Under painfully blue skies and across the turquoise waters of the Hauraki Gulf on a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland, it's hard to believe you're approaching wine country as the rolling hills of Waiheke Island fill your view. But climb off the ferry in the small cove dotted with lolling sailboats, and wind your way over the hill through the little village with no stoplights, and soon enough, you'll see a vineyard.
Continue down the road a ways after a left hand turn and past the place where the pavement runs out permanently, and other than sheep paddocks, stands of windswept trees, and boulder strewn ridge tops, vineyards will be most of what you see. That is, if you can take your eyes off the stunning coastline of this little island nestled up close, but a world away from New Zealand's most populous city.
12 miles long and offering about 36 square miles of surface area, Waiheke is home to about eight thousand residents, most of whom commute to Auckland every day for work. Even though it is 11 miles from Auckland, the island is two degrees Centigrade hotter on average, and receives significantly less rainfall. Buffetted by fairly constant south-westerly dry winds from around the gulf, and offering a range of nutrient poor soils of volcanic origin, Waiheke turns out to be a tiny paradise for growing grapes.
And like many of the world's best wine regions, the word "paradise" really means that it's sometimes possible to get fantastic fruit by working your tail off in a year when everything goes right. The wind, the unpredictable autumn weather, and the poor soils, not to mention the difficulty of getting water anywhere, all make for low yields and challenging viticulture in the best of vintages. And then you've got the landscape itself, with flat spots few and far between. As opposed to many other places in New Zealand, wine growing here is hillside viticulture at its finest.
All but one of the island's 23 wineries and their vineyards are to be found around the northwestern and central part of the island. There is only one winery in the far eastern part of the island, but that is because pretty much the entirety of the island's eastern peninsula, as well as the winery itself, are owned by the Spencer family.
A notoriously publicity-shy family descended from and heirs to one of New Zealand's first paper magnates, the current few generations of the Spencers grew up sailing the waters of the Hauraki Gulf and exploring the beaches of Waiheke island, which remained quite unpopulated even through the 1970s.
In the early 1980s a number of parcels of land came up for sale on the island's northern arm, and Berridge Spencer snapped them up. The five parcels the family purchased amount to about 4500 acres.
When Spencer bought the land that curves around the Man O'War Bay, the idea of growing wine on the island hadn't occurred to anyone. But not long afterwards, the Goldwater family put in the first vines on the eastern part of the island. And perhaps having tired of planting thousands of native trees on his acreage to help reclaim it from the sheep paddocks it once was, Spencer and his son John decided they would plant some grapes.
And it is at this point that the story of what would become known as Man O'War Vineyards stops really being about the Spencers (by their design, and apparently much to their relief) and starts being about two guys: Matt Allen and Duncan McTavish.
Matt Allen grew up on his family's farm in Gisborne and seemed destined to work with growing things from day one. He cultivated an early interest in horticulture, and left school as soon as he could to make his living in it. A series of well seized opportunities and a couple of years later found Allen responsible for 30 acres of grapes at the tender age of 17. Within a few more years, Allen had successfully managed one of New Zealand's most extensive vine grafting programs to date, and was looking around for what to do next, when he spotted an ad in the newspaper searching for someone with grafting experience to help expand a vineyard on Waiheke island.
"I came up to check it out and looked at these hillsides, and I had never seen anything like it," recalls Allen. "I fell in love with it instantly."
Finding someone with extensive vine grafting experience at that point wasn't easy. "I had great references," says Allen, "But finding someone to not only graft a vineyard for you, but be willing to hang around and help you develop it was going to be tough. I'd like to think I beat out 50 other applicants, but I doubt it."
Allen got his hands on Waiheke vines in 1993, and has spent every working day of his career since learning how to make them sing in the unique terroir that is Waiheke island. From an initial block of 4 acres that Spencer planted with help from his friends the Goldwaters, Allen has grown the vineyard holdings to more than 150 acres spread across a remarkable patchwork of 76 different sites on the island. In most cases, these sites consist of a mere acre of dry-farmed grapes, neatly arranged across a small v-shaped hillside, between two rows of trees that serve as windbreaks. Allen has also planted a few acres on neighboring Ponui island. With a resident population of eight people, the island may be the only winegrowing region in the world where the harvest is dictated by the tides required to float the barges that carry the grapes back to the winery on Waiheke.
