It's in the wilds of West Auckland - famed for its raw, rugged coastlines and no-nonsense types that you'll find some of New Zealand's best vineyards - and a rich seam of vinicultural history. So, where to start?
The Hunting Lodge in Waimauku is home of New Zealand’s first sauvignon blanc and it's a beautiful destination, a mere 35-minute drive from central Auckland. It also boasts one of the country’s top cuisine creatives, former Clooney executive chef Des Harris.
But it is certainly the wrong place to start a wine tour if you are planning to hit several estates in one day. The reason? You won’t want to leave.
The Waikoukou Valley lodge has been a favoured destination for liquid-lunching Aucklanders for 50 years, and these days, there’s the added attraction of its takeaway menu, first offered as the country eased out of the covid-19 lockdown.
There have been other changes for the good in the year since head of hospitality Philip Stack moved across from his role as food and beverage manager at the SkyCity Grand hotel in Auckland’s CBD. He has expanded the offering to cater for a more-informal crowd, who may just want to share a pizza and a tasting at the lawn bar, play pétanque in the family area, or have a tasting at the cellar door (this is free if you buy a bottle).
Stack has also made sure the price of a bottle doesn’t mysteriously have a sommelier commission added during its 20-metre journey from the cellar door to the indoor dining area.
If you’re after a more-formal experience, you could put yourself completely in the hands of Chef Harris. He’ll hook you up with the freshest seasonal ingredients paired with the perfect wine. Try, for example, fresh salmon with pickled red onion accompanied by the Homeblock Sauvignon from the Hunting Lodge’s own vines.
Harris says the lockdown was a blessing in some respects, allowing him to concoct new dishes and experiment with pickled vegetables from his own garden.
It also influenced some of Stack’s thinking. “We had a look at how things were set up and why, and the price point is now under $40 for a lunch,” he says.
His latest innovation is establishing permanent ‘glamping’ tents on site, allowing guests to simply “stay on after lunch”.
Stack says the covid-19 experience also reset a “bunch of priorities” for the wine industry. The Hunting Lodge, for example, almost immediately moved to online ordering and marketing its wines to its international buyers.
But the lockdown also drove home the importance of selling the West Auckland viticultural area to people living in the wider region, and elsewhere in New Zealand.
Stack has been one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Wineries Out West (WOW) concept, which he thinks has also strengthened marketing relationships between the wine estates.
There are six in the WOW group, representing the stalwarts of the west. All have been faced with Auckland’s frenzied urban sprawl, which has seen suburbia spread into quiet rural outposts such as Henderson, Swanson, Huapai and Kumeū.
Commercial businesses, warehouses and housing subdivisions now butt up against vineyards that in some cases were planted more than 100 years ago by families with names mostly ending with ‘ich’; Babich, Brajkovich, Ivicevich. There is also the Soljan family – their world-beating ports are worth another story.
Between them, the pioneers and their descendants have done the hard yards in helping to position New Zealand as one of the globe’s most desirable sources of sauvignon blancs, chardonnays and fortified wines.
The spirit of the Dalmatians
The Dalmatians haven’t lost touch with the grit and determination that brought them from a rugged strip of coast in the Adriatic to New Zealand in the 1800s, a journey that was initially sparked by the prospect of striking it rich prospecting for gold in the South Island but later by the allure of North Island kauri gum.
When the gum started to run out at the turn of the century, they turned their attention to farming, fishing and, yes, winemaking.
In about 1912, teenager Josip Babich had the foresight to plant a few vines above the Kaikino Swamp gumfield in the Far North. He later moved south to a block of land at the base of the Waitākere Ranges.
Today, Babich Wines – run by Josip’s great-grandson David Babich – has 11 vineyards in Auckland, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough and exports more than four million litres of wine to more than 40 countries.
Its 20-hectare Henderson Valley winery is planted mainly in chardonnay and pinotage, but the cellar door also sells its organic Marlborough pinot noir and sauvignon blanc and its Hawke’s Bay chardonnays.
In nearby Awaroa Road, Sunnyvale, in 1935, Mick Ivicevich planted the first grapes for the enterprise that would eventually become Westbrook Winery, adding a cellar the next year. In the face of Auckland’s urban sprawl, the company moved to Ararimu Valley at Waimauku in 1999.
Today, Westbrook serves its wine with its famous platters inside during winter and in its beautiful gardens in summer.
Cellar door manager Tracey Larsen and her team can also provide a ‘walk around’ journey, serving both local produce and insights into the local grapes.
She is not only very knowledgeable about the wine – which ranges from an epic pinot gris to a méthode traditionnelle blanc – but is also happy to spell out why a brie should never accompany any sort of wine, although it does, “because people like it regardless”.
Best chardonnay on the planet
Kumeu River, started by Mick and Katé Brajkovich and their son Maté in 1944, has gradually built a reputation for making some of the best chardonnay on the planet.
It remains a solid family affair and third-generation vintner Michael Brajkovich, New Zealand’s first Master of Wine, says chardonnays represent about 80 percent of the company’s production.
He says the winery was “lucky” ahead of lockdown – it managed to finish the harvest with a skeleton staff.
But the effort was worth it, he says. “Two thousand and nineteen was considered a good growing year, but 2020 will make that look like a ‘hold my beer’ year.”
If you decide to take a Wineries Out West tour – and we highly recommend you do – be sure to arrange a dedicated driver. We greatly enjoyed our time with the excellent and highly entertaining Raj, owner of Wine Trail Tours, who has wrapped up some bespoke trips covering the area from Matakana to Kumeū.