Northland ought to be on everyone’s radar as a wine region worth visiting. Not only is it the cradle of New Zealand wine – boasting the heritage of being the first place to grow vines nearly two centuries ago; but the climate (‘the winterless North’) means that it’s a lovely place to spend a few days. We visited in October – when Auckland is traditionally having it’s usual awful Spring of storms, wind and hail, and the weather was glorious – sunny with clear blue skies and sparkling water all around. The region we’re focussing on here is the Bay of Islands, and is an easy enough place to get around. You’ll make it easier on yourself if you catch the ferry to and from Russell – it’s only $13.50 a trip in a car and saves you a loooong drive round. Also, if you’re staying over at one of the main centres and want to visit The Landing – they’ll whizz over in their launch and take you there and back home again. Nice.
We start our wine tour in Kerikeri, where thare a few obvious choices. Bear in mind that the town itself is definitely worth a look – I’d recommend a visit down to the Stone Store and the Kemp House if nothing else.
The Cellar Door at Ake Ake Vineyards also features one of the best known ‘winery restaurants’ in the area – certainly one of the nicest spots to spend an hour or two having lunch next to the grapevines. As you drive down the lane to the entrance, you’ll notice the vines to your left are unusually widely spaced – the area was originally planted with kiwifruit plants which need much more space than grapes! They’re the only fully certified organic vineyard in the north, and they have varietals planted that suit the climate up here – you won’t see much Flora or Chambourcin outside of this region. A lot of work is done in the vineyard, getting the grapes ripe with vine maintenance, so that the winery can focus on minimal interference – just some yeast and sulphur to guide the wine on its way.
The restaurant is excellent – we had a delicious lunch ‘vineyard platter’ that was plenty to eat for two, and had a couple of glasses of wine, to pass a very pleasant hour. I was envious of some of the food appearing on other tables – soups, salads, paella. I’d be back here any day!
The wine is very good – definitely do try their specialities – maybe a ‘Sauvignon Blanc-Vermentino’ white blend, or a ‘Skin-fermented Flora’. Tastings are $8 per person – refunded if you buy wines.
Marsden Estate at 26 Wiroa Road – just near the airport and a few minutes drive from the township was established nearly 20 years ago by Rod and Cindy MacIvor.
The restaurant here is one of the best regarded in the region, and, although casual and relaxed with a courtyard overlooking the vines and the lake, offers 5-star style cuisine – winning Excellence awards in 2018 and ‘19. On the day we visited at the beginning of Spring, there wasn’t a seat to be had. Rod makes a lot of Northland’s wines on contract from the local vineyards, but his own label “Marsden Estate” wines are showcased at the Cellar Door. As recently as 2014, their Black Rocks Chardonnay – arguably their best-known wine – won the Champion Wine of the Show at the NZIWS, which puts it in some pretty serious company.
Personally I do love this style – it’s rich and opulent, with no lack of nutty oak and texture. I don’t know if it’s the ‘modern style’, but it’s delicious! Other interesting whites from Marsden include a Fume Blanc – a wine I personally find superb drinking with food, but I’m told that the Pinot Gris is the top wine at the Cellar Door and restaurant. I can see why – it’s that off-dry style that really floats my boat – with spice, texture and honeyed apple-pear flavours.
On the reds, try the Pinotage 2019 if you can – the warm summer produced a ripe version with plush tannins and generous flavours. Of course, the other ‘must-have’ is Chambourcin! Again, the 2019 vintage is kind, and the wine is dense, concentrated, oaky and spicy. It’s a real treat.
Their website is www.marsdenestate.co.nz and I’d advise making a booking for the restaurant. Tastings are open at the Cellar Door from 10am to 5pm daily, and are a great start to your visit – you can then go for a sit in the garden with a glass of your favourite choice, or move on to a meal on the terrace. Not to be missed – if you’re passing through Northland, make this a stop.
