Wine tasting in Waiheke on horseback tour: The best way to sample New Zealand's wines and landscapes

I feel uncomfortable kicking a film star but at this rate we're going to miss lunch. I give Shaman a nudge in the ribs and she begrudgingly picks up the pace, at least until the next tasty looking bush.

"Don't worry," laughs Karina Wallace, "she'll be quicker on the way home."

Shaman is a 14-year-old chestnut mare with an impressive list of movie credits. She starred in the prehistoric epic 10,000 BC, the fantasy Western The Warrior's Way and a trilogy you may have heard of called The Hobbit (she was ridden by the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield).

Wallace's mount Doofus also appeared in The Hobbit films and apparently the two of them "were treated like royalty". Ferrying us around Waiheke Island must be something of a comedown.

Wallace moved to Waiheke three years ago after working as an animal handler on film sets in Wellington. She started Waiheke Horseworx in September 2015 and now offers a range of tours including winery visits, ocean swims on horseback and cultural tours led by her partner Paora.

Located in the Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke has long been a popular day-trip from Auckland thanks to its beguiling beaches and bohemian feel. Over the past decade the island's burgeoning wine scene has become another compelling reason to visit.

Waiheke gets less rain than Auckland and is on average two to four degrees warmer, so it's well suited for growing Bordeaux-style red grapes such as cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Chardonnay, viognier and pinot gris also do well, providing a pleasant respite from New Zealand's ubiquitous sauvignon blanc.

It takes me less than an hour to reach Horseworx's paddock from downtown Auckland, making it one of the closest places to go horse riding from the city. When I arrive I'm greeted by an eclectic cast of animals that includes an Anglo-Nubian goat, an adorable miniature pony and an inquisitive pig called Precious.

Despite Shaman's leading lady credentials, Wallace assures me that she's "a very predictable mount with a lovely temperament". A little flattery never hurts so I give her a pat and tell her how much I enjoyed her moody intensity in 10,000 BC.

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The plan is to visit two of Waiheke's leading wineries – Mudbrick for a tasting then Cable Bay for lunch.

It's about five kilometres to Mudbrick and the hour-long journey takes us along two deserted beaches and up a tree-lined track into the island's interior. There are a few sections where we have to walk on the road but the horses are unperturbed by the traffic.

When we arrive at Mudbrick we cause quite a stir as we pose for photos outside the winery's beautifully landscaped gardens. The outdoor terrace is packed with patrons enjoying lunch with sensational harbour views.

Mudbrick is Waiheke's third-largest wine producer and has received numerous awards for its syrah and cabernet sauvignon/merlot blends. I sample a selection from its standard and premium tasting menus ($NZ10 and $NZ20 respectively) and am particularly taken with its viognier, a versatile drop with hints of apricot and orange blossom. The syrah is excellent too, lighter in style than its Aussie equivalent but still peppery with plum and wood notes thanks to eight months in French oak.

After several (OK, six) generous tastings, I'm feeling pleasantly light-headed and am glad it's only a 10-minute ride to lunch.

When we arrive at Cable Bay, Shaman thoughtfully leaves a "present" on the winery's manicured lawn. Hopefully, it'll be put to use in the restaurant's organic garden.

Cable Bay enjoys an equally resplendent setting, located on a high plateau with far-reaching views towards the city. There are two restaurants – the Verandah, which specialises in share plates and wood-fired pizzas, and the Dining Room, a more formal offering that focuses on local produce. Both are fronted by a sweeping expanse of lawn where guests in bean bags are whiling away an idyllic afternoon quaffing chilled glasses of vino.

Lunch in the Dining Room starts with plump, creamy oysters from nearby Te Matuku Bay matched with an elegant dry rose. A jar of rich duck liver pate is topped with pickled mini vegetables from the garden and is perfectly paired with "Sweet Gloria" – a 2014 late harvest viognier. The marinated Ora King salmon entree is so beautifully decorated with edible flowers it seems a shame to eat it (don't worry, we do).

While feasting on line-caught John Dory with crab agnolotti and alpine merino lamb rack with miso, we work our way through a selection of the vineyard's wines. Highlights include a refreshing pinot gris, a lightly oaked chardonnay and Five Hills, a rich blend of merlot, malbec and cabernet sauvignon.

My notes get a little blurry at this stage, but I can just about decipher the word "outstanding", which neatly sums up the entire experience.

As Wallace predicted, Shaman is decidedly less sluggish on the return journey. At one point she even breaks into a trot. Perhaps she's had a call from her agent.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-zealand

aucklandnz.com

FLY

Air New Zealand flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland. See airnewzealand.com.au

TOUR

Tours start from $NZ120 per person. A visit to Mudbrick and Cable Bay on horseback costs $NZ380 per person (tastings and food extra). Return ferry costs $NZ36. See waihekehorseworx.co.nz ; fullers.co.nz

Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand, Auckland Tourism, Waiheke Horseworx, Mudbrick and Cable Bay.

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