The restaurant at Mudbrick Vineyard on Waiheke island.
The restaurant at Mudbrick Vineyard on Waiheke island.
Vineyard view at the Te Whau Point winery and restaurant.
Vineyard view at the Te Whau Point winery and restaurant.

“The thing you need to understand about Waiheke,” says Steve Robinson, “is that many of us came here as hippies, to drop out. The joke was that you could look across from Auckland and see the dope haze hovering. Now I can barely afford to live here.”

Waiheke Island, located in the Hauraki Gulf, is a scenic 40-minute high-speed ferry trip from Fullers Ferry Terminal, which is a stroll from downtown Auckland.

A group of us, on a two-week New Zealand jaunt, have come to Waiheke – a popular day trip from Auckland for locals and visitors – for a wine tasting experience.

Temperatures here are two or three degrees warmer than Auckland. The rainfall is about 30 percent less. This microclimate plus the stony soil makes for idyllic growing conditions for Bordeaux varietals and some whites. The island is dotted with vineyards and several of the boutique wineries make award-winning limited-release wines.

Steve Robinson is our guide. “Back in the 1960s and 70s nobody came here. There were a few farms. Nothing else,” he says.

Now many of the early escapees are well-known artists and artisans. And Waiheke Island has transformed into an idyllic and pristine blend of farmland, forest, beaches – vineyards, many with spectacular sea views – and olive groves.

For the sporty there’s mountain biking, sea kayaking and surfing. It’s become a trendy spot to come and see and buy art. Upscale galleries abound. And then there are the many quality restaurants. (Several have extended their hours for the rugby World Cup.)

Waiheke Island has also, Robinson confirms, become a hotspot for the rich and famous. Around two thousand people who live here commute daily to Auckland for work.

We start our wine trail at Te Whau, where owner Tony Forsyth has been growing grapes on what was an abandoned farm since 1990. His winery and award-winning restaurant has panoramic views across the Hauraki Gulf to the city of Auckland.

A feature of this winery is the barrel cellar dug into the side of the hill.

We continue on to Stonyridge where owner and winemaker Stephen White – a former round-the-world yachtsman – was the pioneer behind winemaking on Waiheke Island.

He is the maker of New Zealand’s most expensive wine, the Stonyridge Larose, which is consistently listed among the top cabernet blends in the world.

Kennedy Point winery owners Susan McCarthy and Neil Kunimura bought their vineyard on impulse the day before they flew back to their former home in Hawaii.

The vineyard is planted on steep north-facing slopes on clay soils and organic and biodynamic methods are used.

The result?

A Kennedy Point syrah won the top award at the prestigious 2009 International Wine Challenge in London.

At Rangihoua Estate, which produced Waiheke Island’s first olive oil, owner Anne Sayles shared olive oil tastings – and a jaunt with her pet goat that keeps the lawn trimmed.

Her olive oils have won national and international awards.

“Many of the hippies of yesterday are responsible for Waiheke acclaim as an art haven,” says Robinson.

The island also has an annual jazz festival.

It’s difficult to keep the picture postcard superlatives out of the descriptions. When in Auckland, go see it for yourself.

l See the Waiheke Island website www.waihekenz.com for links to the wineries, accommodation, events and more. - Sunday Tribune