Rogue Vine is a picturesque vineyard overlooking the Te Puna inlet north of Kerirkeri. The name comes from a particular vine that grows in the middle of the Pinot Gris vines (and is believed to be Pinot Blanc) on the 5ha property. The wines are made by Rod at Marsden Estate, and they were the only Northland wine to win medals at the 2018 NZIWS – getting a bronze for their Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. You’ll often find owners Grant and/or Raewyn at the Old Packhouse Market with a stall selling the finished product. www.roguevinevineyard.com
Another wine to look out for is from the Morepork Vineyard – this tiny (under 1ha) site is planted to just one variety – Pinot Gris. If you’re growing one thing, it’s best to do it well, and their wines have won awards for every vintage – including making Michael Cooper’s “The country’s 25 Best Pinot Gris” list for their 2017. Wines are made by (you guessed it) Rod at Marsden Estate, and mostly distributed locally. Look out for it whilst you’re shopping in the region.
Just off SH10 on the outskirts of Kerikeri is Cottle Hill winery, at 28 Cottle Hill Drive. With a Cellar Door that’s open Wednesday through to Sunday 10-5, it’s a relaxed family-run place with plenty of tables to sit and enjoy a range of their wines – and other products! They are unusual in having a reasonable range of ports, grappa and spirits as well as the more conventional Rose, Chambourcin and Chardonnay wines. Try their Dolcetto – an Italian variety with rich, earthy character. www.cottlehill.co.nz. Ph: 09 407 5203
Staying over on the Russell side of the water, there are two excellent options for anyone hankering after a winery visit. If you only have time for one, I do feel for you as it’s not an easy choice! We stayed at the rather gorgeous Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell – one of the reasons is that’s an easy place to park yourself for the evening after a day’s visits and just enjoy the good food, comfortable bar and a couple more glasses of excellent local wine – they have a great selection, and you can even do a mini ‘flight’ if you’re up for it.
The first one after you leave the car ferry from Opua (if you’ve come that way) is Omata Estate. A site of great historical significance – the original deed of purchase from the 1830s is on display in the winery. Today it’s a boutique vineyard with an emphasis on quality over quantity, with around 8000 vines of Syrah, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. The on-site Omata Kitchen provides relaxed style lunches – think pizzas, platters and cheese boards. Together with a ‘Tasting Flight’ of wines this is a great introduction to the wines from this lovely spot – again, the harbour views are delightful.
Part of the Lindis Group, Paroa Bay Winery, at 31 Otamarua Rd in Russell, is another place to add your list of ‘places to have a glass of wine with a jaw-dropping view’. Sage Restaurant is a seriously 5-star dining experience, where the outlook is as delicious as the food. Currently open every day except Mon-Tues, inspiration comes from the sea – with local fish and seafood a speciality.
The wines are excellent – we had an oaky, rich Chardonnay, plus a fresh ripe rose made from Merlot and Syrah, before knocking back a really impressive, complex Bordeaux Blend they call ‘CMC’ here. If you’re not after something to eat, I can definitely see myself easing back for an hour of wine tasting here and just drinking in the vista as well as the wines. Paroa Bay also offers accommodation – check out the website www.thelindisgroup.com/paroa-bay-winery. We only visited Sage, but the accommodation looks like the full package!
The trip up to Northland wine included a visit to one of the newest Wineries in the region at The Landing. Local winemaker Ben Byrne has been persuaded to take on the job of making the wines from this brand new building (completed in 2019), although the vineyards themselves have been carefully tended for over a dozen years now. Offering a couple of options for visits – both involving a spectacular arrival by boat from your chosen pick up point, to the private jetty at Wairoa Bay. From the beach you get whisked up the hill to the vineyard and then to the jaw-droppingly gorgeous vista from the winery terrace.
I reviewed this as possibly “the best new vineyard and tasting experience in NZ”. The Estate offers luxury accommodation for those of you who would like to stay overnight (and who wouldn’t…), and there are ‘event weekends’ of various types planned for the future. Looking at the wines – the two Chardonnays are stand-outs. Sharing a style, but with different approaches to the structure, as you might expect from two distinct labels – The Landing being the big brother to The Boathouse range of more approachable wines. Rose is also excellent, and if you are in the mood for a red, their Syrah is intense, smokey-spicy and expressive.