Compared to almost the entirety of New Zealand's wine regions which are made up of generally flat and often much larger swaths of vineyards, Allen's viticulture takes on the character of bonsai gardening. His 20 years of working the estate have included as much ripping out and replanting as they have new vineyard development.
"These days, we're to the point where it's really more about tweaking vineyards than pulling things out," says Allen, who speaks with pride about his relentless efforts to understand his vineyard sites and improve grape quality. "We've made a conscious decision to climb the ladder," he says.
Between 1996 and 2004, the estate grew its plantings and made wine under the label Stony Batter, which was named after a unique ridge on the property that features both the geologic oddities of huge volcanic boulders and a complex series of historic gun emplacements and tunnels from World War II.
In 2005, the Spencer family got as serious about marketing as they were about wine growing, and launched the Man O'War brand. They also built a stunning little tasting room ten steps off the beach at Man O'War bay, which apparently is New Zealand's first sail-up/row-up/swim-up cellar door facility.
In 2008, the family also hired Duncan McTavish to be their winemaker. After what he himself characterizes as something of an "average" performance studying winemaking academically at Lincoln University, McTavish globe-trotted from hemisphere to hemisphere making wine before landing at the acclaimed Pegasus Bay winery where he suggests his training as a winemaker truly began. "No one had really asked me to justify what I thought about wine until that point," says McTavish. "That's when I really started understanding things."
After spending four years at Pegasus Bay, he left to start his own label, Waipara Springs, which he describes as "one big viticultural experiment," and a good couple of years of pushing his own boundaries before getting the opportunity to join Man O'War.
McTavish confidently practices quite traditional winemaking in a country that isn't always comfortable relinquishing the kind of control that such an approach requires. He ferments wines almost exclusively with native yeasts. "Frankly I get more nervous adding yeast than I do letting it go wild," he admits, saying he has no problem proceeding through malolactic fermentations and getting wines to ferment dry even if they end up with 15% alcohol. "Those fucking labs should come out here and culture me up, and then they'd really have some yeast to work with," he exclaims with what I have quickly come to learn is his characteristic brashness.
Some of his wines see no sulfur addition until bottling, including the sparkling wine he recently began making in the traditional bottle fermented fashion, and he does almost no fining or filtration. McTavish is also beginning to experiment with some whole cluster fermentation of Syrah, something which most New Zealand winemakers suggest is impossible because "the stems never really get ripe" (McTavish begs to differ).
"We do add some acid to our Syrahs," he admits without hesitation, "but Matt and I are working on it and the vineyards are getting into more balance. I don't think we'll be adding a thing after 2015." As you might expect, McTavish limits the use of new oak judiciously, usually keeping it below 20%.
Allen and McTavish seem to have forged a warm and easy partnership, in part thanks to their obvious mutual passion for one of the world's most unique wine regions. More importantly, the wines display the results of this partnership clearly -- Allen's meticulous and unwavering dedication to his vineyard sites expressed through McTavish's deft and subtle winemaking.
Tasting the Man O'War wines offers a unique window into both the past and the future of this winery. Allen has clearly learned an incredible amount in the last 20 years ("Yeah, like don't plant Syrah on the flatter clay soils," he laughs) and McTavish seems to be on a path to that same level of understanding. A taste of his 2012 partially whole cluster fermented Syrah sent an excited shiver down my spine.
The estate's portfolio of wines is consistently of very high quality, and some wines are beginning to reach towards stellar. Give these two guys another 20 years, and I predict you'll really see some amazing wines under this label. Especially since they're already making one of the better Syrahs in the country, and the single best blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon I've had from New Zealand.
Needless to say, I highly recommend the wines, especially if you can sail your way into Man O'War Bay, and then row your little dinghy up to their front porch for a glass or two on a sunny December morning.
