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A toast to Auckland wines

Bungee jump off a bridge, careen through wild rapids, float on a river through the blackness of a subterranean cave.

“If you can dream it, we have it,” the Kiwis say.

There’s no doubt about it: New Zealand offers a great escape, a misty dreamland of tranquil fiords, rugged peaks, frosty glaciers, turquoise alpine lakes and verdant rain forests.

But with its wines now ranked alongside some of the world’s best, New Zealand also offers visitors a grape escape as well -- a first-class wine destination where travelers can find pleasure year-round in hundreds of tasting rooms. Given the choice of plunging off a cliff tethered by an elastic band or whiling away the day sipping fine wines, many people -- including me -- would choose the latter.

As a friend once said, “Wine is my favorite grown-up adventure.”

Happily, that alternative is available and growing exponentially. New Zealand now has more than 540 wineries, some producing internationally known wines. Its Sauvignon Blanc has achieved worldwide acclaim, and its Pinot Noir is gaining ground in America and Britain.

When to go? Seasons are reversed Down Under, so it is now spring, heading for summer. Tasting rooms are open throughout the year, but warmer weather means you can taste at outdoor patios rather than indoor cellars.

The best place to start? Auckland, the arrival point for most visitors from the United States. It’s an ideal place to get your bearings, adjust to the 21-hour time difference and learn to appreciate New Zealand wines before moving south to the country’s better-known wine and tourist regions.

During a recent trip, I sampled Auckland’s wines, met its people, admired its scenery and raised a toast to the city -- a toast that lasted five days.

With more than 1.3 million residents, Auckland qualifies as New Zealand’s largest city; nearly one-third of the nation calls it home. But urban development hasn’t diminished its charms.

It still has a small-town flavor, clean streets and a relatively low crime rate. Or, as Auckland Mayor John Banks told me, “We offer Midwestern friendliness with downtown U.S. sophistication.”

That’s not the only reason U.S. residents should visit Auckland, said Banks, a former radio talk-show host. “We offer great value for the money spent. And we’re only one-night’s sleep away from LAX.”

I had to agree with him about value: The U.S. dollar buys a lot; it’s worth $1.34 in New Zealand currency. But I wasn’t so sure about the one-night’s sleep business. I stayed up watching movies most of the night on my 13-hour flight from LAX to Auckland.

When I emerged from the airport, I rushed to Viaduct Harbour, a snazzy downtown marina that was rebuilt for New Zealand’s defense of the America’s Cup race in 2000. I had booked a two-hour cruise with Sail NZ, which advertises “the ultimate sailing experience” aboard an America’s Cup yacht. I didn’t want to be late ( www.sailnz.com).

As the sleek racer screamed across Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour, I hung on tight. The yacht was heeling at a crazy angle and spraying saltwater in my face. But the trip did the two things I’d intended: It kept me from falling asleep and gave me a spectacular view of the city.

Set between two harbors, Auckland is built around volcanoes, with lava cones providing hilly green islands amid a concrete landscape. Striking views greet travelers, whether they’re on land or sea. But the water offers more than photo opportunities here; it’s the lifeblood of Auckland, which has been nicknamed the “City of Sails.”

When they’re not working, Kiwis go sailing; one out of five owns a boat. Auckland has one of the largest yacht marinas in the Southern Hemisphere: Westhaven, with 2,000 slips.

Boating isn’t the only popular recreational activity here, however. Kiwis love the outdoors. Adventurous souls who don’t like the water find plenty of other diversions to amuse them: rain forests, mountain ranges and the many islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

And, of course, there’s always bungee jumping. As we raced through the harbor on the America’s Cup yacht, I noticed jumpers flying off a bridge; they were bungee jumping, the captain said. They fall about 130 feet and can request an optional “water touch” element if they wish.

But my favorite Auckland bungee experience (and this is just watching from afar, you understand) occurred later that day at Sky Tower, which dominates the city’s skyline. The iconic 1,076-foot tower and Sky City complex contains a casino, revolving restaurants and a Sky Deck that offers a 360-degree view of the region. I was standing at the edge of the deck admiring the view when a body shot by me headed straight down. A bungee jumper, I realized, getting a high-octane adrenaline fix by jumping from the tower. The fall: 630 feet; the speed: nearly 60 mph.

That night I collapsed in my bed and slept soundly with only a single falling-from-the-sky dream disrupting my sleep.

The next day, I made my way to Fullers Ferry Terminal, where I hopped aboard a boat for a 35-minute trip to Waiheke Island, known for its fine red wines and gallery-filled town.

