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Making wine, Polynesian style


    The Maori god Rongo, protector of crops, presides over the vineyard, left. Above, the Whenua Matua vineyard, located on New Zealand’s South Island near Nelson, is the only Maori-owned wine-making establishment in Aotearoa.

A trip to New Zealand wine country should be on any bucket list

Walk into any purveyor of wine in Honolulu, whether it’s Tamura’s, Fujioka or Costco, you’ll find a selection of New Zealand products. They are priced reasonably and go well with our local cuisine and climate.

New Zealand wines have risen in stature recently and I decided it was high time to go to the source.

For senior travelers, a wine tasting foray to New Zealand is a no-brainer. There are direct flights from from Honolulu, local transportation is excellent, the country is safe, and the locals are friendly.


New Zealand Vintage Wine Tours

>> Where: Nelson, South Island

>> Cost: $133, including lunch

>> Phone: (+64) 027- 265-2244

>> Email:

>> On the Net:

There are several wine destinations in Aotearoa (the Maori name for the country), but I chose to visit the Tasman region on South Island.

According to Rod Malcolm, founder of Vintage Wine Tours (who deftly guided us around), the top three wines in the area are pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay. Hawaii visitors will no doubt appreciate the strong link to the indigenous Maoris, some of whom grow best wine grapes in the country, I discovered.

My traveling companion, a retired journalist from Tahiti, decided the best way to taste the fruit of the vine was to let someone else transport us.

Taking the tour

Malcolm picked us up in his van at around noon in Nelson, the largest town in the area.

We visited five properties that day, but the highlight was the Whenua Matua vineyard, located in the Moutere Hills region. This is where grapes for the Aronui brand are grown. Whenua Matua translates from Maori as “significant land” and has the distinction of being located on ancestral land.

It’s the only Maori-owned vineyard and winery in New Zealand.

Malcolm pulled up a gravel road, parked the van and produced a refrigerated bag packed with half a dozen bottles of Aronui wine, which he placed on a picnic table in the vineyard. Our venue afforded spectacular views of the craggy hills in Kahurangi National Park, including Mt. Pukeone.

At the edge of the vineyard, Rongo, the kaitiaki or guardian of this land, surveys the vineyard. The patron deity of agriculture, the four-foot-tall tiki symbolically helps the crops to flourish and bear fruit abundantly.

Not only does Rongo protect the grapes but it seems to have enhanced the final product. The wine we tasted from this vineyard was superb.

The first bottle was an albarino, a fruity grape from the Iberian Peninsula. (In Portugal, it is the same grape that ends up as vino verde). We give the Aronui (2015) version a thumb’s up. Other wines we enjoyed were the pinot gris (2016) and the chardonnay (2014).

Let the locals drive

Even if you’re young at heart, there is no way an outsider could have navigated the highways and byways of Nelson wine country, even if sober. Having a local at the wheel was worth every cent.

Malcolm made it easy to appreciate the tour by providing both a primer on local history and culture as well as wine lore.

We visited primarily small acreage, family-owned boutique wineries such as Kina Beach Vineyards, Kina Cliffs (owned by a Swiss family) and Rimu Grove, operated by Napa Valley native Patrick Stowe.

Our final stop on an afternoon of epic wine tasting was at the restaurant Cellar Door, which served us wines from Waimea Estates. Shaded by trees, in true New Zealand style, it was unpretentious and friendly.

What impressed me about this tour was the personal attention, not only from Rod, but the hospitality showered on us from the locals. Unlike Napa or Sonoma, where throngs of tourists pack the wineries and Mercedes rule the roads, New Zealand wine country is much less populated by visitors.

The wine industry is still new and brimming with entrepreneurial and national pride. Kiwi viticulture enthusiasm is infectious. And, you can wash down the wine with great local cheese.

Rob Kay is author of Lonely Planet travel guides and writes about travel and healthy aging in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. He can be reached at

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