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  • Date publishedWednesday, February 10, 2021

New Zealand Wine Tasting - Waiheke Island (Mar. 2020)

Cable Bay Vineyards, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
While visiting New Zealand for the first time ever last year (which feels like eons ago due to the pandemic), I had the pleasure of visiting Waiheke Island on a fine afternoon. This was the first day of what ended up being five straight days of wine tasting in New Zealand - more on the rest of the trip is to come.

Waiheke Island is a hilly, wine-producing region located about 20 km east of Auckland, just off the coast of North Island. Most of the vineyards here are separated by thin layers of soil and clay from massive sequences of Jurassic strata that range from 145 to 158 million years in age. The multi-faceted hills were created by early tectonic activity, resulting in various aspects in relation to the sun, along with wind, rainfall, and rock strata that helped determine which varietals would be planted where. In general, Waiheke vineyards are highly mineralised with stiff to hard soils that are criss-crossed with mineralised veins and stained with iron and manganese oxides. Being a small island of just 92 square kilometres, Waiheke Island is very much influenced by the maritime climate and has a long, hot growing season. As such, Waiheke is widely known for growing Bordeaux varietals, and it all started when winemaking began in 1979 after two couples planted Cabernet Sauvignon. However, over the years, it was determined that the climate in Waiheke resembled more closely to Northern Rhône, home of Syrah. Today, Syrah is the most widely planted varietal on the island. This excited me the most about visiting Waiheke Island as Syrah is my favourite red grape.

The day began by taking the Fullers Ferry from the downtown Ferry Terminal in Auckland to the western end of Waiheke Island. Upon arrival, we took a taxi over to the first scheduled appointment - Tantalus Estate. It was a fine, sunny Autumn day, and as such, the place was very busy. We were seated in the main tasting area, overlooking their craft brewery, and just before the restaurant seating.

Tantalus Estate Pinot Gris grapes

Tantalus Estate Pinot Gris

Tantalus Estate is located in the heart of Waiheke Island's Onetangi Valley at an elevation of 12 to 61 metres above sea level. The latest chapter of the Tantalus Estate story begins in 1998, when the original vineyard of 3.7 ha of Cabernet Sauvignon was planted. In 2002, 1.8 ha of Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris was planted. In 2013, Campbell Aitken and Carrie Mendell, entrepreneurs with backgrounds in hospitality and dining looking for a new challenge and discovered the 8.3 hectare property on Waiheke Island. The entire winery was redeveloped, with under-performing vines ripped out and replaced by new, low-cropping, and high-quality Cabernet and Syrah clones, as well as establishing a beautiful restaurant that opened out onto the vineyard.

Tantalus Écluse Reserve 2015 (92 pts)
The area is protected from the cold and wet west and southwesterly winds, with ridgelines to the west and southwest provide further protection. The climate on the island is drier and hotter than the mainland, with a long growing season that is ideally suited to premium grape growing. Vines are grown in sandy soils over weathered clay and clay-based rock, with deposits of iron and manganese oxide. Tantalus is fully accredited under the New Zealand Sustainable Winegrowing Programme. To reduce their impact on the environment and promote biodiversity, Tantalus has significantly upgraded the wetland and forested areas around the winery, planting thousands of native plants and pulling out exotic species and weeds, while also continuing to improve the habitat to welcome a variety of birds and insects.

At Tantalus Estate, the winemaking philosophy is to make wines of distinction. In order to gain a better understanding of the wines of Tantalus, we opted for the "Complete" wine tasting that consisted of ten wines, five of which were from Waiheke Island, and the rest from Marlborough and Hawke's Bay. There wasn't a bad wine among the group, but I was definitely impressed by the wines from Waiheke Island that included a field blend dry Rosé made with Syrah and Bordeaux varietals, an Alsatian-style Pinot Gris, a Syrah co-fermented with Viognier, and a pair of Bordeaux blends. Wine tasting notes of a few of my favourites are provided below. After the tasting, we took a stroll through the vineyards before heading out to the next winery.

Cable Bay Vineyards
Located on the western coast of the island, I arrived at Cable Bay Vineyards and was greeted by winemaker Chloe Somerset, and one of the owners, Loukas Petrou. Cable Bay planted its first vineyard on Waiheke Island in 1998 and its first vintage was an award-winning 2002 Chardonnay. More varietals were planted soon thereafter and in 2007 they opened their brand new gravity-flow winery, cellar door, and dining room. With continued success, Cable Bay continued to grow by adding an outdoor kitchen and acquiring vineyards in the Awatere Valley. All of their vineyards are accredited with New Zealand Sustainable Winegrowing, and some are organic under the BioGro program.

Chloe took us to the vineyard at the back, just beyond the Bistro and Verandah where one can enjoy a fine meal and wine while have a spectacular view of the bay, and told us about the vines, which have deep roots, are dry-farmed, and grown on clay iron soils which sit atop a bedrock of ancient sandstone and mudstone from the Jurassic period. Sitting among soils are also mineralized veins that run through the rock. All of this comes through in the wines as distinct minerality and texture - desirable qualities when seeking quality wines with a sense of place.

