Waiheke: Vineyards to treasure

By Peter Calder

Stonyridge is a destination to be treasured. Photo / Supplied
Stonyridge is a destination to be treasured. Photo / Supplied

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, is frequently reported to have said that "beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy". There's even a T-shirt.

It's a sentiment that befits a newspaperman, which is one of the many strings Franklin had to his bow, but the problem is that there's no evidence that he ever said it. In a letter to French philosopher Andre Morellet in 1779, when Franklin was the US Ambassador in Paris, the American was singing the praises not of beer, but of wine - and rainfall:

"Behold the rain," he wrote, "which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy."

I'm not sure what particular vintage prompted his enthusiasm, though the American mission in Paris would presumably have had room for a decent cellar. But it's safe to say that a glass of Stonyridge Larose 2010 would have confirmed his conviction. I know because I had one with my fillet of beef at the cafe at the vineyard and it made me very happy indeed.

The big cabernet-dominant Bordeaux-style red - $15 a taste, $46 a glass - is the flagship wine of Waiheke's Stonyridge Vineyard and one of the country's truly great wines. There are plenty of other options by the glass ($8 to $18) and bottle ($29 to $90) but after making the trip to eat at the Ostend vineyard where the Larose was born, I had to try it. Not being much enamoured of the strained phraseology of wine appreciation, I will spare you the details, but it is not too much to say the experience was sublime.

Stonyridge was the third and last stop on a two-day eating and drinking tour of Waiheke in November. Every time I go there, I am astonished and delighted anew at how lucky we are to have this jewel of an island right on Auckland's doorstep. A new vehicle ferry service from Wynyard Wharf offers an alternative to the long slog to Half Moon Bay for people who don't already live in the east. And the island becomes a different proposition when you have your own transport.

But I have had an unhappy history of dining on Waiheke. With the exception of the restaurant at Cable Bay Vineyard, which has twice impressed with its understated brilliance, everywhere I have tried has overcharged or underdelivered or both; and some food has been frankly dreadful. Would this be a weekend to change my mind?

The long sweeping driveway leading to Stonyridge ends at a croquet lawn (the island's croquet and petanque clubs pay a peppercorn rental for space and lend the place a sprinkle of what the French call je ne sais quoi). The cafe is out the back, on a verandah shaded by grapevines (though it would be sensible to bring sunblock or a hat) and with a view of the gentle north-facing slope in the lee of the rock-faced bluff that gives the place its name.

Armed with glasses of riesling and sauvignon blanc from the vineyard's Fallen Angel label (applied to wines made off the island), we enjoyed the atmosphere of a space sufficiently alfresco to dampen the Christmas party mating call of the Greater Crested Middle Manager.

The food at Stonyridge is very good indeed without ever being remarkable: chef Koji Kininami, the website seems to suggest, has cooked for Hugh Hefner and Paris Hilton, two people whose taste in other matters does not suggest to me that their taste in food is to be admired. But Kininami gives a good account of a pan-Med cuisine with Asian grace notes: beef carpaccio with Vietnamese mint; eggplant terrine and goat's curd; lamb rump with a salad of poached raisins and olives.

The menu ought perhaps to have mentioned that the tuna in the "sashimi of the day" had been beetroot-cured, which made it another dish altogether: the meaty taste of the tuna was missing in action but the accompaniments (jalapeno, ginger, coriander) and Asian dressing worked superbly. And the Professor had no complaints about some cured salmon which used orange and star anise to good effect, though she thought the eggplant terrine, which was more a tart really, was routine and would have been better warm.

There was nothing routine about lunch the day before at Casita Miro. This vineyard restaurant on the north-facing slope high above Onetangi Beach has a spectacular view. It used to be housed in a marquee and the high-ceilinged barn-like structure that has replaced it maintains that open aspect with huge movable panes of glass that can be slid down with counterweights to make for virtually outdoor dining.

Beyond the door - an import from colonial-era Saigon, which, I suspect, could tell a story or two - proprietor Cat Vosper presides from a slightly elevated position where she can spot new arrivals and diners' needs. It's not hard to see why she often features in "personality of the year" categories in industry awards: her blend of brisk efficiency and unforced friendliness is perfectly pitched.

So too is chef Justin Scheihing's food, which gives vigorously original life to the tapas and raciones, adding French and Moroccan standards as well. The menu we were offered - which, reassuringly, had the date on the top, a good idea even if it's the same as yesterday's - ran from roasted olives through to tagine of lamb (which came in the regulation conical oven dish). And everywhere Scheihing's original flair was on display.

The caponata - a fabulous sweet-and-sour eggplant stew that is one of the many culinary glories of Sicily - added to the classic recipe capsicum and celery (for crunch) and anchovies and pinenuts (which provided dense, oily base notes). To be honest I would have been happy to lunch on a couple of bowls of this beauty but professional duty demanded a more expansive approach.

The burrata (a crumbed and fried fist-size ball of mozzarella with a mozzarella and cream centre) was my first acquaintance with the work of Massimo Lubisco at Italian Cheeses in Mt Albert, who makes classics from cow's (not buffalo) milk. I fancy it will not be my last.

The same crumbed shell was on the torchon de tete, a Provencal dish of diced roast pork formed into rissoles like a meltingly soft galantine and served with mustard. Our final dish, a potato souffle cheesed up with Whitestone blue, had a texture barely firmer than whipped cream. Both dishes made me glad that it was still wintry and blowing a gale outside; now that summer's here, comfort food will be off the menu for a while.

I was glad I tried the Madame Rouge, a fortified-wine aperitif, deep red and sweet, which worked well as a digestif, too. We left deeply content and very impressed. I may have eaten a lunch as good as this in New Zealand, but I've certainly never had a better one.

After a one-hour boat trip, the ferry disgorged the Corolla on to dry land at the Viaduct. It seemed distinctly strange to be back in the city, but marvellous that a little slice of Tuscany is so close at hand.

Casita Miro
Miro Vineyard
3 Brown Road, Onetangi
Ph 09 372 7854

Veranda Cafe
Stonyridge Vineyard
80 Onetangi Road
Ph 09 372 8822

- Herald on Sunday

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