Tuesday, January 15, 2008


North Island Coast of Small Wineries and Big Pleasures

Left- The Saturday organic farmers’ market at the Matakana Village complex.

Story by Debra A Klein writing in The New York Times,January 13, 2008

VISITORS to New Zealand usually plot a trip to the South Island to taste notable wines or glimpse iconic scenery. Yet an hour north of Auckland, on the North Island, you can find an alternative wine destination, on the Matakana Wine Coast, where boutique vineyards and cafes offer specialty wines and sophisticated sustenance at the end of a drive alongside dramatic bays and through sheep-dappled hills.

Photo left by Arno Gasteiger for The New York Times shows Hyperion Wines, near Matakana.

There you’ll find not only wineries, but also an internationally known pottery studio and restaurant, a weekend market, an artisanal bakery and opportunities to explore a rural landscape that shapes and defines this understated enclave.
While Highway 1 isn’t much of a challenge, keeping your gaze on the road is. After 20 minutes, towns melt into that other New Zealand: the leafy paradise where fern trees fan out near shaggy clusters of pandanus trees and placid Hauraki Gulf waters stretch to meet a horizon of island silhouettes.
Since the 1920s, Aucklanders have escaped to this region, known as the Hibiscus Coast, but increasingly weekenders are settling in permanently. The Rodney District, as the area north of Auckland is known administratively, is the fastest growing region on the North Island, and a partly completed highway to handle the influx will eventually bypass some of the stunning coastal views. For now you can still catch a glimpse outside Orewa, a resort town turned bedroom community.

Orewa’s paved beachfront walkway fronting Whangaparaoa Bay makes for a good leg stretch, but just north of town, Hatfield Beach is slam-on-the-brakes serene. Just a five-minute drive north, you can scramble over rounded rocks and pohutukawa tree roots for a solitary amble on flat, tan sands between dramatic headlands.
Swirls of gray, blue and yellowish geothermal waters distract from steep curves into and out of the thermal-spa resort town Waiwera, meaning “hot water” in Maori, a place where centuries of warriors soaked themselves after battle by making natural hot tubs in the sand.

Today, the experience has been tamed at the Disney-like Waiwera Infinity Thermal Resort and Spa complex, where underwater sources heat the pools (21 Main Road, Waiwera; 64-9-427-8800; http://www.waiwera.co.nz/; 22 New Zealand dollars, or about $17 at 1.32 New Zealand dollars to the U.S. dollar). Beyond Waiwera, Route 1 crests, then descends into views of the Mahurangi River and headlands and Te Haupa Island.

On the left, an easy tramp among fern shadows to Pohuehue Reserve’s small waterfall will let you check “hiking in New Zealand” off the list. On the right, the first major turnoff doesn’t mention Matakana; follow the signs — and the sheep bleats — toward Leigh.
The last traffic disappears as Matakana Road bends gently through a landscape of rumpled green hills threaded with fluffy trees. Tiny signs give the names of wineries and artists’ studios. Both rely on the same underlying foundation: Matakana’s rich clay used in pottery and in the soil to grow the region’s grapes.

In the late 1980s, Matakana’s first red wine, the Antipodean, fetched high prices at auction in Europe, measuring up to the best European reds in taste tests, and a boutique industry took root. Acreage at the dozen or so wineries established since is mostly measured in single digits, their yields made into small-batch specialty wines that reflect the terroir.

With a belfry and stained glass windows, the exterior of the Ascension Vineyard (480 Matakana Road; 64-9-422-9601; http://www.ascensionvineyard.co.nz/; tastings 8 New Zealand dollars; with tour, 15 dollars) looks more like a convent than a winery. Inside, its varietals, including the Twelve Apostles (glass, 9.50 dollars ) and the Benediction (glass, 11.50 dollars) merlot-and-cabernet blends, have a nearly messianic following. These are paired at the airy, modern Oak Grill, where elaborate lamb and beef lunches start with breads and dips (26 to 39 New Zealand dollars). Save them — eating before hitting town is a rookie mistake.

Just four minutes up ahead, the modern (but made to look rustic) Matakana Village shopping complex (2 Matakana Valley Road) is ground zero for the region’s slow food movement, evident at Saturday’s popular organic farmers’ market (8 a.m. to 1 p.m.), where local musicians play as serious foodies savor organic coffees, fresh waffles, Dutch cocoa and muffins at communal tables and then haul home fresh eggs, handmade sausages and tubs of dukkah, a Middle Eastern-influenced seed and spice mix. This is no dusty-radishes Birkenstock scene. With uniform chalkboards, resort-style umbrellas and slickly packaged products, it’s more like Dean & DeLuca in a country setting.
Mingle there, or at the Vintry (64-9-423-0251; http://www.thevintry.co.nz/; tastings, 10.50 to 18 New Zealand dollars), a small upstairs tasting bar and wine education center in Matakana Village. Those thirsty for knowledge as well as wine can learn about and sample several varietals by the glass or in blind tasting flights.

