What’s so great about wine from Waiheke Island?

Perhaps it was reading Joseph Campbell’s ‘Myths to Live By’ during my first overseas vintage in California, 22 years ago, that inspired me to keep one eye on the anthropology of the wine regions I visited for the rest of my career.

Over the subsequent years I have traveled to most major wine growing nations around the world – from Europe to The Americas, Africa, Asia and, of course, Australasia – and have drawn correlations (imagined or real) between national culture and the dominant wine style.  Think Australian reds with their big, intense personalities, their rich and sometimes hard backbones and their smooth and often cheeky qualities. Such cultural observations in the glass are heightened when localised to small wine producing communities, especially those making single vineyard wines.

“In wine, a respectful human input is integral to both achieving a sense of place and appreciating it.

A key concept in this anthropological equation is the French word ‘terroir’.  In wine, it is used to describe a broad range of physical elements of a vineyard – the soil, the climate, the aspect and anything else that can differentiate one vineyard from another. An associated and perhaps more useful term when making the sensory link between the vineyard and the wine in the glass is ‘a sense of place’, or the Maori word turangawaewae which can be translated as ‘the places where we feel especially empowered and connected’. These two terms acknowledge the human aspect and experience alongside that of tangible factors like soil and climate.  In wine, a respectful human input is integral to both achieving a sense of place and appreciating it.

“Boutique wine growing is a labour of love, and in this way the wine is shaped further by the owners’ own ideology and values”

Against this backdrop, Waiheke Island is a fascinating wine region to study. One of the most boutique and charming of all New Zealand’s wine regions, its wines are often considered expensive, however access to materials and labour make this true for all islands. Its small crops mean the average per litre costs to farm grapes are some of the most expensive on the planet.  This could lead us to conclude that a combination of scarcity and island novelty are the reason for its high regard.  However, the truth is a little more complex, and a lot more interesting.  

Climate

Despite being a relatively small island, with an area of only 92 km², Waiheke is home to a rich, lush, vital and diverse landscape, shaped largely by its unique island microclimate. As anyone who lives (or holidays) on the island knows, Waiheke enjoys a special protection from some of the colder, wetter weather brought by the prevailing south-west and westerly winds, making it both drier and warmer than the Auckland isthmus.  From a viticultural perspective, however, it is the proximity of the surrounding ocean that has the biggest impact.  Acting as both a fan and an insulator, the ocean moderates both rising temperatures in mid-summer (through sea breezes), and falling temperatures at night.  The result is a growing season that has more in common with much hotter regions but without the extremes. Importantly, these moderate temperatures extend into the early autumn ripening period.     

Landscape

As if in cahoots with the climate, the dramatic landscape is comprised of a variety of different aspects.  This feature allows a range of varieties to thrive on the island from pinot gris that love cooler micro-climates to late-ripening cabernet sauvignon and merlot that need north-facing slopes and more sunlight exposure than others, to fully ripen.  While there is a significant site variation, most vineyards are fortunate to enjoy highly mineralised, marginal soils dominated by clay. This soil type keeps the vine cool, delaying ripening, and allowing for better flavour and good acidity, while also giving structure and mouth-feel, especially in red varietals.  As a result, there is less need to intervene and extract body and flavour through winemaking techniques – it comes naturally.  More on this later.  

Viticultural practices

With the stage set for growing great fruit, we can then look at plantingand viticultural practices and again Waiheke breaks the mould with small, unirrigated, single vineyards.  Undiluted by water and/or other vineyards, the result is unarguably more intense, concentrated and vital wines, and – where the winemaking is respectful – a far greater chance to discover its sense of place.  This is a unique proposition for the new world, where irrigation, multi-vineyard and multi-regional blending is commonplace.  The wineries themselves are boutique not only by virtue of the size of the vineyards but also the people who founded them – many of whom still own their operations.  Boutique wine growing is a labour of love and in this way, the wine is shaped further by the owners’ own ideology and values.  

People

This brings me to the special ingredient in Waiheke’s unique wine story – the people.  Waiheke’s population is as diverse as it’s wine styles, with ‘born and breds’, latter settling locals, retired well-to-do baby boomers, seasonal holiday-makers, and a raft of newer ‘imports’ – many of whom are international.  Despite this diversity, I have heard it said more than a few times that those who live on the island share one fundamental commonality: they choose to be here.  The island existence is not for all, and in almost Darwinian fashion, the locale and the complexities of island living scare off most who don’t have the means and/or tolerance for such a life. This idea is strongly represented in the wine growing community on the island.  Nearly every winegrower I have met on the island over the last five years reflects qualities of his or her chosen island home: vital, natural, modest, with a quiet confidence.  For certain, it is impossible not to be influenced by the environment on Waiheke, particularly when your livelihood depends on a respect for and understanding of it.  Added to this appreciation of nature at large is the unique perspective imparted by the winegrowers’ own nationalities, which are as varied as those of the broader island population. Americans, Canadians, Germans, French, Italians and Swede’s and more, are among them!  For the most part, the island style of winemaking errs towards the sympathetic end of the spectrum which means lower human intervention and more trust of the vineyard and nature.

The result of this combination of unique microclimate, varied aspects, soil type, lack of irrigation and single vineyard planting, alongside passionate, knowledgeable and sympathetic winemakers, is wine with a concentrated sense of place; a crystal-clear looking glass through which anyone with the inclination can behold the turangawaewae of Waiheke.

It is easy to get caught up in the hype of ‘the island of wine’, but my advice to those who really want to get under the skin of Waiheke’s wine is: Look to the land, the vineyards, listen to nature if you can, find out the philosophy that guides the winemaker’s craft (not the sales and marketing pitch) then let your senses take over and think of nothing but what is in the glass; its colour, its specific aromas, texture, intensity, and complexity. Let your reflections be the platform for your senses to leap from.

In the words of Campbell, “follow your bliss”.