Auckland for wine lovers

Allison Burton-Parker explains what to do in and around Auckland. See this guide to all the entries in our travel writing competition that have been published so far.

So you’ve finally managed that bucket-list trip to New Zealand. And before you can embark on your meticulously planned wine adventures in Central Otago or Hawkes Bay… you find yourself in Auckland. Likely this is the result of a well-meaning travel agent who suggested ‘a few days in the City to get over the jetlag’. Or maybe you yourself were seduced by the ‘City of Sails’ pitch and thought surely it’d be a lovely place to spend a few days. It is lovely, just a bit of a challenge if you’re a wine-lover who turns up unprepared. Plenty of lively bars and restaurants packed with people, but you notice they are mostly drinking beer, and the majority of wine lists feature few options, most of which seem to be the same Kiwi labels you already buy back home.

I first came to New Zealand in 2002 (just after marrying one of its finer citizens) and was astonished by the beauty of the country, the kind people and the quality of the food. But I struggled with the wines as I am, firstly, not a big Sauvignon Blanc fan, and secondly, someone who craves variety. Happily New Zealand now produces an astonishing array of grapes, and the cultural obsession with great food and travel abroad has led to a thriving international gastronomic scene with wines to match. You just have to know where to look…

First stop… a top winery in suburban Auckland

Yes, that’s right. There are few countries in the world where some of its best wines are made a half-hour from its biggest city. So before you settle in to your hotel, hop in your car for a quick drive north west to Kumeu River. Michael Brajkovich MW is one of the pioneers of NZ wine, and his estate continues to make some of the finest Chardonnay in the New World. Seriously. Even Jancis thinks so. The cellar door is casual and you’ll likely meet one of the many members of the Brajkovich family who help out in the business. The Chardonnay is very Burgundian but the experience is pure New Zealand.

Next… hit the seas

Head to the Ferry Terminal and hop on a 35-minute ferry to Waiheke, a nearby island known for it's Bordeaux-style reds and, increasingly, Syrahs. The island is often labelled ‘The Hamptons of New Zealand’, but I find the comparison a bit lacking. (Full disclosure: I own a holiday home on Waiheke so may be a bit biased, but I am also from New York, so could say the same there too). Waiheke is a bucolic, sheep-dotted landscape set amidst pristine beaches, steep rocky cliffs and giant silver fern forests.

It’s also home to some of the most pricey vineyard land in New Zealand. That is perhaps the one part of the comparison that rings true: Waiheke is expensive. And Waiheke wines are expensive, at least by Kiwi standards. The upside of the cost of entry: cellar doors are slick, with passionate and knowledgeable staff, and most estates have well-considered restaurants attached. The views are stunning at just about every winery and you’ll be constantly juggling your camera and your wine glass. Don't expect to find much white and don't expect to board the return ferry empty-handed. Very few of these wines are available in international markets, and you'll inevitably find a few to be worthy of the long trip home.

There are more than a dozen good-sized wineries on the island. My favourites are spread about, so I advise getting a taxi just off the ferry and exchanging numbers with the driver. Then just send a text each time you are ready to move on and your chariot will await.

Just up the hill and around the bend from the ferry is Mudbrick – a lovely spot surrounded by lavender hedges and a labyrinth of vegetable gardens. The restaurant is ideal for a long tasting lunch, or you can sample their wares and head on down the hill to Cable Bay Vineyard, which is likely the most formal, and most stunning estate on the island. Enjoy their rich, textured reds while taking in the dramatic water views and modern sculptures.

Head to the middle of the island and you’ll find Tantalus Estate, one of the newer wineries on the island but one of the most impressive. There are several tasting flight options and the staff are friendly and well-informed. The space is as stunning as their complex, age-worthy reserve wines.

A stone’s throw away you’ll find Stonyridge, one of the oldest wineries on the island. Best-known for their flagship wine Larose, an intense Cabernet-dominant blend that appears in virtually every annual New Zealand top wines list. It's eye-wateringly pricey, but the winery produces three ranges, so there is something for every budget – ideal since Stonyridge is one of the few spots that will ship wines abroad.

The last stop is further afield at Man O' War, on the far east end of the island. You’ll creep along a dusty, curvy road that reveals a succession of picturesque bays and dramatic slopes. Man of War is the largest producer on Waiheke, and sources grapes from 150 acres spread across the island, but the cellar door is an intimate affair, quite literally on the beachfront. You can sip the wines while digging your toes in the white sands, and ponder heading back to the ‘mainland’.

Exploring Auckland neighbourhoods

Auckland’s central business district, where seemingly all the good hotels are, was once a culinary wasteland after 5pm. Works to revive the area have seen parks, cycling lanes and pedestrian areas created from former gridlocked roads and parking lots. The desired effect was achieved, and the new Britomart area has become the epicentre of Auckland's culinary adventurers.

On a small block that's been transformed into a European-style boulevard you’ll find O'Connell Street Bistro. This cosy space is a veritable institution and the first restaurant in Auckland to call itself a ‘bistro’. It’s still likely the city’s best example of one, certainly with the best wine list. There’s a full page of by-the-glass options, a page of half-bottles, another of magnums… you get the idea. The ‘interesting varietals’ section features bottles from Jura, Tokaj, Sardinia and Wachau. The food is consistently among the most-awarded in Auckland, but if you’re not up for a full meal, they offer a seasonal ‘grazing menu’ to pair with your wine journey.

Nearby in Britomart, but in another world altogether is Amano. A vast wood-timbered former warehouse space, it’s a bustling bar and restaurant. The dining concept is seasonal and local, with an Italian bent, and the wine list continues that theme, with a mix of mainly New Zealand and Italian wines. All but their very finest offerings are available by glass, 500ml carafe or bottle.

If you yearn to be spoilt for choice, head up the hill to Ponsonby and pop into Dida's Wine Lounge. Ask for the Wine Journal – an extensive book featuring hundreds of wines from all over the world, organised by varietal, the vast majority of which are under NZ$100. Still looking? With their Cellar Menu you can order any bottle from their sister wine shop’s inventory and pay just NZ$25 over retail to drink it in the bar. Yes, even the 2001 Ch d’Yquem.

The atmosphere at nearby Ponsonby Road Bistro is moody and dark and leather, a stark contrast to much of bright, shiny Auckland. Over 30 options by the glass, alongside one of the largest bottle lists in town. The focus here is on the southern hemisphere – but there are some surprising imports as well as an impressive selection of sherries, ports and dessert wines. Great food, with a menu that changes every few weeks.

Though the name seems a bit generic, the Jervois Road Wine Bar + Kitchen has one of the more interesting lists in town. It’s not the biggest, but is most notable for its approach: virtually all wines are organic and biodynamic. Plus there are two sizes of pours on offer for by-the-glass options (perfect for sampling their orange wines.) And there are some really interesting selections available via Coravin as well. It’s an intimate space just off busy Jervois Road and perfect for a pre-or-post-dinner glass.

One last stop before the airport…

Great Little Vineyards Exactly what is says on the tin. If you haven’t the time or energy to trek up and down the country popping in to see small estates, this wine shop is the next best thing. It presents some of the best of New Zealand’s smaller producers, and supposedly only those who practise organic, biodynamic and natural farming. The staff are quite keen to have a good long chat about their wines and offer a few up for tastings most days. You’re pretty much guaranteed to find a few great little bottles.

Waiheke Island near Auckland, NZ