Friday, February 14, 2014

Olive Oil Exploration - Waiheke Island, New Zealand

Having visited extra virgin olive oil producers and tasted their oils in most regions of New Zealand it was time to visit the groves of Waiheke Island, just a half hour ferry ride from Auckland. The Maori name Waiheke means ‘cascading or descending waters’.

Extra virgin olive oils from this region have received much publicity through winning many awards over recent years.

With some online research and the help of brochures we set off with a stream of day trippers with a sunny day complimenting the cool sea breeze washing over the ferry. As the skyline of Auckland faded and we weaved our way through many islands including the volcanic cone of Rangitoto, we sighted Waiheke with its green rolling hills and rocky coastline. The ferry docked neatly into the terminal at Matiatia Bay and off poured the day trippers, trampers and wine enthusiasts, interspersed with the locals kitted out in the casual New Zealand uniform of cargo pants and jandles.

As fast as passengers left the ferry they filled the many tour buses waiting take their human cargo to tasting rooms and beaches. No tours for us as we set off to find our rental car parked in the far reaches of the car park. EDE91 was the registration, we wondered if 91 referred to the date of manufacture. Then of course you get what you pay for.

Our first destination was Matiata Grove, 61 Church Bay Road, Oneroa. The website told us that  ‘Matiatia Grove has consistently produced superb quality award winning extra virgin olive oils’.  A short drive along Church Bay Road and a right turn took us up a long gravel drive lined with agapanthus in full flower on the way to Lavender Hill. We could see the olives and saw a large mansion but there was no obvious place for tasting. Disappointed we turned back and went to the end of Church Bay Road looking for a tasting room, to no avail. The road was lined with walkers from the ferry puffing their way up the hill to Cable  Bay Vineyard which we would visit later.

Our next destination was Rangihoua Estate, 1 Gordons Road, Rocky Bay. To get there we followed Ocean View Road through the main shopping strip in Oneroa. Dodging jaywalkers, we caught glimpses of small sandy beaches on Oneroa Bay to the north and Huruhi Bay to the South. One of the most spectacular aspects of Waiheke Island is that as you drive along the twisty roads each turn reveals a new seascape of breathtaking beauty.

Arriving at 1 Gordons Road, we headed for the Rangihoua tasting Room and found ourselves in the familiar surrounds of the olive oil processing plant. Immaculately clean the small processing line was tucked away for the off season. There were no ‘off’ aromas in the room, always a good indicator that their products will be free of defects. We followed the voices into the well appointed tasting room where the extra virgin olive oils were set out on the tasting bar. The room was lined with tables of New Zealand made olive oil products – cosmetics and jams amongst them.

Now to taste the extra virgin olive oils. I ask for a tasting cup rather than use the wind dried squares of bread to taste the oils. Presented with a small saucer, we are given the ‘patter’ about the oils, the variety and the aromas and tastes we can expect. I try to smell the first oil in the saucer and cannot get much of an aroma. I need the proper olive oil tasting glasses to concentrate the aroma. I ask if I can use one that is on the bench – after a quick clean it is cupped in my hand as I warm the contents to get the full benefit of the volatile compounds that come off and give the aroma.

Correctly arranged in ascending order of intensity, the first of the four oils is from the koroneiki variety which is the main oil variety in Greece. The aromas coming from the blue glass are a subtle mixture of vegetal and fruity notes, slightly floral sweetness of a meadow
full of flowers when the sun shines hot after a rainstorm. I can smell green tomatoes too, sprinkled with the aromas of a mixture of fresh herbs. On the palate I taste dry herbs, with the tannin and creaminess of creamed spinach, followed by a pleasant finish of creamy sweet nuts – perhaps cashew and macadamia.  This is a pleasant delicate extra virgin olive oil, ideal for use with fish cuisine and dishes where the oil needs to be understated. It is balanced, although I would like a little more fruitiness at the front of the palate and a hint more bitterness. Being more than 6 months old the oil will have lost some bitterness.

Melissa and Fiona are attentive and interested. While Fiona looks after the steady stream of visitors to the tasting room, Melissa gives us her full attention and is informative. Realising that olive oil tasting is my profession she is interested to learn, as I am from her.

Next we taste the blend of the Italian varieties, frantoio and pendolino. More intense than the koreneiki, the aromas and tastes are fresh apple and herbs and rocket, again with a nice nutty finish. Melissa’s patter tells us that there is an aroma of green capsicum. I guess there could be but not being a lover of capsicums I rarely use them in descriptions – perhaps I should be more objective. Or perhaps we should all work towards using descriptions which are akin to the cuisine our customers prefer.

The Spanish variety, Picual, is next in line. The aromas are typical of this variety, green and ripe tomatoes, basil, other fresh herbs and a hint of celery. The tastes are of tomato and bitterness of sorrel and the heat of radish. The finish is of chilli pepper tingling on the tongue and coming forward on the palate as there is a tail of creamy pinenuts lingering in the back palate. This is an attractive extra virgin olive oil, delicate to medium and to me less robust than the frantoio/pendolino blend. It has complexity and exhibits many of the flavour characteristics of the classic Andalucian picuals from southern Spain.

