Man O'War   
Visiting this stunning wine estate on New Zealand's Waiheke island


I’d tasted the Man O’War wines a few times before, and pleasantly surprised by their quality, and in particular the two Syrahs, which were just superb. How come I hadn’t heard of them earlier? And why hadn’t I visited Waiheke Island, which is just a short (10 miles, 35 minutes) ferry trip from downtown Auckland? It’s clearly a great place to grow wine grapes.

So on my recent trip to New Zealand, I decided to make amends. I still love the way that, when you write about wine, you have unconscious expectations about what a wine region that you haven’t visited actually looks like. You get these expectations from tasting the wines, from reading about them, from seeing the odd picture of vineyards. But inevitably the reality is different from the expectation. This was true of Waiheke.

I headed down to Waiheke with my buddy Andrew, an Auckland resident. We grabbed a coffee, got on the ferry and headed for the top deck. It was a beautiful winter day, and though the journey was a bit windy, we enjoyed some lovely views of Auckland. Before long we were in Waiheke, where we were picked up by Man O’War’s viticultural manager Matt Allen (below).

First impressions were that Waiheke was bigger than I was expecting it to be, and far prettier. Clothed in winter green, with a rugged coastline punctuated by sandy bays, it reminded me a bit of Cornwall.

Man O’War isn’t just a vineyard. It’s a series of 90 different pockets of vineyard, with these plots spread across the eastern end of the island. It’s owned by the Spencer family – one of New Zealand’s wealthiest (and who made their money from paper, apparently; they are quite private, although there is a recent article on them in The New Zealand Herald here) – who own the entire eastern third of the island. That’s around 4500 acres (1821 hectares), of which 150 acres (60 ha) are planted with vines.  

The Spencer family have owned this chunk of the island for 30 years, and have been good stewards, returning a significant portion of it to native bush, and planting lots of native trees. The first vines were planted on the property in 1993, but the bulk of the vines went into the ground 2002–2006.

The varietal breakdown at Waiheke is:

  • Bordeaux blends – 43 vineyards, 61 acres

  • Sauvignon Blanc – 15 vineyards, 33 acres

  • Chardonnay – 15 vineyards, 35 acres

  • Syrah – 7 vineyards, 12 acres

As well as Waiheke Island, Man O’War also takes a few grapes from neighbouring (and much smaller, at 1500 acres) Ponui Island. 14 acres (4 vineyards) here are planted with vines, yielding 30 tons of Pinot Gris which are taken to the winery in Waiheke by barge.

We spent quite a bit of time visiting vineyard blocks. Even in the dormant season, these looked just beautiful. Quite a few of the red wine vineyards are planted on slopes to help maximize sun exposure, and some of these slopes are pretty steep.

What about the wines? Well, they’re quite special. Bordeaux blends, the main focus are delicious, but I think the fabulous Syrah just has the edge. Perhaps most impressive from a winemaking perspective, though, is the Chardonnay. Winemaker Duncan McTavish seems to be a bit of a specialist with Chardonnay, and toys very effectively with traces of reduction that add tremendous complexity and refinement to these wines. My notes here are from two separate tastings. Those labelled 07/10 are from the tasting at Waiheke in July, and those labelled 05/10 are from a tasting in London in May where I spent a bit less time with the wines. It’s interesting to compare the two (these are notes as written, with minimal editing).


Man O'War Sauvignon Blanc 2009 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
12.5% alcohol. Fresh, aromatic nose combining ripe fruity notes with grapefruit and grassy freshness, as well as some nettle notes. Crisp palate is grassy and mineral with ice acidity. Really superb balance here. 91/100 (07/10)

Man O'War Sauvignon Blanc 2009 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Very fresh and bright. Gently herby with crisp, clean fruit and nice freshness. Very stylish. 88/100 (05/10)

Man O'War Pinot Gris 2009 Ponui Island, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. Taut, crisp and mineral nose with a hint of smokiness. The palate is grapey with melon notes and some attractive freshness. Appealing texture and some interest: a fresh style. 90/100  (07/10)

Man O'War Pinot Gris 2009 Ponui Island, New Zealand
Smoky, minerally and flinty with nice fruit. Very fresh with some complexity. Nicely mineral with some weight on the finish. 89/100 (05/10)

Man O'War Chardonnay 2008 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
No malolactic; not sulfured until late in the winemaking process. 70% tank fermented; 30% fermented in old wood. 14.5% alcohol. This comes from the younger vineyards, and the idea is to try to let the fruit shine through. Amazing aromatics: fresh, fruit driven and herby with a bit of toasty richness and some buttery notes in the background. The palate is fruit-driven and quite complex with notes of melon, pineapple, pear and peach as well as savoury toastiness. Brilliant. 93/100 (07/10)

