Since we recently introduced you to Tahiti’s national beer, Hinano, it only makes sense that we also want you to become more familiar with Tahiti’s only wine label, Vin de Tahiti. When you consider the best places in the world to harvest grapes, Italy, Napa or the South of France probably come to mind. You wouldn’t expect an atoll in the middle of the South Pacific to have a vineyard — but it does!
A Brief History
The idea to create a winery in French Polynesia started with a wealthy wine enthusiast and French businessman named Dominique Auroy. Since the islands of Tahiti were importing over four million bottles of wine per year, he thought… why not try to produce his own? However, it took several years of extensive research before his idea could come to life.
The first vines were imported from France and Italy in 1992. To determine the ideal location for the vineyard, the grapes were planted throughout each of French Polynesia’s five archipelagos and put through a series of acclimation tests. In the end, the Tuamotu Atolls proved to be the best location; and in 1997, they planted over seven acres of vines on one of the small coral islets in Rangiroa.
The vineyard’s first harvests were in 1999 and 2000. By 2003, the winery was producing 800 bottles per year. Today, the vineyard covers more than eight acres of land and produces over 40,000 bottles per year. Although Dominique’s original vision was to create and distribute the wine locally, Vin de Tahiti is now mostly exported.
The Dominique Auroy Winery is located in the village of Avatoru on Rangiroa. The actual vineyard, known as Domaine Ampélidacées, is situated on a small, separate islet accessible by boat. It’s the only winery in the world where the grapes must be transported by canoe during harvest!
Today, Sébastien Thépénier oversees the production of the wine. One of France’s leading oenologists, he moved to French Polynesia in 2002 after responding to an online ad for the job. His friends thought he was crazy for packing up his belongings and moving to Tahiti in less than ten days, but he seems very happy he did.
A vineyard is often characterized by its terroir, a French term referring to the geographical and geological characteristics unique to that region. This not only determines whether or not the vines will grow, but it also has a distinct influence on the flavor of the wine it produces. As you can imagine, French Polynesia is not your typical winemaking terroir.
First and foremost, the key factor involved in successfully growing wine is understanding the soil. What makes the vineyard in Rangiroa so unique is that the ground consists of mostly coral. When establishing the winery, Dominique had to ship in 200 tons of earth from Tahiti and perform extensive groundwork before the vines could be planted. Today, the soil is enhanced with natural compost made from algae and ground-up vine shoots. Still, because of its unique foundation, some of the wines have a slight mineral taste to them.
The other essential element is water. You might think this wouldn’t be a problem since the vineyard is surrounded by water; but actually, the sea spray can be harmful to the grapes. Thankfully, the island’s vegetation, including coconut trees, papaya trees and Tahitian flowers, protects the vines from the ocean and the lagoon. Instead, the real challenge was finding a fresh water source. Irrigation on the island was made possible by digging a well at the lowest point of the plot, reaching the water table. This natural source is used to water the grapes through a drip irrigation system.
The final challenge was mastering the vine’s growth cycle in a region where a cold season is nonexistent. In other regions, winter allows the grapes to rest before bearing fruit again; but in Tahiti, the vines needed to be tricked into believing there is a winter. To do this, Sébastien and his team must control the growth cycle through pruning. This provokes a stress and allows the birth of new buds, kickstarting the life cycle. Instead of being harvested once a year like most vines, the grapes in Tahiti are harvested twice a year, in May and December. These months are known as their austral winter and austral summer harvests.
Today, the vineyard produces only white wines and rosés. Their premium white, Blanc de Corail, is best when paired with seafood and features subtle tropical notes such as mango, pineapple and banana. Their dry white, Blanc Sec, is also great with fish and features a honey aroma with a woody background. Their dessert wine, Blanc Moelleux, is good with foie gras or crème brûlée and features sweet notes of honey, tangerine and bitter orange. Finally, their Rosé Nacarat is a perfect match for spicy dishes and grilled meats.
The winery is no longer open to the public, although private tours can sometimes be arranged for larger groups. Wherever you stay in Tahiti, we recommend trying one of their four varieties during your trip. It’s very likely that your hotel will serve it; but if not, many of the small markets around the islands carry it as well. If you bring home a few bottles, their website even has some complementing recipes for you to try.