At the Stubbs Village Butchery (64-9-422-9650; http://www.stubbsvillagebutchery.co.nz/), also in Matakana Village, you can browse the free-range organic chicken, Taranaki lamb and beef displays and pantry items like flavored Mahurangi Estate extra virgin olive oil (19.50 New Zealand dollars). When ready for dessert, line up for organic blueberry ice cream at the boxcar-slim tween hangout, Blue (64-9-422-7797; http://www.blue.co.nz/; cones 3.50 dollars).
In a country where every corner cafe tempts with flaky pastries and dense desserts, the Matakana Patisserie (70 Matakana Valley Road; 64-9-422-9896; http://www.matakanapatisserie.co.nz/; muffins and loaves, 3.50 to 7.50 New Zealand dollars), has won prizes for some of its breads. Behind a bland exterior you might mistake for a dry cleaner’s, racks hold cushiony yet crisp olive focaccia and the chocolate helmeted cakes the bakery modestly calls muffins.

The Brookview Teahouse (1335 Leigh Road, Matakana; 64-9-423-0390; http://www.brookviewteahouse.co.nz/), a quaint 1920s bungalow on a bend in the Matakana River, offers a bit more atmosphere: a traditional tearoom with finger sandwiches on tiered platters (10 to 18 New Zealand dollars), perched over a tableau that might include a few roosters or a resident mother duck guarding her brood. Or you can backtrack to Heron’s Flight Vineyard Cafe (49 Sharp Road, Matakana; 64-9-422-7915; http://www.heronsflight.co.nz/) to sample flavor combinations like a salad of strawberries and Te Mata blue cheese in a honey yogurt dressing (14.90 New Zealand dollars) and savor vineyard views.
Rural tranquillity comes at a price in Matakana; 5 p.m. might as well be midnight, so you must decide: shopping or tasting next.

Morris & James Pottery and Tileworks (48 Tongue Farm Road; 64-9-422-7116; http://www.morrisandjames.co.nz/; trivets, 47 New Zealand dollars; pots, 215 to 465 dollars; free daily tours at 11:30 a.m.) feels like a winery compound, from the grand entrance to the ceramics for sale in the large warehouse, their popular, understated decorative pieces in earth tones made from the local clay. Within the high walls, you can refuel at Così, a sprawling country garden courtyard cafe (64-9-422-7484; seafood chowder, 10.50 New Zealand dollars; local catch, 27 dollars) serving breads baked from scratch, chowder and fresh locally caught fish.
Roll down the windows to listen to the trees rustle during the two-minute drive down the road to the modest rural Hyperion Wines (188 Tongue Farm Road, 64-9-422-9375, http://www.hyperion-wines.co.nz/), which seems more like a private ranch. A scatter of converted rustic farm buildings and friendly owners are the opposite of the slick, almost corporate image projected on the vineyard’s labels. Grapes from their fields go into Eos pinot noir, Titan cabernet sauvignon and Gaia merlot, which has won medals in national competitions.
IF you’re with kids, head for the red barns at Matakana Country Park (1 Omaha Flats Road; 64-9-422-7437; http://www.matakanacountrypark.co.nz/), where they can pet llama-like guanacos, sheep and goats, and you can finger the wares at the Matakana Craft Co-op, or at Saturday’s other Matakana Market (8 a.m. to 1 p.m.), featuring arts and crafts and family activities.

One way to fill the stretch before dinner is to drive down to the neat, modern bachs (beach houses) scattered between a multihued estuary and two-and-a-half mile-long Omaha Beach.
Return to town for one last meal, perhaps seared salmon or oven-roasted lamb (each 29 New Zealand dollars) at the urban yet cozy Matakana Village Brasserie (2 Matakana Valley Road; 64-9-423-0383).
On the way back to Auckland, you might want to use the back roads to prolong the rural memory. Keep the day’s perishables nearby for snacking en route.


NZBookgirl said...

Well deserving of this feature though I fear Matakana will explode one weekend with so many people there. Have just had a couple of days in a friend's bach there and wish I'd seen the article first as there are a few spots we missed. Ah well, will just have to head back that way again soon.

Anonymous said...

Loved Matakana and Mathesons Bay when we passed through in December on our way North. If ever I saw a town ready to take off this is it.
it is all go there and in the surrounding areas and so much to see. Thanks Graham