MAGNA CUM LAUDE
New Zealand’s Waiheke Island is a microcosm of vinicultural perfection, as well as being a mighty nice place.reports
WE’RE DRIVING THE outskirts of the Destiny Bay Vineyards when proprietor Mike Spratt stops the vehicle for a moment to allow us to take in the view.
To the right, from high up here, we can cast our gaze out over one of Waiheke Island’s countless little bays, where day trippers can find a plot of sand all to themselves and unpack their little picnics; or yachts, both large and small, can drop anchor and just while away the time – the hours, if they like – should the wind start to pick up and blow too hard. Into the distance stretches Hauraki
Gulf, more, smaller islands, and then it’s water and water and nothing much else save a few lost penguins all the way to Antarctica.
To the left, over a small valley, the vines of Destiny Bay stretch in serried ranks across a perfect little natural amphitheatre. From here it seems at once both exposed to the elements and somehow cuddled safely for protection into the hillside should things turn nasty. Beyond, we can see across hills and forests, and on to the occasional house of those lucky enough to have made this island their home.
Spratt breaks the silence by saying that it’s almost like the gods came here to Waiheke and decided to produce not only a landscape that’s near on picture-perfect, but also conditions – from the soil to the sun – in which the grape vine can thrive.
We join Spratt inside his winery a little later and one sip of his 2007 Magna Praemia has us preaching the same sermon. Remarkable is the word that kept springing to mind when we were touring Waiheke and taking in all the sights. And it’s the word remarkable that returns once we start tasting the wine that made the island famous.
Islands, by their very nature, attract a certain breed. Mostly people turn to the isolation for escape, and that’s certainly what brought Spratt here after a successful career as a merger and acquisition consultant and partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers and The Rubicon Group. He’d tired of the constant go go go, so he talked to his family and decided it was time for change.
Coming from the San Francisco Bay area – and with a keen love of sailing – meant that wherever the family went there must be water around, and after visiting New Zealand for a holiday in 1998 and some trial and error, the Spratts decided upon Waiheke.
It’s only a 40-minute ferry ride from New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland, and after spending some time there you can be forgiven a little chuckle (to yourself, though) if you hear anyone on the island claim they had to get away from the hustle and bustle of the “big smoke.”
“We decided to get out of the rat race,” says Spratt. “My wife and I had very long and challenging careers, and we just said let’s move over there. A friend suggested that we get into wine, and it all started simply from that.”
Waiheke – or “the descending waters” – is now home to just 8,000 lucky souls, and in the 242 years since the first European sailor cruised past (a man by the name of Captain James Cook) a community of retirees and holiday makers has developed, along with those – like Spratt – who have settled into the industries that keep the local economy pumping along nicely. There’s the tourism industry, catering to day-trippers who make the short voyage across from Auckland and those who want to make the most of a longer stay in the collection of guesthouses and luxury holiday apartments that dot the island.
There are long, pristine beaches or quiet little coves to explore, hikes through the hills that lead down to quiet, almost tropical, fern-fringed valleys – and space for everyone to move around unhindered thanks to the fact that most of the 8,000 gather in the main communities around the northern bays of Matiatia, Oneroa and Onetangi; the rest of the island is left to the sheep.
In midweek, you can hire a car and drive for an hour – at least – and only need to raise your hand to wave to one or two other passing cars, as is the custom in these parts. Things get a little more cluttered on weekends as the island is also served by a vehicular ferry, but most people who come here choose to walk, ride or sail their way from place to place.
More and more visitors are coming here for the wine. The local industry, which boasts around 30 vineyards, has carved itself a niche in the increasingly competitive international red-wine market. There’s an annual wine festival every February, and vineyards have tailored their properties to suit the rise in interest. That means many provide not only guided tours but also accommodation.
Once again, the locals will tell you it’s all down to the gifts that nature has provided. The soil here is thick and rich on the surface, but is underlain by enormously compressed and fractured Jurassic rock strata that allow for perfect drainage. Plenty of rain and sun, and moderate temperatures peaking at around 20 to 25 degrees for most of the year, help the vines to grow, but most importantly the island rolls its way through countless hills and valleys, giving shelter to the crops whenever the weather decides to do its worst.
“It’s almost like the perfect conditions for the grapes we grow, like it had been set out according to some special plan,” says Spratt.
The end result for his vineyard has been not only the acclaimed Magna Praemia – a recent tasting of which brought famed Master of Wine Gerard Basset to his knees – but also highly successful vintages of its Mystae and Destinae blends. Little wonder the vineyard’s annual output of just 2,200 cases is always oversubscribed.
“They’re fast realising that Waiheke is a region that can produce these high-quality red wines, which is really something when you realise we have only half a per cent of New Zealand’s total wine-growing area,” says Spratt.
Chris Canning is another Waiheke regular who came for a visit – and then never wanted to leave. A 30-year veteran of the New Zealand winemaking scene, he wanted to find himself “a quiet little spot where I could concentrate on making wine of real quality – and, of course, on living.”
He’s certainly doing that today. Walk inside the living room of Canning’s home, high on a cliff over Onetangi with uninterrupted views across the open ocean, and you can stand and stare – as, he says, his guests often do. There’s a local yacht regatta on the water and a few couples walking hand-in-hand on the beach down below.
There’s a bottle of The Hay Paddock Syrah from Canning’s own vineyard sitting out on the kitchen bench and the unmistakable scent of a slow-roasting lamb leg wafting up from the oven. No wonder the family cat purrs, glides languidly past, finds a place in the sun on the balcony, and rolls to one side to present its belly for a scratch. Life here seems pretty sweet indeed.
That view from the balcony is available to the public, too. Canning offers two five-star bed-and-breakfast suites downstairs, with those views and (one might hope) some more of that wine. Canning’s wines have been creating quite a stir, picking up gold medals from London’s International Wine Challenge, among other awards.
“I think both Mike and I had the same idea,” says Canning. “There came a time when we both thought to ourselves, ‘I think I’ll retire to Waiheke and make the best red wine in the world.’ ”
Man O’ War is another Waiheke winemaker making a name for itself across the globe – its Valhalla 2009 and Dreadnought 2009 both picked up gold medals at the International Wine Challenge 2011, and its collection is being featured at Japanese restaurant Zuma in Hong Kong, as the label makes its way now to 23 countries.
“For such a small place – and the island is only about 19 kilometres end to end – people are always surprised by the quality of the wine we have to offer,” says Spratt. “I always think that the best wines you have are ones you can relate to a certain time or a certain experience, and that’s what Waiheke gives visitors too – something to remember.”Mathew Scott travelled to Waiheke as a guest of New Zealand Trade & Enterprise
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