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Last Updated on 23/12/2020
New Zealand is a land of dramatic landscapes. Mountains push up into the clouds while flat plains stretch out for miles. You’ll find some of the wettest spots on Earth and a short distance away the ground is dry and arid. It all comes together to create surprisingly perfect conditions for growing grapes.
New Zealand wine has even started to rival the long-standing names in the industry (yes, including France!). If you’re partial to a tipple or two, adding a wine tour to your itinerary is a must. But when you’re planning to go wine tasting in New Zealand, it can be hard to decide where. You see, the problem is you almost have too much choice.
Wine country starts from Auckland at the top of the North Island and goes right down to almost the bottom of the South Island. If you’re doing a big tour of New Zealand then you can easily spend a day or two exploring some of the wineries in the north and south. However, not everyone has that kind of time.
In this post, I’m comparing a wine tour on Waiheke Island in the north with a wine tasting in the Central Otago region in the south to give you a taste of what’s in store. I’ve also included some top wine regions in New Zealand to help you decide.
Wine tasting in New Zealand: Highlights of Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island is a small island about 40 minutes by ferry from Auckland. Unlike the bustling city, the island is serene and quiet with pocket towns here and there. Among the rolling green hills and panoramic views, the island’s climate is perfect for growing grapes and olives. In fact, it feels just a touch Mediterranean (more on that later). Even if you aren’t a big wine fan, I would still recommend that you make the detour here just for the hikes, food and views.
Best Waiheke Island wineries
All the below wineries are included in the Waiheke Island Wine Day Tour itinerary. Tour itineraries may change depending on availability, budget and preferences. The tour guides are likely to ask you what wineries you like the sound of. Still, here are some of the best wineries to look out for on Waiheke Island.
Ah, Mudbrick. If I were to ever have a destination wedding then it would be here. Plenty of couples seem to agree as the waitlist is huge all year round.
Located up in the hills, Mudbrick is a dreamy winery and restaurant with sweeping views of Waiheke Island and the sea. The estate is owned by a husband and wife, Robyn and Nicholas Jones, who bought the land in 1992. In the early days, they worked in Auckland and spent the weekends planting vines. Now it’s become a destination for fine dining, fantastic wine and stunning views.
Wine varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Tempranillo as well as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Viognier. The winemakers are also passionate about sustainable winegrowing to harmonise with the environment.
Waiheke Island wineries can give you the illusion that you’re on the Mediterranean coast rather than New Zealand. Casita Miro is no exception. If the name doesn’t make you think you’ve wandered through a portal to Spain then its Gaudi inspired mosaics will.
The owners have incorporated Spanish elements into their wines, tapas restaurant and architecture. As you approach the entrance, you’ll notice a hand-built mosaic wall similar to Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona. You’ll find more mosaic architecture in the outside bar and dining area.
Casita Miro has an exquisite range of light and full-bodied wines with a variety of reds and whites. They’re also the place to be if you enjoy a Spanish brandy or two.
Okay, so it’s not all wine here. Rangihoua Estate isn’t a winery at all but one of New Zealand’s best olive oil producers. I told you it would feel like the Mediterranean. In 2013, the estate even ranked among the ‘Best 20 Extra Virgin Olive Oils in the World’ by the Italian guide, Flos Olei.
Visitors can come to Rangihoua and taste some of the estate’s award-winning extra virgin olive oils. You can learn about the olive harvest and how the team there makes such delicious oils. It’s a refreshing palate cleanser after all those wine tastings. Oh, and all their packaging is eco-friendly!
Stonyridge is a scenic winery surrounded by rolling vineyards and olive groves. It was the first stop on my Waiheke wine tour and the place we chose for lunch. The winery is most famous for its Bordeaux-style red wines. In fact, the founders took great care to find the perfect, north-facing land for the Bordeaux grapes to thrive in. Stonyridge is also known for having the first commercial olive grove in New Zealand.
Since the first vines were planted in 1982, Stonyridge has made a name for itself for producing exceptional red wines. Stonyridge Larose has been drunk by leaders and royalty across the globe. It’s also served at the Dorchester in London and Viridiana in Madrid!
Highlights of Central Otago wine tasting
Located on the South Island, Central Otago is a top wine tasting destination in New Zealand. It’s also easily accessible from Queenstown, the country’s adventure capital. So, you could go bungee jumping or skiing one day and wine tasting the next! Just, um, not all at once…
The Otago region is perhaps the best place to see New Zealand’s contrasting landscapes together. To Queenstown and the west, it’s an alpine world with a lot of rain and heavy snowfall in the winter. Across the Remarkable Mountains (yep, they’re really called that), it’s dry and arid – perfect for grapes.
If you’re a red wine connoisseur then Central Otago will be your paradise. Dark and full-bodied pinot noirs are the favourites here.
Best Central Otago wineries
All the below wineries are accessible through Queenstown Wine Trail Tour. Similar to Waiheke Island wine tours, the tour may mix and match depending on preference, lunch budget and availability. Here are some of the favourites to look out for on your trip.
Akarua has two locations. One with a restaurant and the other with a working winery. We visited the latter since wine was what we were there for. An interesting addition to the winery is its impressive wine cave deep under the vineyards.
Akarua is a fairly new winery. The first vineyards were planted in 1996 after careful scientific testing found that the area was most alike the climate and conditions of Burgundy, France. In 2002, the winery became a media sensation when their Pinot Noir won ‘Best Wine of Show’ in the Air New Zealand awards.
Akarua is passionate about the environment. They use sustainable methods throughout the winemaking process to ensure that the land continues to provide quality grapes for future generations.
