Waiheke Island, New Zealand

October 25, 2013

The breathtaking view of Onetangi from the terrace at The Hay Paddock’s Clifftops B&B. Photo: © tablehopper.com.


Instant thirst! The Hay Paddock’s fantastic Silk Rosé. Photo: © tablehopper.com.


Insert yourself here. The sunny deck (with vintage French chairs) at The Oyster Inn. Photo: © tablehopper.com.


An array of New Zealand oysters and clams at The Oyster Inn. Photo: © tablehopper.com.


The expansive view at Cable Bay (and also the chopper landing pad). Photo: © tablehopper.com.


At Cable Bay: cured Ora King salmon with watermelon, cucumber, avocado, and wasabi. Photo: © tablehopper.com.


The lovely landscaping (and sky!) at Mudbrick. Photo: © tablehopper.com.


Getting ready for sunset at Mudbrick. Photo: © tablehopper.com.


The dining room at Casita Miro. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

I was on Waiheke Island for less than an hour, and I realized I had made a great mistake: I should have stayed on this stunning island for at least one night during my Auckland stay. It’s quite remarkable: after a 40-minute ferry ride east of Auckland, you end up at this dreamy island that’s full of wineries (some are a bit more Sonoma in style, some are a bit more Napa, take your pick). But here’s what’s crazy: there are all these gorgeous beaches. And olive groves. And farms. And a bright blue sky, and calm waters, and sailboats. Gentle sea breezes. Winding roads. Pinch, pinch. This exists? Yes.

The realization of my mistake happened as I was looking at the jaw-dropping view from the terrace at Chris Canning’s Clifftops B&B overlooking the Onetangi Bay. The light off the water was shimmering. My blood pressure immediately fell to a slow, peaceful pulse. And then Canning handed me a glass of 2012 Jules Silk rosé (named in honor of his lady)—it was bone dry, made from syrah, cold fermented for three weeks. I was ready to grab the bottle and run to the beach.

Canning is the CEO and winemaker for The Hay Paddock (his business partner is Bryan Mogridge), and their award-winning winery is known for its cool-climate syrahs—they targeted a spot in the Onetangi Valley for their single-vineyard estate, which has 15,000 vines. It ends up Waiheke is good for Bordeaux blends, chardonnay, and now syrah is on the rise, thanks to the clay-rich soil and dry, moderate, maritime climate. Labels for their syrah include the Harvest Reserve, The Hay Paddock (you can cellar it up to 10 years), the Harvest Man (an earlier drinking style), and Row 104, which is their top-tier anniversary wine and available on-site only (no restaurants carry it). We tasted the 2008 Hay Paddock, a complex blend (with petit verdot), sporting good tannins, fruit, and minerality; after barrel aging, the wine is cellared in bottle for two years.

And now, a little Waiheke history for you. The first vines were planted on Waiheke in the late ’70s, and the ferries started coming in the mid-’80s, bringing with them a rise of vacationers and tourists to this idyllic island. It’s a pretty dramatic population shift, with the island count of 8,000 dwellers swelling to 40,000 in the high season (obviously come midweek if you can). There are about 30 wineries now (mostly boutique), and many of them are designed to cater to the tourist trade (Canning described one of the bigger ones as a “daytime nightclub”), with spacious restaurants and buzzing tasting rooms. Some, obviously, offer a better experience than others.

The Hay Paddock operates a B&B (Clifftops) with casual-luxe suites, and oh, that view. They also offer wine education on the terrace for $25 (book in advance), pouring three to four wines (yes, you want to do this), as well as offering winemaker tutorials. Canning is a humble, smart, and very fascinating person to talk about wine with—don’t miss the opportunity for his insight. (For some much better pictures, check out my wingman Nathan Branch’s account of the day, and photo album here—his lush images make me look like I’m shooting with a Kodak Extralite 400.)

Another place we visited was the relatively new Oyster Inn in Oneroa village, which has three cute, cabin-y rooms available. The place has a fun, beachy vibe, with an 80-seat restaurant that’s conveniently open all day and evening (they also have DJs and music for summer weekend shenanignas). The space was renovated by a delightfully welcoming couple (Kiwi Jonathan Rutherfurd-Best and Hong Kong-born Andrew Glenn) who met in London, but fortunately decided to leave their swish London life and targeted Waiheke as a place to open their stylish outpost.

The menu (from chef Cristian Hossack) is full of fantastic New Zealand seafood, like Stewart Island oysters, which were flat and Belon-like; Orongo Bay oysters (Pacifics); and if you’re there in May, you can get lucky with some wild Bluff oysters (a Kiwi obsession—the season starts around March 1st). There were also Tuatua clams from Cloudy Bay. Fortunately the gents know what’s up, because there’s quite a list of bubbles to go with it all. I went bonkers for their green salad (it has 13 ingredients in it), and you can also get fish and chips, and check their specials. The restaurant has tables in the prettiest ’50s turquoise, with vintage metal chairs and cutlery from Paris, and a sunny view of the water. I was ready to move in—everything about this place made me feel happy.

One of the most well-known spots to visit on Waiheke is Cable Bay, perched on a hilltop site overlooking Hauraki Gulf where some folks helicopter right in on the chopper pad (and whip grass onto people dining nearby). Or you can enjoy a less dramatic entrance with a 12-minute walk from the ferry, which will help you make some room for the feast you’ll find here. The restaurant has an outdoor terrace, and there’s a contemporary dining room, good for breezy days and for dinner (I would totally come here for dinner if I were staying on the island). Our hosts for lunch were owner Loukas Petrou and winemaker Neill Culley—you couldn’t ask for better company.

