We were finally in New Zealand for a trip I had been looking forward to for years. We spent a fantastic 5 days staying in a hotel in Auckland enjoying all the great sights and hospitality of the city but then it was time to really indulge my passion. We were not only attracted to New Zealand for the scenery and the interesting cities but also because of the wine. It’s been a long time now since the New Zealand and Australia wines were referred to as “New World” so subsumed into the psyche of wine lovers as being amongst the world’s great wines they have become, and they were not to disappoint.
New Zealand’s North Island is full of wine growing regions producing terrific wines. We chose to start in the Northland and take the coastal route past Auckland down through Waikato (Bay of Plenty) to Gisborne, onto Hawkes Bay and ending up in Wellington. There was no timescale to this plan. We’d take as long as we wanted to enjoy all the sights and sounds, park near some fabulous beaches maybe treat ourselves to a few nights away from the old camper in a delightful little guest house or two and get stuck into those delicious wines. Here are the details of our New Zealand North Island wine adventures.
We’d heard the Northland is one of the new kids on the block of gourmet destinations so not only were the wines ready for our delectation but there was a big expectation of some brilliant food to accompany them. Choosing wineries right on the coast for stunning restaurant views is definitely the name of the game. We started right up in Karikari Peninsula and made our way down through Kerikeri, Paihia and finished this particular leg in Mangawhai
The Northland also brings a new meaning to Farmer’s Markets. The ones back home are a pale imitation of those found at Paparoa and Dargaville. If ever the Greek Gods were to define ambrosia and nectar in earthly terms they’d be looking down here on stalls pile high with the freshest produce which are so brightly coloured you just know Mother Nature has painted them herself. Ok, so I couldn’t resist the bacon butties on offer but the smoked mussels and oysters we took back to the camper van were wolfed down in minutes one evening together with lashings of an award winning chardonnay. We also visited the Saturday market at Kerikeri and found some terrific if a little rough organic reds and some very welcome artisan coffees. A big shout out has to go the Only Seafood restaurant on the bay in Paihia – the best seafood platter ever – and I’ve enjoyed a few.
The Auckland Area
Henderson Valley is probably somewhere familiar to wine lovers but the Matakana Coast is equally worthy. There’s a fabulous little village called Leigh where the fish and chips are sublime. Good job too because for some reason the stove in the camper van just wasn’t behaving (It actually broke down next day and we had to replace the gasket). At the Ascension Wine Estate we tried a very satisfying selection and for me I’d pick the Steep Bit, The Passion and the Benediction. There was also a very palatable sparkling rosé, The Flamenco.
Matakana is also another great destination for a Farmer’s Market. Every Saturday you can have your senses titillated by homemade preserves, chutneys and pickles to accompany artisan breads and meats. As well as the wines, the locally produced honey is exceptional.
Waikato (The Bay of Plenty)
Let’s get the waxing lyrical about the food out of the way first. If you love fish and chips, there’s only one place to go – Tauranga’s Fresh Fish Market – it’s a local legend and deservedly so. Leave the sea behind to try a whole different food experience at Kiwifruit 360, in Te Puke. Here you can taste wines, liqueurs and all manner of concoctions made from fresh kiwi fruit. I found another of my weaknesses at Comvita Visitor Centre – Jess had to pull me away from the scrumptious native honeys on offer.
Gisborne is definitely a place to visit the beach even if it is to just view the sunrise and know you’re waking up with the world. The waterfront is a very picturesque place with some very tasty restaurants. For drink of a different kind, check out New Zealand’s largest cider producer- Bulmers, down on the wharf.
Due to the close proximity of over 40 vineyards in the Hawkes Bay area we decided to park the camper van up for a few days to head off on a scripted cycling tour. If you want to take a leisurely vacation viewing the wine growing regions on the North Island cycling is a special way to do it. Just remember you’ve got to get back on your bike after those tasting sessions to get to your next stop or back to your accommodation – talking from experience!
The food element of the trail lived up to its gourmet billing: uber fresh produce prepared with attention and care; restaurants that prompt wines into their best food matching performances; restaurant’s representing the best of local and fusion food and Farmer’s Markets to bewilder in their array and invitation to treat (especially the one in Napier).
Before we head into Wellington proper, I just have to indulge in a special tribute to what turned out to be my most favourite of all the areas we visited – Martinborough. Handily located right on the route from Auckland to Wellington, if you’re pushed for time on the North Island it’s easy to pull off for a short sojourn here.
Making a welcome return to the trusty van after all that biking I was as excited about Martinborough as Jess had been about the Chardonnay capital (Gisborne) because the speciality grape of this region is the pinot noir. The dry river beds around the town provide ideal viticulture conditions and I was already familiar with production from the Schubert winery and very much looked forward to sampling more. Ata Rangi’s Célèbre certainly didn’t disappoint neither did the Blue Rock Vineyard’s McIntyre and I have to give a great big thumbs up to Pencarrow’s Great Dogs.
Martinborough is also a gorgeous town. There are plenty of places to stay with some very unique exclusive-use holiday homes in the mix. There’s a golf course if you fancy a round or two while your adrenaline levels can be pushed sky high at Pole to Pole with a chasm walkway, rope walks and the gentler horse trekking. Plus, there’s the whole of the Wairarapa region to discover too.
According to Lonely Planet, Wellington is the “coolest little capital in the world” but as we were going to be spending a few days in the city we thought we’d see some of the immediate area first and after all there are no vineyards in the city. The closest vineyards to Wellington are in the Wairarapa region, including my favourite place, Martinborough. I’ve already made mention of some of my wine selections from this region so I will just add in that this area is not only home to delicious wines but is also extremely scenic. The backdrop of many of the vineyards is soaring mountains and this is a very pretty part of North Island. If you want to be on the doorstep of Wellington but stay in a rural locale, Wairarapa is plethoric in rusticity; tons of farms for bed and breakfast, charming boutique hotels and a whole mass of excellent restaurants. Do you really need anything more?