Aucklanders don't often venture out to sample wines. Mostly we'll grab a bottle on special from the supermarket and then head home to crack it open. Often, I meet locals who haven't been out to taste wine for years, despite having three significant wine regions, numerous wine bars and a number of specialty fine wine retailers on their doorstep. It's a great way to experiment and sample wines before deciding on a purchase. Wine tasting is largely an indoor sport, so don't be put off by the weather.
5 McColl St, Newmarket, ph (09) 529 0157, open Monday to Friday 8.30am-4.30pm, Sat 9am-4.30pm.
Jean-Christophe Poizat hails from Lyon where his great-grandfather Antoine Vauron started a wine business in 1879. Eight years after moving to New Zealand, he continued the family tradition of "Negociants en Vins" (wine merchants), and established Maison Vauron in Newmarket where he sold French wine, cheeses and other gastronomic delights. His business partner Scott Gray is a New Zealand Francophile who has been in the industry since the 1990s. Their website gives you the ability to search for a vast array of French wines by producer or by region.
Tastings are run regularly in the upstairs store room surrounded by hundreds of bottles of French wines in racks. These tastings are meticulously run, usually with Jean-Christophe and Scott giving a historical and viticultural presentation on a wine region or producer, followed by wine sampling accompanied by a generous local food match. They are quite an event with large wooden tables and around 40 people sampling famous wines and French delicacies. Even at around $70 a head, booking is essential as they have limited numbers and tend to sell out very quickly.
West Brook Winery
215 Ararimu Valley Rd Kumeu (head to Kumeu on SH16, turn right at the big roundabout and follow Old North Rd through the next roundabout and through the forest, then right into Ararimu Valley Rd), ph (09) 411 9924, open Sun 11am-5pm, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 10am-5pm.
One of my favourite wineries, West Brook is a mere 25 minutes' drive from the CBD. It has picturesque grounds with mature trees leading down to a duck pond. Rows of neat vines are on the slopes beyond.
Third generation Croatian winemaker Anthony Ivicevich and his wife Susan own the operation, which produces about 35,000 cases a year. The original family vineyard was planted in Henderson in 1937, but in 1998 they relocated to the new site. Up to eight wines are available for tasting (at no charge), including award-winning riesling, sauvignon blanc, malbec and their flagship Ivicevich estate chardonnay. Once or twice a year, they host a Food, Wine & Music festival, at which picnic tables are spread out on the manicured lawns and wines sold by the glass. At other times, an all-weather picnic area, lakeside picnic tables, petanque, giant chess set and gas barbecue beckon the mellow taster and their pals.
Molten Wine Bar
424 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden, ph (09) 638 7256, open Mon-Thurs 4pm-late, Fri-Sat 3pm-late.
Molten Wine Bar offers a pleasant spot for an afternoon's social wine or a pre-dinner drink. It has a row of dimly-lit booths, bar stools, a private lounge upstairs for reservations, or a covered and heated courtyard. Friendly and knowledgeable staff are happy to answer questions regarding the comprehensive wine list. At Molten I discovered Auka Mendoza Torrontes, an indigenous Argentine wine with floral aromas and flavours of muscat, citrus, apple and pear. Around 30 wines are available by the glass at around $11 each. If you want to splash out on a bottle to share, a huge range of wines is available from New Zealand, Australia, Spain, Argentina, Italy, France and South Africa. And if you're peckish, the wine bar menu gives you a wide choice of small plates from $4, up to entree-sized meals for around $19.
Basque Kitchen Wine Bar
61-73 Davis Cres, Newmarket, ph (09) 523 1057, open Mon-Wed 4.30pm-11pm, Thurs 4.30pm-midnight, Fri noon-midnight, Sat 4.30pm-midnight.
I've been to Basque about three times and have never been disappointed. The focus is exclusively on Spanish wine and tapas-style dining. It is a modest-sized venue with just 12 small tables and a minimal decor dominated by splashes of red.
The wine list runs to 10 white wines and 22 red wines plus an array of Spanish sherries, port-style fortified wines and beers. The star of the establishment is the Maitresse D', Carol, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Spanish wines and a wicked sense of humour. She has the uncanny ability to match your Kiwi wine palate to a Spanish wine equivalent, then offer you a sample before you commit to a glass. She can skilfully lead you from fruity whites to full-bodied reds and on to sumptuous sherries. Prices are pretty reasonable. Wines starts at around $10 a glass and tapas menu items around $15.
Cable Bay Vineyards
12 Nick Johnstone Drive, Church Bay, Oneroa, ph (09) 372 5889, cellar door open 7 days from 11am to 5pm, wine bar open 7 days with lunch from noon.