Cable Bay has five vineyards on the island, and they have quite the portfolio, with chardonnay, viognier, pinot gris, malbec, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, plus they make some wines from other non-Waiheke vineyards (Central Otago and Marlborough). Culley explained how the northern slopes on the island are hotter, so you’ll find more syrah, while the southern slopes are cooler, with more chardonnay appearing. Culley is on his 30th vintage as a winemaker (he even spent a harvest in California at Simi), and his wines for Cable Bay are all about small-lot production, low yields, hand-harvesting, and sustainability. The place is state of the art—the site opened in 2007 (although the vineyards were planted in 2004).

We tasted through quite a few wines over lunch; some favorites included the feminine and French-inspired 2012 viognier, the aromatic 2012 rosé (made from merlot and malbec), the 2010 reserve syrah, and for dessert, the 2011 late-harvest viognier, Sweet Gloria, a beautiful topaz that wasn’t too sweet or showy (and named after the Van Morrison song). Culley’s wines show a lot of restraint and elegance.

While the restaurant highlights Cable Bay’s wines, I liked that they also feature other wines on their list—everything was very well paired. The chef is Sam Clark, who spent some time at Clooney in Auckland, Becasse in Sydney, and Attica in Melbourne.

Our lunch was impressive—not only were dishes beautifully presented (the colors!), but Clark really let seasonal ingredients shine, with just enough fuss paid to them (the kitchen builds the flavors with all the accompaniments). We started our lunch with a silky duck liver pâté, and housemade ciabatta that we dunked into Cable Bay’s peppery olive oil made with leccino and koroneiki. The restaurant is a total showcase for New Zealand ingredients, like our appetizers of cured Ora King salmon and smoked wild venision with pickled vegetables. So utterly delicious. Of course I had some lamb, and the presentation with carrots, dates, wheat, and sheep’s yogurt was one of the best of my trip. Dessert also rocked, with peaches and custard (with jasmine rice sherbet!), and one with poached apricots with olive oil cake (one of many advantages to traveling to New Zealand in May—you catch the tail end of their summer!).

Our final destination for the day was supposed to be at the distant Man O’War, but due to a transportation snafu, my wingman and I paid an impromptu visit to Mudbrick since we had a little time until our ferry. It was like we knew it was going to be the perfect spot for a sunset (we didn’t), and it was like we already knew the gentleman pouring the wines for us in the tasting room (Bob Scott) was related to SF’s own Anna Weinberg (of Marlowe, Park Tavern, and The Cavalier)—fate is funny that way. You couldn’t ask for a better person to pour wines for you—Bob spouted off some fantastic bons mots (“spankingly drinkable!”) and I appreciated all the food pairing ideas he suggested (he made me wish I could manifest a bite of tagine while he described the minerally 2012 reserve viognier).

Owners Robyn and Nicholas Jones did their first plantings in 1992, and currently grow chardonnay, viognier, merlot, malbec, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc. Their new winemaker is Patrick Newton, who came on in 2011, so it will be interesting to see where he takes the wines—he is very focused on purity of flavor.

We can see why Anna had her wedding at Mudbrick—the grounds are mega dreamy, full of herbs and vegetable gardens (“potagers”). There is an airy 160-seat restaurant (the cold-smoked duck breast is recommended), although we posted up in the alfresco bistro, enjoying the tranquility of the gardens while drinking a glass of 2012 reserve chardonnay at our outdoor table. It would be easy to while away the early evening over a bottle, but we had a ferry to catch! Next time, I won’t make that mistake—I will have a room with a view booked, that’s for damn sure.

Note: I have a bunch of photos on Flickr for you to check out. And don’t miss Nathan Branch’s fabulous images!

Some tips from locals:

Be sure to rent a car or a moped, and check out the Saturday Ostend market and Sunday farmers’ market.

Other wineries to visit:

The view at Te Whau can’t be beat, visit Obsidian for syrah, and Bordeaux lovers should seek the Larose at Stonyridge (although it can be quite a scene there).

More places to eat:

Poderi Crisci
Am told it’s a bit expensive, but great for views and a long Sunday lunch (Kiwis are fans of the “long lunch”) with ingredients from their garden.

Inventive Italian in Oneroa (from the Mudbrick folks), with beet and chorizo risotto, and was told not to miss the rabbit pappardelle. Open late.

Casita Miro
Loved the greenhouse/pavilion-style look for this airy dining room. A Spanish menu (both tapas and raciones). The Miro vineyards are 20 years old, with syrah, Bordeaux blends, and viognier. Was told to check out their French-style rosé, pinot gris, albariño is coming, and don’t miss the Madame Rouge fortified wine.

Charlie Farley’s
A Kiwi pub, super-casual, right on the beach at Onetangi.

Wai Kitchen
Cool spot for breakfast/brunch in Oneroa.

Spice Cafe
A local hang for good coffee.

More recos for accommodations:

The Boatshed
Luxury accommodations, but still casual and charming.

The Moorings
Studio apartments with a view, and conveniently close to the ferry.

The Courtyard
An affordable apartment (no seaview, but was told it’s quaint).

Lavender Hill
Tuscan villa style, on Waiheke!

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