Top Restaurateurs Discover a Gourmet Island Paradise in New Zealand
MasterChef’s Christina Tosi says Waiheke Island, just off the coast of Auckland, is like having Napa Valley overlooking New York.
They call it The Rock. Under the very thin topsoil of Waiheke Island, 40 minutes by ferry from downtown Auckland, there are great hunks of uplifted sandstone and volcanic rock, which make for an almost perfect place to grow wine and olives. Until the 1970s, no one knew this: despite the island’s proximity to New Zealand’s biggest city, it was simply a quiet, forgotten place for alternative-lifestylers who valued their separation from the mainland. Part of that sense of seclusion still remains: these days, to visit Waiheke is to head to somewhere quite separate from the city, with restaurants serving up food and wine as good as anything you’ll find in a major metropolis but with a strong sense of place.
To get to Waiheke, you take a fast ferry out past the pretty seaside suburbs of Auckland and into the Hauraki Gulf, finally landing at Matiatia, a deep, sheltered harbour ringed with regenerating native forest and the odd contemporary glass-and-steel residence. “It’s almost as if Napa overlooked New York City,” says Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi, who visited at the beginning of the New Zealand spring along with partner Will Guidara, of Eleven Madison Park, and friends Brian Canlis, of Seattle’s Canlis restaurant, and his wife Mackenzie. “You wake up in Auckland, walk down to the water to the ferry building, get on a ferry and then you’re dropped off at this beautiful island. You’re so quickly and so immediately taken out of the city.”
From Matiatia wharf, it’s a very short trip – all of about five minutes – up the hill to the vineyards of Mudbrick and Cable Bay. “They’re right across the road from each other,” says Tosi, “and yet they’re completely different.” Mudbrick started more than 20 years ago, as the home of owners Robyn and Nick Jones. Today, it still has a charming domesticity to it – the main building is built from mudbricks sourced from the property; it’s rustic and earthy, with a gigantic fireplace and a floor lined with worn flagstones. It might have started as the Jones’s home, on a tiny vineyard, but before too long, the couple started hosting events, then opened a cafe.
These days, Mudbrick has a beautiful, sun-filled restaurant with views over the water back to the city and some exquisite food, which is matched to the estate-grown wines. On this spring day, the four feasted on an amuse bouche of smoked duck with puffed wild rice, duck liver mousse and balsamic gel, followed by pan-seared kingfish and salmon with yuzu gel. The true winner was a dish of unctuous, slow-cooked pork cheek, served with cauliflower purée and a glass of Mudbrick’s signature wine, Velvet – a secret blend of syrah and malbec made only in Waiheke’s best years. The pairing was perfect, the view magnificent.
From Mudbrick, the group headed down the road – literally, as Tosi noted – and across to Cable Bay, which is a different sort of building altogether: a modernist structure with great planes of concrete and steel, sunk into the hill. Yet here, the approach to the wine is almost exactly the same as Mudbrick’s: Cable Bay grows syrah and viognier along with chardonnay, merlot and malbec. “What New Zealand can do with red wine is extraordinary,” says Canlis. “They’re making syrahs that are on the level with some of the great wineries from northern Rhône.”
For anyone used to drinking New Zealand’s iconic Marlborough sauvignon blanc, these are surprising wines. Where sauvignon blanc is intensely fruity and striking in the freshness of its flavours and aromas, Waiheke wines are tauter, less fruit-driven and more subtle. The island is unusual in New Zealand: its climate is unique. In summer, when Auckland tends to be humid, a consistent sea breeze acts like a fan on Waiheke during the day, drying out the grapes; while at night, the sea insulates the island, keeping it warmer. The result: grapes that ripen a little earlier than they would on the mainland. That rocky soil, meanwhile, imparts a minerally texture to the wine that is silky and restrained.
Canlis and Guidara were particularly impressed by the chardonnays being produced on Waiheke – in the style of a French chablis rather than a Californian chardonnay, with less oak and less fruit, in general a tauter, more subtle style of winemaking with fresh acidity and balance. They go beautifully with food, as the friends discovered while sitting in a covered veranda at Cable Bay, working their way through a plate of local artisanal cheese with a glass of chardonnay, Auckland’s volcanic landscape in the distance. “They’re in the old style of wine,” says Canlis. “The winemakers here are doing as little as possible, letting the ground speak – and the grapes speak.” And all that just across the water from a vibrant, modern city.
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