineyard and restaurant high praise, declaring ‘Everything about Tantalus Estate is at a level above. From start to finish, the experience the owners want visitors to have is of unadulterated quality and pleasure’. If the vines are new, they’re already delivering great quality and Tantalus’s 2014 Évoque, a merlot dominant blend, was awarded 96 points out of 100 by Bob Campbell. Subsequently their wines have been decorated with bronze to gold awards by well-recognised critics like Michael Cooper, Sam Kim and Raymond Chan. And Tantalus isn’t just about wine. No visit is complete without sampling their award-winning craft beer, brewed under the Alibi Brewing label.
Established in 1993 on the extreme eastern end of the island, Passage Rock claims to be Waiheke’s most awarded vineyard. It’s probably a fair claim as their Reserve Syrah has amassed a haul of over 18 gold medals and trophies. Producing 14 varietals, the vineyard makes the most of its micro-climate to yield fine wines balanced to their season, site and grape variety. Today when you linger in their cooling cellar door you’re likely to encounter their enthusiastic owner and chief wine-maker David Evans-Gander, who’ll happily tell you about the vineyard and the ethos behind their wines.
Passage Rock’s relaxed bistro is bounded by Syrah vines and is an informal setting to enjoy a varied menu, including their superb wood fired pizza and their now world-famous-on-Waiheke ‘lamb cooked two ways’, a slow cooked lamb shoulder with crunchy lamb croquettes and a superb mint emulsion. If you’re travelling with children or dogs Passage Rock is undoubtedly one of the most child- and canine-friendly venues on the islands – dogs, they say, have to be well-behaved; no such stricture is placed on children.
As you drive down the tree-lined country lane that leads to Poderi Crisci you’d be forgiven for believing you’d drifted off and awoken in Tuscany. The brainchild of Napoli-born Antonio Crisci, Poderi Crisci encompasses 7.7ha set amongst a sheltered amphitheatre on a narrow, rocky strip believed to be 30 million years older than the rest of the Island.
Influenced by old world style wine and grape varieties, Poderi’s wines are produced in French oak barrels over 18-months in a beautiful underground cellar. Their Italian grape varieties include Pinot Grigio, Arneis, Montepulciano as well as the French varieties, like Chardonnay, Syrah and Merlot.
As one might expect, Poderi’s food carries a strong Italian influence, though modern touches are added to traditional dishes to highlight the textures and flavours of the food. If time allows, Sunday is the day to visit Poderi Crisci for their unashamedly slow long lunch, or il pranzo. In a constantly changing menu, over 4 hours diners enjoy many courses, all matched with Porderi wines, and which ends with Dolci or Frommaggio. You don’t want to be tight for time if you’re going to enjoy this celebration of timeless Italian classics, as they say at Poderi, ‘There’s always more thyme in the garden, and there is always another ferry’.
The wines produced at Awaroa are the product of a cooperative enterprise between six partners. They delight in telling visitors that they have no formal training and that they taught themselves everything, from driving bulldozers and felling pines to setting up irrigation and planting and tending vines. The aim of this collaboration was to develop a commercial organic vineyard. The vineyard follows organic best-practice and all viticulture and harvesting is done by hand
Today Awaroa, meaning ‘long valley’ in Te Reo Maori, has three vineyards planted in mineral-rich soil on gently sloping north-west facing hills. Harvesting is often done in “skim picks” where they hand-pick the best possible grapes with individual bunch selection; even discarding individual grapes. The vineyard is producing some wonderful wines under wine-maker Steve Poletti. Worth searching out is their Requiem, an intense, powerful Bordeaux or The Dan, a Cabernet/Syrah blend common in Australia yet relatively unknown in New Zealand. If you can get it grab their Melba Peach, though you’ll probably need to join the waiting list for this 5-star scoring Syrah that usually sells out before release every year.
If there is a “madding crowd” you’re assured of being far from it at Waiheke’s eastern end.