And finally we taste the blend. I don’t ask which varieties are in the blend as I want to try and work it out – assuming it was a blend of the 3 oils I had tasted. I couldn’t pick the tomato aromas of picual but there was a bitterness which wasn’t present in the first two oils and the building heat, so I wrote down picual as one of the varietals. I did detect fresh apple so I added frantoio to the blend. The nutty finish could have come from any of the oils. There was also a banana passionfruit aroma which sometimes comes from ripe picual. So for the blend I postulated, picual, frantoio and pendolino.

As I was discussing the blend with Melissa, who should walk in but the oil maker and blender, Darryl. He told me I was way out on the blend – the varietals were J5, J2, J3 and Ascolano – none of the oils I had tasted were in the blend! Well, I wasn’t totally off the mark – J5 produces an oil similar to frantoio and comes from the north of New Zealand, brought in by the early settlers. Some believe it is related to the frantoio brought in to fuel the plantings in the late 1990’s. Ascolano gives a distinct tropical fruit aroma when half ripe to ripe. This aroma and associated flavour is good for deserts, ice cream and baking.

A very educating session at Rangihoua where busloads of visitors were being tutored in the niceties of extra virgin olive by Fiona while we selfishly occupied Melissa’s time.

If you are going to Waiheke, Rangihoua Estate is a must. I have asked that their Koroneiki and Picual extra virgin olive oils be sent to New York for tasting at Savantes – being  excellent examples of cool climate complexity found in New Zealand extra virgin olive oils.

Turn left out of Gordon’s Road and you are on the way to Azzuro Gtrove, 152 Te Whau (pronounced Tea Fow) Drive. Azzuro Grove was closed, upended pallets blocked the entrance in a somewhat unfriendly way. A courteous sign would have been so much less abrupt. We were surprised it was closed at the peak of the holiday season.

So on down the road we went towards Te Whau Point and came across the Te Whau Vineyard restaurant. What a find – the dining area overlooks picturesque Putiki Bay and the food and service was excellent. Not cheap mind you but the Porches, Daimlers and Alfa Romeos in the car park had warned us that it was a destination of the well heeled, which we are not. We had a funkily charming French waitress called Vanessa whose husband was a chef at another winery. When I told her about Azurro Grove being closed and that we were on an olive oil tasting expedition, she immediately went to the kitchen and brought a crucible of their olive oil and bread. Leaving the bread for later we tasted the oil with a spoon – the aroma was pure vanilla and the palate was pleasant too. Pity we couldn’t taste it at the grove shop, I would have liked to taste it at Savantes New York.

Well lunched we set out again in search of the famed Matiata Grove. This time we went down to the end of Nick Johnstone Drive, Onorea, but to no avail. On the way back we saw a small sign advertising olive oil for sale down a gravel road. Down we went and found Kowhai Close Olive Grove, 92 Nick Johnstone Drive. This was cosily different. We were greeted by Guy Camilleri who was doing his chores in the yard and taken into a tasting room in their home. Then Joyce Camilleri joined us and brought out the bread and Guy fetched the olive oil when the heard that we were in for a taste. I declared my interest and Guy passionately regaled us with the details of the oils which were a harvest old. He was almost apologetic – he needn’t  have been, the oils were  still of medium intensity and reasonably balanced. Then he brought out the more recently harvested olive oil which he said he was unsure of as the processor and other local ‘experts’ had told him it was not good. I disagreed – the extra virgin olive oil was very interesting, so much so that I asked for a bottle to take to New York for tasting at Savantes.

Then we started talking table olives and Joyce produced some small olives that were a chocolate colour. They were the most flavoursome olives I have tasted in New Zealand. We established that they were from a small batch of naturally fermented Frantoio olives – quite delicious.

Kowhai Close also offers accommodation and much of their olive products are sold to those that stay on the grove. Well worth a visit to experience the unbridled passion of Guy and Joyce, good olive oil and the tastiest olives.

Oh yes, Guy told us that Matiata Grove had an arrangement with Cable Bay Vineyards, 12 Nick Johnstone Drive

Back we went up the road and parked at the flashy looking Cable Bay Vineyards. There was no mention of olive oil tastings anywhere so I asked the barman if they had Matiata Grove extra virgin olive oil for tasting. ‘No’, he said, ‘we have Cable Bay extra virgin olive oil which is made by the same oil maker’. ‘Can I taste it?’ I asked. ‘No’, he said ‘but you can buy a bottle’. That was that. There was no way I was going to buy a high priced bottle for the privilege of a taste.

A little later I left my business card with a manager and said we had come over specially to taste olive oil and were disappointed we could not taste their product or that of Matiata Grove. She offered to get some from the kitchen but at this stage I had lost interest and just wanted to make a point.

Off we went to return the rental car followed by a blustery ferry ride back to Auckland.

We thoroughly enjoyed the day out although it was quite expensive.

Would I go back to Waiheke Island specifically to taste olive oils? – no.

If I was there would I taste olive oils? – yes at Rangihoua and I would visit the Camilleri’s.

Would I look for Matiata Grove olive oils ? - no and I wouldn’t bother going back to Cable Bay Vineyards.

I would certainly go back to Te Whau Vineyard restaurant when I have recharged my credit card!

Simon Field
January 2014