Cable Bay's elegant, five-year-old structure nestles into a green hillside and provides breathtaking views over the harbour back towards the city. As well as housing the winery and renowned fine-dining restaurant, there is a wine bar and cellar door tasting room. The wide lawn in front of the winery hosts outdoor sculpture exhibitions, most recently kinetic works by Phil Price. Ownership is by a group of partners and winemaker and manager Neil Culley (ex-Babich wines).
Cellar door wine tasting is from 11am and there is a lunch option of 5-star cuisine in the restaurant (mains $45). Alternatively, the wine bar offers outdoor tables, fabulous views, a selection of wines by the glass and Greek-inspired "small plates" menu (around $10). Wines to look out for: Cable Bay Pinot Gris, viognier and chardonnay.
Villa Maria Estate
118 Montgomerie Rd, Mangere (towards Auckland Airport, turn right off George Bolt Memorial Drive, straight ahead through the next 2 roundabouts and on your left), ph (09) 255 0666, open weekends 9am-4pm, weekdays 9am-6pm. Winery tours depart from the cellar door at 11am and 3pm daily (groups by prior arrangement).
Villa Maria is New Zealand's third-largest producer. It was established in 1961 and is owned and managed by industry legend Sir George Fistonich. The new, state-of-the-art Mangere winery has sweeping green lawns, a gewurztraminer vineyard, bottling hall, administration block, an amphitheatre concert venue, a mirrored lake and large function facilities. The striking modern design exemplifies Villa Maria's winemaking ethic: clean, elegant, successful and up-to-the-minute.
Villa has been a top producer for many years and has received hundreds of awards and accolades here and overseas. Guided tastings are available, starting at $5 a head and a range of wines from the varied catalogue are on offer. The cafe has a menu ranging from platters for two from $40, a kids' menu from about $12, three-course set menu for $45, or tempting a la carte fare such as the crispy skinned pork belly starter for $18 or a main of Balinese duck for $32.50.
Brick Bay Wines
Arabella Lane, Snells Beach, Matakana, ph (09) 425 4690, open 7 days 10am-5pm.
One of the youngest wineries in the region, Brick Bay quickly established itself as an impressive must-do on a Matakana visit. It is owned by the Didsbury family who were instigators of the Matakana Farmers' Market and the Matakana Cinema. They have a small production of about 1000 cases a year from the tiny 5ha vineyard. Wines produced are pinot gris, rosé and two Bordeaux style red blends, Cabernet-dominant Martello Rock, and Pharos, a five-grape blend. A tasting fee of $5 is refunded on purchase. The most striking feature of Brick Bay is the long, spare and airy ''glasshouse'' tasting facility and office complex cantilevered over a large pond. Food is also available. A platter for two with two glasses of wine is $51. There is also wine by the glass and good coffee.
The other unique aspect of Brick Bay is the outdoor sculpture trail. A small fee includes a map and catalogue. It takes about an hour to walk through the scenic, undulating farm and vineyard grounds. Large outdoor works by leading New Zealand artists are featured and are also for sale.
67 Shortland St, Auckland City, ph (09) 379 5070, open Mon-Thurs from 4pm, Friday from noon, Saturday from 5.30pm.
The Wine Loft has become something of an institution as a venue for private functions, wine industry launches, good food and wine sampling.
At night, subdued lighting, candles, a large gas fireplace, comfy leather sofas and muted jazz produce an inviting ambience.
Dark-stained beams, wine paraphernalia and chocolate-coloured painted walls add to the relaxed atmosphere. The staff are welcoming, friendly and attentive and food arrives promptly when ordered. Their menu offers snacks, hot and cold small plates, platters to share and a choice of pizzas. We had tomato & mozzarella risotto balls ($12.50) and six fat garlic prawns ($15).
The wine list is New Zealand dominant but has a good variety of Australian, French, Italian and Spanish. And I was able to catch up with an old friend - Marc Bredif Chenin Vouvray Blanc from the Loire Valley at $14 a glass. Yum. For a serious wine sampler, Wine Loft gives you the choice of a 50ml sample glass at around $4.50 or around $12 for a standard 150ml.
Once you get home, you're probably ready for a glass of piping hot mulled wine.
One bottle of red wine. An inexpensive merlot or pinot is ideal.
¼ cup of brandy, port or Grand Marnier
About 20 cloves
4 to 5 tablespoons of soft brown sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
2 slices of fresh ginger about ½ cm thick
1 Slice the orange in two. Push the cloves into the skin (this way they don't end up floating in your glass).
2 Pour all the other ingredients into a pot or crock pot and add the orange halves. Gently warm on a low to medium heat (avoid boiling), for 20-25 minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure that the sugar has completely dissolved.
3 When the wine is steaming and the ingredients have been well blended it is ready to serve. Ladle the mulled wine into mugs (leave seasonings behind) and enjoy.
* Phil Parker is a wine writer and personal tour guide of Fine Wine & Food Tours in Auckland.