Ask an Aucklander about Kumeu’s Lincoln Road, and they will tell you many things. It’s the best way to the beach, for instance, being the main route from the motorway to Muriwai. It’s quite industrial, with retail enclaves and service centres lining its borders. It’s the home of new development, with the recently approved “Huapai Triangle” zoned for residential. They might also tell you it’s wine country, and not just that, but where the modern New Zealand wine story began.
“Matua Road, not far from here, is where it all started,” says Vivian, a statuesque woman staffing the cellar door of world-renowned winery, Matua. “Our founders, Bill and Ross Spence, planted the first sauvignon blanc grapes in New Zealand there in 1969.”
Matua means “father” or “leader” in Maori, and Matua wines can certainly wear the pioneer hat with pride. After acquiring vines used for government research, the Spence brothers found the sauvignon blanc showed the most promise and their first commercial vintage – of just 300 litres – was made in an old tin shed in 1974.
Forty or so years later, good savs are still central to Matua’s offering – demonstrated by its Squealing Pig Awatere Sauvignon Blanc. “This is the wine that brought me back to sav,” admits Vivian. “Clean and crisp, with the flavour of green bell peppers. It’s so different to anything else.”
But the grapes are not grown in Auckland. In fact, Matua hasn’t grown anything here for some time.
“This is the processing plant. The fruit is shipped here from Marlborough, Otago and other places, and turned into wine,” says Vivian. “But actually, we are closing our doors in just a few weeks. The company is recentering its activity on Marlborough. It’s just business.”
It seems a shame that Matua, of all the wineries here, should be closing its cellar. But that push south is a familiar story, with several major brands recently shutting up shop in favour of Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, and many – like Matua – losing the cellar door completely in favour of concentrating on bulk sales.
Focus on quality
Half a century ago, there were more than 50 wineries along Lincoln Road, while these days there are just a handful. It would be easy to assume this means the Auckland wine industry is dying off, but the old adage “quality, not quantity” applies here.
The names that started the West Auckland wine industry – Babich, Soljans, Mazuran’s – are still going strong. They might be small, but their perfectly formed artisan wines are testament to the same courage and ingenuity that brought their ancestors here in the 1930s. They are the true heart of this region, making wines with a sense of place, unashamed to experiment.
“The humidity is problematic here,” says Simon Nunn, chief winemaker at nearby Coopers Creek. This winery, at 30 years old, is quite established for New Zealand – but young for this area. “We have about five hectares, and we grow pinot gris, montepulciano, merlot and malbec – although the last two are only used in our rosé,” explains Nunn.
“About 50 per cent of our total production is sauvignon blanc from Marlborough-sourced fruit,” says Nunn. “Sav is the meat and two vege of New Zealand wine, but really, we see ourselves as a champion of emerging varietals.”
The Montepulciano Coopers Creek grown on-site is a dry-style table wine, hailing from the eastern coast of Italy. It likes a late harvest, although it’s not keen on Auckland’s damp conditions, making their offering quite fruit forward. “I called it ‘Guido in velvet pants’,” grins Nunn. “Guido is my dog, she’s an Italian greyhound. She comes to work with me and runs around between the vines, so it seemed fitting.”
Nunn, who has worked here for 20 years, takes a very personal approach to both making and naming wines.
“We use growers Doug and Delwin Bell down in Gisborne for some of our really new varietals, such as albarino,” says Nunn. “They’ve been growing for 30 years and specialise in the different and the new.”
Over on Waiheke Island, Auckland’s other prominent wine district, Mudbrick is also making wines with a sense of place.
“My wife’s family have owned a bach on Waiheke for generations,” says winemaker Patrick Newton, who has been at Mudbrick for just over four years. “We’ve spent a lot of time on Waiheke, and I like to make Bordeaux-style wines, which Waiheke does consistently well.”
Mudbrick has around 12 hectares, and grows pinot gris, viognier, chardonnay, temperanillo, syrah, merlot, malbec and cabernet sauvignon.
“Chardonnay and cab sav are probably my two favourite wines to make,” says Newton. “They’re both complex, and as a winemaker you can have a lot of sway over the final product.”
Newton notes the warm nights are particularly good for the late-ripening cab sav, while the afternoon sea breezes give the chardonnay a slighter higher acidity than is usual, offering a crisp, fresh finish.
“We are able to make much more approachable wines because of the warmth and the sea air,” says Newton. “But the humidity can be problematic, as can seasons like 2016 that have seen unusually high rainfall.”
The wet weather has resulted in fruit ready to harvest acidity-wise, but still needing time to develop sugars. This means Newton and his team are abandoning science and trusting flavour.
“This is how you should harvest anyway,” says Newton, who has total faith in his vineyard, to the extent he uses wild fermentation. This attitude is particularly important for Mudbrick’s tempranillo.
“This varietal is very low in acid, and people will tell you that you need to add acid to the wine to achieve balance,” says Newton. “I disagree. Whenever you add something to a wine, you take something away. Our temperanillo has a real sense of place, an affinity with Waiheke. It’s soft and well rounded in the mouth and really develops the fruit flavours in the glass.”
If there was any doubt Newton’s methods work, just check Mudbrick’s sales figures. “We run out of our wines pretty quickly,” Newton says, modestly. “You need to get in quick to enjoy them.”
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay while exploring vineyards and tasting a sauvignon or two, Booking.com has more than 3500 accommodation options across New Zealand, with a bunch of beauties to choose from in Waiheke.
Wine and Waiheke
Waiheke Island has long been the weekend getaway of choice for weary Aucklanders, but it’s also a tantalising holiday destination for those further abroad. A 30-minute ferry ride from the New Zealand mainland, the island is home to some of the country’s best vineyards, replete with cellar doors, restaurants and cafes.
Those looking to linger are spoilt for choice, with a stunning array of accommodation available. Pick of the bunch, according to Booking.com’s verified guest reviews, is Enclosure Bay in Oneroa and Breakfast on the Beach in Blackpool (below).
Breakfast on the Beach Lodge is the ultimate bed and breakfast, only 30 metres from Blackpool Beach. With just four rooms, this stylish lodge retains an intimate feel and is in the perfect location to explore the rest of the island. For more information click here.
Enclosure Bay is a gorgeous retreat offering big bay views in luxurious surrounds. Your hosts can arrange wine tastings, fishing and diving activities without you ever having to lift a finger. For more information click here.