Island vines

As the boat pulled up to the dock, I saw green hills, white sandy beaches and a small port. I’d arranged a winery tour and before long, I was delivered to the rambling, rustic tasting room at Stonyridge Vineyard and Cafe, a boutique winery known internationally for its Bordeaux-style reds.

Its Larose is legendary in New Zealand; six bottles sold at auction last spring for $3,700. The winery also produces Fallen Angel wines (80 Onetangi Road, 011-64-9-372-8822, www.stonyridge.co.nz).

Many tasting rooms here offer free sips; those that charge often deduct the price from any bottles you buy. Stonyridge had started my day off right; I was ready to taste more.

My next stop was Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant, where I paused in the tasting room before having lunch (126 Church Bay Road, Oneroa 011-64-9-372-9050, www.mudbrick.co.nz).

Some of the best chefs in New Zealand work their culinary magic at vineyard cafes. Mudbrick’s Provence-style restaurant, set on a hilltop overlooking the sea, is one of these. I was tempted to stay all day. But tasting called, and I eventually departed to visit more cellars.

Known as the Island of Wine, Waiheke has more than a dozen wineries. Until recently, the island was populated mainly by artists, hippies and others pursuing alternative lifestyles. Now it draws wine growers, weekenders and commuters, who use it as a pricey suburb of Auckland. It’s an ideal stop for international travelers before or after a long flight.

Accommodations range from about $22 a night for backpackers to the high-end $500-a-night luxury digs at the Boatshed, a Nantucket-inspired Down Under-style lodge with a three-story lighthouse suite overlooking the sea.

Back to Auckland

Much as I enjoyed Waiheke’s slow pace, scenery and friendly tasting rooms, there were other areas to explore. So I hopped back on the ferry for the 11-mile return trip to Auckland.

Three of New Zealand’s largest vintners -- Nobilo, Villa Maria and Montana -- are based in the Auckland area and export huge amounts of wine to the U.S.

Phil Parker of Fine Wine Tours was my guide for a one-day tour; his business, takes him to vineyards around the nation (011-64-9-5295-007, www.insidertouring.co.nz).

“You have a great job,” I said. “You get to do a lot of tasting, I assume?”

“I do, but not while I’m doing tours,” he said. “Somebody has to drive.”

We headed for northwest Auckland, about 30 minutes down the highway. Warehouses, stores and fast-food restaurants finally disappeared, and we began seeing orchards, sheep and road side fruit stands. Most of the eight wineries in this region use grapes grown elsewhere in New Zealand, so there are few vines.

While we drove, Parker talked about his favorite subject: Kiwi wines. He wrote a book on wine weekend road trips last year. His favorite areas are the Marlborough region, known for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir; Hawke’s Bay, where full-bodied reds such as Syrah, Merlot and Cabernets do well; central Otago, for Pinot Noir; and Waiheke.

“Many of our wines are only available here,” he advised. “So drink heartily!”

I told him I’d try.

Our first stop was Nobilo, New Zealand’s second-largest exporter of wine. U.S. buyers can find the Nobilo label on store shelves, as well as other company labels such as Kim Crawford and Monkey Bay -- what the wine industry calls a “critter label.”

Inside the tasting room, I saw these, plus several other labels, and got to work, tast- ing my way through several whites.

While sipping, I learned a bit more about Nobilo. It’s not exactly a boutique vintner; in fact, it’s part of Constellations Brands Inc., a New York-based company that markets 250 alcohol brands in nearly 150 countries. (Nobilo Wine Group is at 46 Station Road, Huapai, 011-64-9-412-6666, www.nobilo.co.nz.)

We stopped at several other wineries, where I drank more whites, and became happier by the hour. Soon we reached West Brook, which wins my award for the prettiest grounds (215 Ararimu Valley Road, Kumeu, 011-64-9-411-9924, www.westbrook.co.nz).

The winery sits on a hilltop, with landscaped terraces leading down to a shady duck pond. I sipped a Sauvignon Blanc, then went outside.

Rows of vines shimmered in the late afternoon light as I walked to the pond. I stopped to say hello to a tin man, one of several imaginative scarecrows that decorated the property. A man sitting at a picnic table looked at me strangely, probably thinking I’d tasted too much wine that day. And who knows? Maybe I had.

The tin man didn’t care. So I turned to him again and raised an imaginary toast. I think he smiled.

travel@latimes.com

latimes.com /newzealand See the sights To see more of what Auckland has to offer, including sailing and sightseeing, head online.


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