The surrounding sea in this region also has a role to play in winegrowing. With cool sea breezes during the day coupled with an insulating effect at night, this results in a climate with low diurnal temperature variation. Therefore, temperatures remain relatively high throughout the growing season, allowing varietals that require warm climates and long growing seasons to thrive, such as those varietals found in the Rhône Valley and Bordeaux. The grapes in this area are also resistant to disease because of the salt content in the maritime sea winds.

Chloe Somerset, Winemaker - Cable Bay Vineyards

After a quick tour through the gravity-flow production facility and barrel cellar, we headed back upstairs to the Bistro to taste the wines. Cable Bay has estate-owned vineyards on both Waiheke Island and in the Awatere Valley in Marlborough. On Waiheke Island, they plant Pinot Gris, Viognier, Marsanne, Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot, and Malbec and are picked by hand, while in the Awatere they have planted Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay. All of the wines are crafted with a gentle hand, with some using natural yeasts, and oak playing a minimal role. I tasted through quite a few wines with Chloe from both regions and all of the wines were delicious. I was most impressed with the Five Hills (full wine review below) red wine, a minerally-driven Malbec blend that really showcased the terroir and potential of the varietal on Waiheke Island. Cable Bay Vineyards is a worthy stop when you visit Waiheke Island. In Canada, at the moment their wines are only available in Alberta, but Chloe and I are both hoping their wines show up in Ontario soon!

View from Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant
The final stop of the day was a very short drive away at Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant. Since we were quite early for our appointment, we had an opportunity to tour the property. Mudbrick is set into the side of a rolling hill, and when you reach the top you get a gorgeous 360° view of the sea, vineyards, and Auckland. There is also a lovely outdoor terrace where we grabbed a glass of vino and and then sat on the bean bags that lay upon the hills to enjoy the views and ambience while lounge music played in the background. I honestly could have sat there the rest of the afternoon as the experience was very relaxing! Alas, I had work to do, so we headed back down to the tasting room.

Mudbrick was founded in 1992 when owners Robyn and Nicholas Jones - who were in their late 20's - purchased a lifestyle block of bare land in the western part of Waiheke Island that had wonderful views of the sea and held much promise. They wanted to plant a vineyard, live off the land, and quaff the fruit of the vines. They began to realize their goal by visiting the property every weekend to plant vines and trees. Robyn's mother, who already lived on Waiheke, helped out as well.

Eventually, they built the Barn/House/Winery out of mud bricks with Nicholas having the knowledge that mud brick buildings do not vary their internal temperature by more than one degree in any 24-hour period - ideal conditions for aging and storing wine. To complement their wines in this fine environment, they wanted to set-up a "Cafe", but Robyn demanded that it had to be a nice one. Thus, Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant was born.

Mudbrick Vineyard Wines

Robyn and Nicholas did not have any winemaking or hospitality experience when they started this venture, but have learned along the way. Their main philosophy is to operate from a customer's point of view. As a life-long project, they have continually updated and added to the buildings, vineyards, and winery. Mudbrick has two distinctly different vineyards on Waiheke Island - the Mudbrick Vineyard at Church Bay and the (purchased in 1998) Shepherds Point Vineyard at Onetangi. The Mudbrick Vineyard has a maritime-influenced, mostly north-facing clay slopes, while the Shepherds Point Vineyard is within a valley on gently undulating terrain. Having two distinct sites allows Patrick Newton, Mudbrick's winemaker since 2011, the opportunity to blend the wines from the two sites to create more complex and rewarding wines that are balanced with elegance and finesse.

I tasted through the wines with Bob Scot, aka The Resident Wine Nut, who lived on the Waiheke Island for many, many years and has been the Cellar Master at Mudbrick for 16 years. Bob took me through a number of Mudbrick's amazing Waiheke Island wines, many of which showcased the elegance and finesse that Patrick aspires to have in the wines he creates. Wine review of my top wines from Mudbrick are provided below. They have increased their capacity, including the addition of wines from Marlborough and Central Otago, so I hope to see their wines at the LCBO in the near future - although they do not have representation in Ontario at the moment. I loved my visit to Mudbrick as it very much felt like I was transported to a different world and would highly recommended you pay the winery a visit if you are ever in New Zealand.

After visiting Mudbrick, we took a cab back to the Ferry and returned to Auckland. All in all, I was very pleased with my first ever visit to Waiheke Island. And with more than 20 wineries located on the island, along with my favourite red varietal - Syrah - having great success on Waiheke, I could foresee another trip to the island in the future. A majority of the wine produced on Waiheke Island is consumed locally, but some bottles do leave New Zealand. Although none of the three wineries I visited currently have representation here in Ontario, I am hopeful that one day the fabulous wines from these wineries will be available in Ontario.

