West Auckland's wines are produced close to the city but their origins are a world away, writes Maggie Wicks
Dalmatian history is everywhere in West Auckland. You can see it as you drive. As central Auckland falls away, it gives way to suburbs, then motorways, then the low-lying industry of car yards and forklift hires. Finally, the paddocks and tractors and fruit trees of the countryside, only 25 minutes from town.
As the landscape changes, so does the language. Viksich. Vitasovich. Yukich and Fistonich. The history is written directly on to the street signs and the businesses.
And then there is wine. Award-winning, experimental, modern and traditional. It's all here.
Kumeu is one of New Zealand's most historic wine regions. Babich, one of the region's best-known wineries, has been producing wine for 100 years. Josip Babich was just 14 years old when he left his home in Dalmatia, and set sail for New Zealand. He was alone - he never saw his parents again. He was here to dig kauri gum with his four brothers - he ended up establishing one of New Zealand's most historic vineyards.
Down the road at Kumeu River, history is in the making. The Brajkovich family left Croatia for New Zealand in the 1930s, and have gone on to be internationally recognised as setting a benchmark for non-Burgundy chardonnays.
A world-leading chardonnay
In 2014, a very special blind tasting took place. London wine distributors Farr Vintners brought together a room of world-leading wine experts, critics and writers. Each of Kumeu River's four chardonnays were tasted against white burgundies (chardonnay grown and produced in the French region of Burgundy) from the finest French producers. And the result? Kumeu triumphed over the top white burgundies in every category except one - where it came first-equal.
Kumeu River was started by Mate and Melba Brajkovich, and the company is now run by their four children. Between them there is a Master of Wine, a hospitality expert, a chemical engineer and a marketing professional - they really couldn't have planned it better.
Rather than pitch into the juice with commercially cultivated yeast, they use a natural fermentation, leaving it to the ravages of the wild yeasts in the atmosphere. The result is nothing short of gorgeous. This August they'll release the 2019 Hunting Hill chardonnay, which they say it's their best ever - do not miss out.
This is beautiful country to drive through, but you may not recognise any of it past Swanson, which is the last passenger stop on the line. These days the lines further out carry only stock, no passengers, which is a crying shame. A train would be a handy and safe way to get home after a day of wine tasting.
In the Ararimu Valley, Westbrook is named after an old station, between Waikomiti and Glen Eden, which closed in the 80s. The winery was owned by the Ivisovich family for 85 years, until they sold to another local family just a few years ago. Here they offer not just a wine tasting, but an education in wine and food matching.
An education in wine pairing
Order the cheese and wine platter, and you'll find a surprise on there - an outstanding bad match, which the server will delight in watching you discover for yourself. It's a great lesson, and they'll make sure you end on something delicious.
As you drive through Kumeu, you'll realise that they're experimental out here. Whereas Marlborough specialises in sauvignon blanc, in Kumeu they're always testing and adjusting, trying new grapes, old grapes, fashionable styles and unheard of ones. Albarino is popular at the moment - it's the chardonnay drinker's sauv, and you'll find it at many of the Kumeu cellar doors.
At the Hunting Lodge you'll find an orange wine, a love-it or loathe-it drip that is fermented with the skins on. They've most recently released the Chardy Jack - bourbon-barrel-fermented chardonnay that could have happily come home with me.
An historic Auckland homestead
Once a private country estate, the historic 19th-century lodge has been hosting Aucklanders' boozy lunches for five decades. This is also the site of New Zealand's first sauvignon blanc. Now, more than 70 per cent of wine produced in New Zealand is sauv, and the Hunting Lodge still bottles its Homeblock sauvignon from 40-year-old vines.
At the lodge, guests can choose a pizza to nibble at the lawn bar, play petanque in the family area, visit the cellar door for a tasting (free if you buy a bottle), or take a table in the airy all-white conservatory, where the windows run from floor to ceiling.
The restaurant has taken chef Des Harris from Clooney and put him in charge of this beautiful dining area, where he works with a permaculturalist to create a sustainable farm-to-table experience.
We entered starving, we left stuffed. There was homegrown roasted beetroot served with ricotta and huge wedges of focaccia, a painterly pumpkin soup splattered with oils and petals and seeds, followed by lamb shoulder with fricelli pasta. After that, passionfruit and rosemary jellies with salted caramel fudge, and finally a glass of amaretto on ice appeared. Monsieur, it is only wafer thin…
Sated, satisfied, and a bit fuzzy around the edges, we walked out into the cold night, where a taxi was waiting. It was a dreamy 35 minutes back to Auckland along the dark and empty roads. An easy end to an easy, and excellent, day out.
Where to visit on a wine tour of Kumeu
Where to go
For a history lesson and great hospitality, plus the terrace is the perfect place on a sunny day.
Soljan's was established in 1937 by Bartul Soljan, and is one of the oldest wineries in the country. It remains a proud family-owned and operated vineyard, and visitors can take a tour with a member of the family. Visit the cellar door for a wine flight, from the sparkling moscato to the tawny port, then stay for lunch.
A cellar door only. Stop by for a tasting of those famous chardonnays, and to learn about the history of this family-run business.
A friendly cosy atmosphere by the fireside in winter, and gigs and picnics on the lawn in summer.
Beautiful dining area overlooking manicured lawns. Explore the grounds and experience the wine and cheese pairing.
The Hunting Lodge
The perfect place to finish, from pizza to fine dining, and some unique bottlings.
How to do it
It's a only short drive, but if everyone wants to wine taste, arrange a driver.
Both NZ Wine Pro (nzwinepro.co.nz) and Fine Wine Tours (finewinetours.co.nz) offer door-to-door service with an expert on hand to introduce you to the history, the winemakers and the wines you taste, plus lunch included.