Mount Difficulty Wines
Mount Difficulty Wines was our lunch spot for the day. This little winery and restaurant have gorgeous views of the surrounding hills and mountains. The winery is dedicated to producing wine that doesn’t harm the planet. It’s a member of the Sustainable Winegrowing initiative (SWNZ) which works to tackle environmental and conservation concerns.
The top wines to try are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Undeterred by a challenge, they have also experimented with Chenin Blanc and Syrah.
If you do eat here, the food is delicious, but I would recommend that you bring snacks. My only complaint is that the meal was a little on the small side for someone who’s had a few too many pinot noirs…
River Rock Estate
Few places have got it all like River Rock. The estate is a winery, luxury accommodation and spa so all your needs are met – except perhaps nourishment. The wine tasting takes place upstairs in a converted barn. Here you can try a fun mix of wine and port. You can even buy olive oil and a few jars of honey while you’re at it.
River Rock Estate wines are most distinguishable by their slightly wild labels. Scandalous, but all part of the fun. Their wines are naughty and they certainly aren’t afraid to reflect that. You can see what I mean here if you’re over 18.
Misha’s Vineyard is a sophisticated looking winery with a small and airy tasting room that overlooks Lake Dunstan. It’s a fairly new winery, with the first vines planted in 2004. Still, it’s become a bigshot in the industry and has since been named as one of New Zealand’s top 20 wine producers. Misha’s Vineyard wine is also exported to 17 countries around the world.
Naturally, the crowning glory of this vineyard is Pinot Noir, but there are other wines to try, including Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Rosé, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.
Cost comparison for Waiheke Island and Central Otago wine tours
Annoyingly, the exact tour I did on Waiheke Island isn’t currently available. However, I’ve gone for the closest one I could find in price and experience.
Waiheke Island vs Central Otago: Who Wins?
Photo credit: Jon Moore
The winner honestly comes down to preference. Do you like your wine red and full-bodied or do you prefer something a little lighter? Both Waiheke Island and Central Otago offer great wine tasting experiences and you’re bound to have a fantastic time whichever one you choose.
Central Otago does have the edge in terms of location. You’re right in the middle of the lower South Island with Queenstown and Milford Sound to the west and Kaikoura and Christchurch to the east. All of these spots should be an unmissable part of your New Zealand itinerary.
Still, if I had to choose it would be Waiheke Island. The tour was cheaper and I preferred the vineyards there. My opinion may also be a little skewed due to the weather which was glorious on Waiheke Island and cold in Central Otago (this was the middle of winter, I hasten to add).
One of my favourite memories of Waiheke Island is when I met a group of Australian women who periodically visit New Zealand’s North Island for the wine – legends!
Other top wine regions of New Zealand
Photo credit: Kym Ellis
Here’s a quick round-up of some other top wine-producing regions for your wine tasting tour of New Zealand. You may even recognise a few labels.
Marlborough is arguably New Zealand’s leading wine region. Located on the north-east tip of the South Island, the region is responsible for more than two-thirds of the country’s wine production. More than 80% of it is Sauvignon Blanc which thrives here due to the long summers and dry weather. Wine-tasters can have a brilliant time exploring up to 30 different wineries all within 10 minutes of each other.
Located on the eastern flank of the North Island, Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s second-largest wine producer. It’s also a fantastic area for fresh produce. Hawke’s Bay has a strong wine heritage. The first vineyards were planted in 1851 by French missionaries at Mission Estate. The climate was so perfect for grapes that the region didn’t look back since. Now there are more than 70 wineries dotted around the hills, all producing a wide variety of delicious wines.
Gisborne is just up the road from Hawke’s Bay so it’s ideal if you’re planning a wine touring holiday. This region is New Zealand’s third-largest wine producer with Chardonnay dominating the vineyards. You’ll also find plenty of Rieslings and Pinot Gris, but not many reds. If you’re interested in history, Gisborne was also where Captain Cook first made landfall in 1769.
Canterbury makes up a large stretch of New Zealand’s South Island. Located on the eastern side, the region counts Christchurch in its domain. It’s also shielded by the Southern Alps which means that the region enjoys a sunny, dry climate – perfect for growing grapes. Head to the Waipara Valley, a fairly new sub-region which now has 31 wineries. Foodies might want to check out Pegasus Bay, winner of New Zealand’s Best Winery Restaurant seven times!
If you’re making your way down the North Island to Wellington, don’t forget to drop by Wairarapa. This region makes up part of the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail which takes you from Hawke’s Bay through Marlborough. Here you’ll find some quality pinot noirs produced by small, family-owned wineries. You can also take a day trip from Wellington to Wairarapa.
Top tips for going wine tasting in New Zealand
Photo credit: Hermes Rivera
- Bring snacks. Seriously. Unless you’re planning to do a proper wine tasting where you don’t actually consume the wine. It’s a long day and a lot of wine!
- Budget for lunch. If your wine tour has the option to include lunch then go for it. You’ll need to pay for it separately though.
- Wear sturdy shoes – and that’s not because you’re drinking lots of wine (wink). If the weather holds you’ll likely get a chance to go on vineyard and wine cave tours.
- Bring plenty of water. You will get a chance to drink water at every winery but it’s always a good idea to keep a backup so you can stay hydrated. The tours should provide you with a complimentary bottle of water but in the interest of cutting out single-use plastic, I recommend bringing your own reusable one.
- Buy a bottle or two if one particular wine takes your fancy – if your luggage restrictions allow you. Some of the wineries you come across (particularly in Central Otago) are boutique which means you won’t find them in your average supermarket.
- You can do your own tour but I don’t recommend driving unless one of you in the group decides not to drink. Small group or private tours are much better because you don’t have to worry about alcohol intake and you’re not likely to get lost.
- The Ultimate Guide to Travelling Solo in New Zealand
- How to Spend 4 Days in Queenstown: The Perfect Itinerary
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