2009 Man O'War Vineyards "Tulia Sparkling Wine" Chardonnay, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Medium yellow-gold in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of butter crackers and ripe apples. In the mouth the wine is quite appley with pears and notes of lemon curd. A hint of sweetness is a nice counterpoint to a mineral and sea air note. Tangy lemony finish. 11.6% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $34.
2009 Man O'War Vineyards "The Gravestone" White Blend, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Pale blonde in color, this wine smells of wet stones and lemon zest with a hint of unripe pear. In the mouth, the wine has a wonderfully bright and juicy lemon zest and pink grapefruit quality with this underlying electric wet stone quality. Made of 70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon, the wine smells and tastes mostly of the Sav Blanc, but there's this chalky note that hangs in the finish. Fantastic. 13% alcohol. 2500 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $27.
2010 Man O'War Vineyards "Valhalla" Chardonnay, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and salty buttered popcorn. In the mouth juicy lemon curd and buttered sourdough toast has a wonderful saline quality to it with notes of grapefruit. Beautiful toasted sourdough quality lingers through the finish with sea air and a hint of green olive. Fantastic acidity, and quite delicious. Whole bunch pressed, 20% new oak, no malolactic fermentation. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $29. click to buy.
2012 Man O'War Vineyards "Exiled" Pinot Gris, Ponui Island, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and unripe pears and over time, pure notes of clover honey. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful cool stony quality and a pretty floral sweetness that is quite compelling. Pear and a hint of pear skin tannic structure linger in the finish. Excellent acidity. Off dry. Comes from Ponui island, a tiny, mostly uninhabited island off the coast of Auckland. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $18.
2009 Man O'War Vineyards "Ironclad" Bordeaux Blend, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and wet black tea. In the mouth, earthy tobacco and cocoa powder flavors mix with black cherry and licorice notes. Earthy and cedar notes linger in the finish with a hint of violets. 25% new oak and plush tannins. A blend of 34.4% Cabernet Franc, 31.4% Merlot, 22.4% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot and 4.8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2010 Man O'War Vineyards "Ironclad" Bordeaux Blend, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of wet earth, cherry, and just the hint of green herbs and green bell pepper. In the mouth, the wine is classically styled, with beautiful cherry and tobacco notes mixed with cigar box and dried herbs, with black licorice and black tea strongly on the finish. Leathery tannins and good acidity. A blend of 39% Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec, and 6% Petit Verdot. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40.
2010 Man O'War Vineyards "Dreadnought" Syrah, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet rocks, black pepper, and blackberry compote. In the mouth, the wine has a surprising saline quality, like some European salted licorice treats, mixed with a deep wet dirt and stone quality. A sweet cassis note lingers in the finish. Beautiful, lean, balanced, and quite compelling. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30.
2009 Man O'War Vineyards "Dreadnought" Syrah, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black pepper and cassis. In the mouth black pepper and blackberry fruit mix with wet dirt and beautiful floral black tea qualities that are really compelling, especially when combined with a hint of gaminess. Beautifully balanced, with suede-like tannins. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.
2010 Man O'War Vineyards "Warspite" Bordeaux Blend, Ponui Island, New Zealand
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cola, with notes of tobacco. In the mouth, flavors of cola nut and cedar mix with cocoa powder and black cherry fruit. The oak (only 17% new) is quite well integrated with the wine's cola flavors, and lends power but not much flavor to the wine's considerable alcoholic presence in the mouth. The tiniest bit of heat lingers on the finish. A blend of 61.5% Cabernet Franc, 23.2% Merlot, and 15.3% Malbec. 14.5% alcohol. Grown on Ponui island. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $28.
2012 Man O'War Vineyards "Valkyrie" Viognier, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of peaches and apricots with hints of nuttiness. In the mouth the wine has excellent acidity and the pungent apricot and peach flavors you expect with Viognier, coupled to a wet stone and cashew quality. Silky weight on the palate, with the tiniest of tannic grips. Lovely citrus and peach flavor on the finish that leans slightly bitter and a hint of saltiness at the very end. 15% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25.
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