Waiheke Island is located in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand, about 18km and some 35 minutes by ferry from downtown Auckland. Waiheke is the second-largest island in the gulf, after Great Barrier Island, though easily the most populated, with some 8,750 permanent residents plus an estimated 3,400 who have holiday homes on the island.
In the 1950s Waiheke saw its first attempts at winemaking, with the Gradiska family producing what has been described as a fiercely aggressive fortified beverage from hybrid vines planted at Ostend on the island. Kim and Jeanette Goldwater were the first pioneers to introduce vitis vinifera grape vines onto Waiheke in 1977 and then moving permanently to live on the island in 1983.
They were followed by Stephen White at Stonyridge Vineyards founded in 1981 in the Onetangi Valley. Specializing in Bordeaux-style reds, with the island's and possibly the country’s most famous red wine Stonyridge Larose. Then quickly followed by the Hamiltons at Peninsula Estate in 1984, then the Dunleavy family planted their Te Motu Vineyard, and Barry and Meg Fenton set up Fenton Estate.
Waiheke Island has an area of just 92 square km’s and a coastline of 133.5 km’s; with its proximity of the surrounding ocean having a key influence on the climate for viticulture, with a total planted area of just 216 hectares divided among 22 wineries focused on sustainable vineyard practices and a small handful of grape growers.
Waiheke Island’s climate is strongly influenced by the surrounding sea; the island is partially protected from the prevailing colder, wetter west and southwest winds, making it both drier and warmer than the Auckland isthmus. The suitability of the island’s climate for the growing of classic Rhone Valley varietals has quickly been recognised by growers, some selectively moving away from Cabernet Sauvignon as their core varietal. Though Cabernet blends are the prominent varietals for Waiheke with the majority of vineyards growing in success with them. Recently a surge in new planting has been in affect reflecting the desire of some winegrowers to expand their cellar door range and meet the changing atmosphere for new varietals.
The ocean acts as both a fan and an insulator, with sea breezes moderating rising temperatures in mid-summer. The ocean moderates falling temperatures at night, these moderate temperatures extend longer into the early autumn ripening period of March and April, allowing later varieties to ripen fully. Along with the dynamic climate being a key element, so is the unique terroir that defines this dramatic wine-growing region and makes each one on the island so appealing.
Waiheke can grow and ripen a wider range of grape varieties than other regions because of its long, mild season and the significant variations in vineyard site orientation and soil structure. The picturesque island location of Waiheke both defines its boundaries and contributes to its unique terroir. The warm, dry maritime climate promotes intensity, varietal depth and purity of fruit. Long renowned for its exciting Bordeaux-blends, Syrah is a rising star, fresh, elegant and silky, though a range of other varieties from Montepulciano to Tempranillo, Chardonnay to Viognier also do well.
The Waiheke wine region produces critically acclaimed artisan wines, they are a red wine predominant region with 57% of all wine produced on Waiheke Island being red varietals, the most widely planted being Merlot 19% and Syrah 18%. Though there has been an increase in the white varietals in recent years with Chardonnay 16%, Sauvignon Blanc 12% and Pinot Gris 10% at this time.
Today, winegrowing and tourism are the principal drivers of the island’s economy, with Waiheke attracting up to 800,000 visitors a year and providing the main economic driver for the island’s permanent residents. In the summer months, when the vines are have a full canopy, the resident population swells to 40,000 and the local cafes, restaurants and art galleries do a roaring trade.