We set out for a leisurely drive up to Whangarei, stopping first at the Smashed Pipi and Pipi Gallery in Mangawhai, where we had a coffee, before visiting the rural wineries in the area. There are four wineries in the area and we managed to take in three of them, whilst noting that there were some plots for sale on Pigeonberry Lane, so there might well be more there by the time we get around to coming back!
The first stop was at Te Whai, where we were served by Nicola, who, we found out, is just completing the EIT Grapegrowing and Winemaking course that I am embarking on, so we were able to discuss a bit of science over the wine tasting. We tried two styles of chardonnay, one unoaked and one given the 100% oak, malolactic fermentation treatment to give a rich, creamy, almost toffee- flavoured wine. Then a pinot gris, a pale merlot rosé, and syrah in two ages – the most recent (2014) and an older 2012. As we have to either drink or carry back what we buy on the plane, we didn’t buy any wine here, although they are all good.
Next door is a boutique winery – just 2 acres – of the Estuary Vineyard. This is run by Donato, a recent arrival from the Amalfi Coast in Italy, who has a very virtuous, hands-off approach to winemaking, with minimal spraying; whilst maintaining the highest quality, trimming his vines so they don’t produce too many bunches, thus concentrating the grappa (as he calls them). We tried his two chardonnays, one unoaked and one oaked (although not to the extent of Te Whai’s), and also his vioigner, a subtle, fruity white. Again, we liked them all, and were moved to buy one bottle of the unoaked chardonnay for immediate consumption.
A bit further down the road is Millars, and we chatted with the owner, Ross Millar, about his grapes and production. He’s been on the hill for over 10 years, along with near neighbour Lochiel, and sees the more recent arrivals above as a good thing as they start to bring a critical mass to the area, and attract people to visit. We tried his wines – a pinot gris and viognier, a subtle gewürztraminer that wasn’t too in-your-face, as some can be, with the Turkish delight, a syrah rosé that was almost a red, with characteristic pepper and tannins, and finally his syrah. Again, all showed the essential characteristics of their grapes.
We skipped the last vineyard and headed straight to Waipu for some lunch at the Waipu café and Deli, who were fast selling out of tarts and tortillas. We sat there and finished our crossword, then drove up the remaining kms to Whangarei, our final destination for the day. We checked into the motel and walked into town, to the Town Basin, where the main “touristy” bit is, and bought a t-shirt. We checked out the clock museum, one of Whangarei’s star attractions, and booked a table for dinner at the Love Mussel.