The Good, The Bad, The Coffee

The time has come to say goodbye to New Zealand in my blog. For the moment anyway. We had an amazing time, met wonderful people and visited fantastic vineyards. But I couldn’t fit everything into the blogs. So, for anyone planning a trip soon, here are a few more things we loved. And, er, a few things we didn’t.

Drinking Beautifully Now

We didn’t get off the the best start with the guy at The New Zealand Wine Centre in Napier.

The New Zealand Wine Centre in NapierOn clocking our UK accents, his opening gambit was “bet you’ve been enjoying lots of our Sauvignon Blanc”. But, to his credit, the snippy reply back just bounced off him and he turned out to be a bit of a gem – enthusiastic, friendly and knowledgeable. You could spend a good half-day at the centre, which is housed in a former bank replete with a heavy vault door. Apart from a decent choice of wines to taste, there are exhibitions on viticulture, vinification and wine faults, and a theatre where you can go on an interactive wine tour of the region. They get a lot of cruises calling in here apparently.  I wished we’d allowed more time for our visit.

For a small island, there are an awful lot of places to eat on Waiheke, many of them on vineyards. After much humming and haa-ing, we decided on Cable Bay Vineyards for our last lunch in New Zealand. As we weren’t flying out ’til midnight, we had time to kill. And I still can’t think of a better way to do this than lingering for four hours over lunch at Cable Bay. The restaurant, wine bar and cellar door are housed in a darkly sleek and stylish building with views of Auckland in the distance. Our French waiter was brilliant – passionate about the food and wine, and a little saucy to boot. Mr. SipSwoosh is still taking about his slow cooked beef rib and we both really liked the Cable Bay Reserve Chardonnay 2009 (which doesn’t seem to be for sale outside the restaurant) and the Five Hills blend. If you are visiting Auckland, you simply must catch the foot passenger ferry to Waiheke for a lunch here. That’s an order!

We did a lot of research to find cool places to stay which didn’t cost the earth. And on the whole, we did well. Top of the list has to be The Woolshed in Martinborough. Minimalist elegance with a comforting touch of shabby chic, including a wonderful tin shower and lived-in concrete floor in the bathroom and the “hot tub” outside – a rusting tin bath sitting on a fireplace. A schlep out of town (down the road from Murdoch James) but the best-looking place we stayed. We loved Hotel DeBrett in Auckland too, where we decompressed after the flight from the UK. Underneath the seemingly laid-back service was a highly efficient operation. I loved the comfortable bed, large, black-tiled bathroom and bold use of colours. And in the motel city of Rotorua we found The Regent with its delightful owners and staff, and monochrome Mad Men-meets-modern luxe.

Needs Time To Improve

The French Cafe is considered by many to be the best place to eat in Auckland. And the food is good. But they need to look at the overall experience. The service was ruthlessly efficient to the point of making us feel like we were on a conveyor belt. Human interaction between waiter and diner was virtually nil once the rehearsed lines about each dish and each wine had been delivered. Example: we were served a glass of Neudorf’s Tom’s Block Pinot Noir for one course of our tasting menu. “We’re thinking of going there tomorrow,” we said to our waiter. The reaction? Silence.

The Martinborough Wine Centre is well stocked and has a nice cafe attached. But when it came to tasting local wines, it was hardly a showcase, especially when many vineyards close their cellar doors on weekdays. One wine from Escarpment and the rest from the “winery of the month” Te Hera Estate. I was told that “no one in New Zealand puts Sauvignon Blanc in oak”  (Herzog anyone?) although, to be fair, the guy at the centre did know his stuff about the local produce.

Frosty is the only word I can think of to describe our “welcome” at Te Whau Vineyard on Waiheke. As we sat at the intimate bar, the woman in charge gracelessly slapped down a laminated sheet explaining the vineyard’s history. Tasting was $9 for three flights of its flagship The Point blend, so we could compare 2006 with 2007 and 2008, which was a neat idea. No chance of trying the  revered Chardonnay. But, where you’d normally expect some enthusiastic chat from vineyard staff about the wines, there was nothing. Zilch. Nada. Had they had a busy lunchtime? I enquired. Not especially, I was informed. Maybe something had happened or someone was having a bad day. Whatever. Just don’t take it out on the customers. And if you do, you are in the wrong business.

Cup of New Zealand coffee with fern stencil in chocolate powderAnd finally – a word on the coffee. I know it’s probably sacrilege to say this but… what is all the fuss about? Good, undoubtedly, though often too mocha-y for my taste and made waaaaay too strong (even for someone partial to a post-prandial espresso). Sorry Kiwis, but give me Aussie-made coffee any day.

Do you think I’ll be let back into drink New Zealand wine ever again?

* Plans trip to Allpress Espresso in Shoreditch for some re-education *

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