World class in Waiheke – and making a connection through duty free

I’m over north-eastern Australia on the long Emirates flight from Auckland to Dubai, as my final trip of the year draws to a close. I’m winging my way back to Ireland for Christmas after visits to Melbourne and Auckland airports (more on their respective retail developments on our home page).

When I travel at this time of year, and as the days tick down to the holiday season, the itch to return home is one that’s hard to scratch. The Skype calls home reveal the newly dressed Christmas tree, decorations and lights dot the walls and ceilings, and for the kids the excitement is building as December 25 approaches.

Auckland Airport with the stunning views to the shore and sea in the background and the national carrier flying the flag in the foreground. Auckland Airport’s surging travel numbers, not least from China, augur well for the retail business.

That eagerness to be there in Galway, in the west of Ireland, is maybe why I was jolted just now, as I glanced at the screen showing the flight path in front of me. There’s Mount Isa beneath us, and Townsville a long way to the north-east. But what’s this? Coming up on our left is Connemara. Connemara! That rugged, wild, beautiful part of Ireland is only 30 minutes from home. Wow, I knew the Airbus A380 was a special aircraft, but we only left Auckland four hours ago.

Are you sure, Australia? En route home to the west of Ireland, where the unmatched original Connemara sits on my doorstep (this is the one in north-east Australia)

I check again. No, I haven’t misread it. This must be some mind trick played by the Aussies to lull any wistful Irish travellers that they are nearing home, when there’s a good 20 hours of flying time left, plus a layover in Dubai.

Not to worry. It leaves me time to reflect on some highlights of a memorable few days. There are the big commercial developments at both airports I noted of course, and the world-class vision at each. Who would have imagined a luxury environment of such quality and scale at Melbourne Airport even five years ago (which blends neatly with the superb Dufry duty free offer)?

At Auckland, the final elements of the new International Terminal are still taking shape, but having seen the new duty free stores and plans for the next six to nine months, this airport is thinking big. It’s still difficult to make a strong argument for the dual operator model in duty free, as it currently exists, with such duplication of the offer across a 4m aisle and potential for consumer confusion. It will be interesting to see what view the regulator takes for the next tenders in 2022, especially with the rise and rise of e-commerce.

Perfect day: A view back to Auckland harbour as the ferry departs for Waiheke Island and an unforgettable wine tour

But beyond the business, I take some great memories home. The wonderful hospitality in both countries. Meeting old friends and making new ones in Melbourne, and discovering again why the Victorian city is such a popular one to visit and so liveable for its citizens, from the weather to the diversity of the restaurants to the busy nightlife.

In Auckland, the welcome I received was outstanding, both in the city and, during the short time I had to look around, not least on Waiheke Island, a stunning paradise 35 minutes from the city by ferry.

A day on the water: Waiheke Island hoves into view from the Auckland ferry

Many of our readers will be fortunate enough to have experienced the home and hospitality of some of the world’s great drinks regions. A meandering visit to one or more of the Scottish Highlands, Lowlands, Islay or Speyside, say; or a tour of the great houses of Cognac. A taste of southern US hospitality in Lynchburg, Tennessee courtesy of Jack Daniel’s and Brown-Forman perhaps; or an evocative drive through the great vineyards of Bordeaux.

At the cellar door: The beautiful vista that awaits visitors to Stonyridge

To these I can add the great wineries of Waiheke Island, which are nothing short of world class. And they have a duty free connection too.

Ask most shoppers of New Zealand wine in Europe or Asia about the styles that make this country a great wine country, and Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir will rightly leap to mind. But Cabernets of a quality to rival the great Bordeaux, at price points a fraction of those from France? Names such as Stonyridge and Destiny Bay have been making a name in this category that has made the wine industry sit up and take notice. I was privileged to visit both in the past few days.

Where the magic happens: The rolling countryside of the Stonyridge estate and the underground cellar (below)

Stonyridge is a magical place, not just because of the beauty of its surroundings, the lush green hills and rolling terrain, but because of the informal and easy welcome provided by its founder Stephen White (a former round-the-world yachtsman) and the grace and class of the people (led by General Manager David Jackson) who run and staff the winery today. Everything they do is unapologetically guided (since 1981) by the techniques of French wine-making, yet what they produce here, from the Stonyridge Airfield (named for a disused air strip on the land) up to Larose, is of a quality that many Bordeaux would struggle to rival. And an hour spent in the gardens of the winery, with a cool breeze drifting through, is a little slice of heaven.

Some ten minutes drive away, Destiny Bay must be, put simply, one of the most beautiful places in the world. It lies at the junction of two bays, with sloping hills on either side.

Simply stunning: The view of the Destiny Bay wineyards from the nearby hillside

It’s a family story too, of the Spratts who hail from western USA. Husband and wife Mike and Ann moved here in 2000 aiming to retire, only to find a plot of lands that turned out to have, well, just about the best soil anywhere for growing Cabernet. What they have produced since is beauty in a glass, from its Destinae line to Mystae and the ultra-premium Magna Praemia.

Co-owner Mike Spratt introduces us to the single vineyard Cabernet blends that has made Destiny Bay a name to be reckoned with

Stonyridge and Destiny Bay are produced in quantities of less than 5,000 cases a year, boutique wines at any level. Neither compromises on quality. In fact, in 2017 Destiny Bay refused to produce at all, such was the dismal harvest season, at great cost to the business.

Each is selectively distributed to club members and patrons, some leading hotels and restaurants, and crucially duty free at Auckland Airport. Although limited to a handful of cases per year, the airport offer represents a superb showcase, says each of these stellar brands. The owners told us that this is an opportunity to connect with the consumer, to communicate with the traveller through an attractive channel that brings together premium brands, managed by specialists, with high-class presentation. Everything duty free should be, in fact.

Moment in the sun: Grzegorz Cuber and Dermot Davitt reflect on a memorable day over lunch on Saturday

But wine is also about sociability and conviviality. I had the pleasure of making this trip on Saturday in the excellent company of Lagardère Travel Retail’s incoming GM Duty Free & Luxury for New Zealand Grzegorz Cuber, like me a newcomer to the country and a passionate wine man. His team helped organise our winery visits, and require my deep thanks.

Some weekend, some trip, some visit. Fantastic New Zealand hospitality. Stunning natural beauty. Friendships forged. Memories created. And some of the world’s very best wines sampled.

We’re well into our flight now. Here come the excellent Emirates crew with the Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir. I’ll sign off and have a final taste of another great name in New Zealand wine. And why not? It’s nearly Christmas.

*We’ll bring you more soon on both the Stonyridge and Destiny Bay stories, as well as on the offers at Melbourne and Auckland airports.

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