Man O'War Chardonnay 2008 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Nutty, mineral nose. A bit flinty. Lovely fresh bright fruit on the palate with a hint of tropical richness and some nuttiness. A bright style. 90/100 (05/10)

Man O'War Chardonnay 2009 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
14.5% alcohol. This was a slightly cooler year. Striking, fresh, minerally nose with notes of flint and citrus fruit. The palate is crisp and focused with high acidity and a bit of matchstick character. A lovely savoury, expressive wine. 93/100 (07/10)

Man O'War Valhalla Chardonnay 2009 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
14% alcohol. From the older vineyards; 100% barrel fermented; 30% new oak, some 500 litre barrels. Mineralic, taut and wonderfully complex with some lovely subtle matchstick notes, as well as rich, bold pear and peach fruit. The palate is fresh, complex and mineral with spicy pear notes and some citrus freshness. Complex nuttiness, too. 94/100 (07/10) 

Man O'War Valhalla Chardonnay 2009 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Flint and matchstick notes on the nose, which is complex and savoury. The palate is beautifully complex with some reduction and notes of toast and honey. Some freshness here. Really complex and intriguing. 94/100 (05/10)

Man O'War Valhalla Chardonnay 2008 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
100% new oak, 15% new. Lovely complex nutty, mineral nose. Tight, complex palate with bold nutty and subtly toasty notes, backed up by good acidity. Powerful, youthful and intense. 94/100 (05/10)

Man O'War Rosé 2009 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
13% alcohol. 100% Merlot. From a vineyard stalled by salt burn at 22 Brix. Sweet, ripe, cherry and raspberry nose. Fruity and rounded with nice cherry character. Full bodies with some warmth on the finish, and a hint of medicine. 84/100 (05/10)

Man O'War Rosé 2009 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
100% Merlot. Intriguing fresh, spicy wine with lovely fruit and some spicy mineral notes. Really fresh, with almost a medicinal tinge. 88/100 (05/10)

Man O'War Merlot Cabernet Franc Malbec 2008 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
14% alcohol. Fresh, gravelly, savoury blackcurrant fruit nose with some sweet, pure fruit. The palate has firm, grippy tannins and gravelly notes as well as purity of fruit. Serious and quite savoury with meaty hints and a spicy, phenolic character. Not heavy. 93/100 (07/10)

Man O'War Merlot Cabernet Franc Malbec 2008 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
42% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc, 19% Malbec. Lovely pure, sweet blackberry and cherry fruit with a bit of clove and notes of spice and pepper. Savoury, gravelly edge to the fruit. Distinctive and very attractive. 91/100 (05/10)

Man O'War Ironclad 2008 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
52% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc, 10.5% Malbec, 9.1% Petit Verdot, 1.4% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.5% alcohol. Thrilling aromatics – sweet, pure, ripe raspberry and blackcurrant fruit nose with some fine floral notes and a spicy, medicinal edge. The palate shows ripe berry and blackcurrant fruit with nice fresh spicy tannins and real precision. Lovely structure. 94/100 (07/10)

Man O'War Ironclad 2008 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Lovely intense but refined blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with robust gravelly structure. There’s ripeness and smooth texture here, but also a fresh, slightly peppery edge. Very stylish and intense. 94/100 (05/10)

Man O’War Syrah 2008 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
This is the ‘white label’ Syrah – production of this is going to stop, and in the future there will be more Dreadnought. It’s meaty and spicy with hints of clove and pepper. Lovely fresh dark fruits, with a distinctibe peppery character. Very attractive. 93/100 (05/10)

Man O'War Dreadnought Syrah 2008 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
14% alcohol. Power comes from the Madmans and Asylum vineyards; finesse from the Lunatis and North3. Aromatic and lively with clove, spice and pepper notes, as well as some floral character. The palate is fresh and bright with raspberry and dark cherry fruit as well as some spiciness, together with high acidity. Very fresh and bright with real complexity. Thrilling. 95/100 (07/10)

Man O'War Dreadnought Syrah 2008 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Wonderfully intense. Bold, peppery, meaty, spicy and full with lovely concentration, freshness and complexity. 95/100 (05/10)

See also:

Photographs from Man O'War, Waiheke Island
Visiting New Zealand's Vineyards (series)
Visiting Central Otago, New Zealand (series)

Wines tasted 05/10 and 07/10  
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