Tasting Notes:

TANTALUS PINOT GRIS 2017 - Waiheke Island, New Zealand (XD) - $68 NZD
Crafted in an Alsatian style, this Pinot Gris has spent 9 months in French oak barriques. The medium-high intensity nose is sweet fruited with stone fruit, citrus, and some honeyed and waxy characters. It's nicely textured on the dry palate with just a kiss of sweetness and lemony, stone fruit, and citrus flavours, with some slightly mature fruit characters. Still has very good acidity. A touch chalky on the long, lemon pith finish. Should continue to drink well for another 2-3 years. Score: 91 pts

Tantalus Pinot Gris 2017 (91 pts)

TANTALUS VIOLÉ RESERVE SYRAH 2015 - Waiheke Island, New Zealand (XD) - $90 NZD
A Syrah co-fermented with 2% Viognier, this has a lovely, aromatic, and very floral nose that is joined by ripe plum, black cherry, and blackberry aromas. It’s medium-full bodied with nice replays on the flavour profile, along with oak spice and milk chocolate notes. Medium-level, gritty tannins add a nice texture. Acids are well-balanced. Cocoa-dusted, dark berry, and floral characters on the long finish. Score: 91+ pts

Tantalus Violé Reserve Syrah 2015 (91+ pts)Tantalus Écluse Reserve 2015 (92 pts)

TANTALUS ÉCLUSE RESERVE 2015 - Waiheke Island, New Zealand (XD) - $105 NZD
The flagship wine from Tantalus, this is a Cabernet blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with small amounts of Merlot and Malbec, all of which spends 1 year in French oak barriques. The nose is highly aromatic, elegant, and perfumed with floral, red & black fruits, sweet tobacco, and plum. It's full-bodied with lovely aroma replays joined by touches of smoke, tobacco, and earthy nuances that add complexity and supported by fine, structured, and sweet tannins. Acids are juicy, while the persistent finish is balanced with excellent length. Will age gracefully over the next 5-7 years. Score: 92 pts

CABLE BAY RESERVE PINOT GRIS 2019 - Waiheke Island, New Zealand (XD) - $34 NZD
This Pinot Gris was fermented and aged in concrete tanks for 7 months. It has a nice, ripe, medium+ intensity nose of honeysuckle and floral, with whiffs of apricot and lemon citrus. The medium+ bodied palate is dry and nicely textured with more stone fruit, honeysuckle, and citrus flavours. Some saline notes arrive on the mid-palate and continue through to the long, clean finish. Score: 90+ pts

Cable Bay Reserve Pinot Gris 2019 (90+ pts)

CABLE BAY SYRAH 2018 - Waiheke Island, New Zealand (XD) - $48 NZD
Excellent results from a cool, wet year, this Syrah has a fragrant, black pepper spice, dark currant, and dark berry nose with hints of floral. It's medium+ bodied with lovely aroma replays. Juicy fruit and elegant tannins add to the experience. Earthy notes arrive on the fine, long finish. Score: 91 pts

Cable Bay Syrah 2018 (91 pts)Cable Bay Five Hills 2018 (91 pts)

CABLE BAY FIVE HILLS 2018 - Waiheke Island, New Zealand (XD) - $48 NZD
This blend of 70% Malbec and 30% Merlot has a fresh, medium-high intensity nose of purple fruits, violet, dark berry, dark currant, and spice, with some smoky mineral notes. The fine, medium-bodied palate has lovely mineral-driven aroma replays that are nuanced with dark fruit and smoke characters. It has balanced acids and fine tannins, and a long, minerally finish. Score: 91 pts

MUDBRICK RESERVE CHARDONNAY 2019 - Waiheke Island, New Zealand (XD) - $59 NZD
Rich, elegant, and complex with ripe, buttery, vanilla, apple and pear aromas and flavours that are very well balanced. It's creamy textured on the medium-full bodied palate with fine, succulent acids. Earthy-clayey mineral and hints of nut add further complexity. Impeccably balanced throughout and a long, satisfying finish. Score: 93 pts

Mudbrick Reserve Chardonnay 2019 (93 pts)

MUDBRICK SHEPHERD'S POINT SYRAH 2018 - Waiheke Island, New Zealand (XD) - $45 NZD
The medium+ intensity nose is earthy with an array of dark fruits like blackberry, black cherry, black plum, and black pepper spice joining the fray, It's medium-full bodied on the palate with lovely aroma replays, plus hints of cranberry. It has juicy acids and structured tannins that come through on the back palate. Finishes peppery, earthy, and long. Will reward 3-4 years in cellar and drink to 2030. Score: 92 pts

Mudbrick Shepherd's Point Syrah 2018 (92 pts)Mudbrick Reserve 2019 (92 pts)

MUDBRICK RESERVE 2019 - Waiheke Island, New Zealand (XD) - $75 NZD
This Bordeaux blend consists of 45% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the rest equal parts Petit Verdot and Malbec. It has a highly aromatic nose that is herbaceous with black currant, cassis, dark cherry, black plum, and oak spice aromas. It's medium-full bodied with very nice herbally aroma replays joined by some peppery spice flavours. Acids are fresh and juicy. Dry, structured palate with tannins that come to the fore on mid-palate. Excellent finish length. Drink over the next 7-9 years. Score: 92 pts


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