Tahiti: A Viticultural Odyssey

The wealthy Tahitians, homesick expats, visiting Francophiles, and other curious eaters had come to the InterContinental Tahiti Resort expecting a quintessentially French meal—and they were not disappointed. Marc Haeberlin, chef and owner of L’Auberge de l’Ill, in Alsace, had traveled 10,000 miles to feed the attendees at two Tahiti Gastronomy Week banquets armed with almost everything he would need: French foie gras, French butter, and French truffles. The result was a world-class meal—if not an especially seasonally appropriate one (Haeberlin’s celebrated mousseline of frogs’ legs is probably best enjoyed when the humidity is something less than 99 percent) or one that offered a taste of Tahiti, with a single surprising exception. To accompany the first course, briny oysters topped with a watercress foam, L’Auberge de l’Ill sommelier Serge Dubs had selected not a renowned Continental vintage but a local product that most of the guests would have found unimaginable: a Polynesian wine produced on an atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“The idea of starting a vineyard in a climate like that surprised me,” Dubs says. “I had to try the wine. The idea was crazy.”

In the notoriously eccentric world of winemaking, there is, behind every crazy idea, someone just as … well, let’s say obsessed. In this case, Dionysus takes the form of an unassuming 65-year-old Frenchman named Dominique Auroy.

Shortish, with an impish grin, Auroy was born in Normandy and began his engineering career at 19, in North Africa. He first came to French Polynesia as the 22-year-old president of a company specializing in hydroelectricity. Business, it’s fair to say, has been good. A few days after dinner at the InterContinental, Auroy led some visitors on a tour of his sprawling property on top of one of Tahiti’s tallest hills. Around the main house, tropical gardens and immaculate lawns stretch away to a view, far below, of downtown Papeete and an unbroken expanse of blue water. Inside, Auroy has assembled what can only be called a private museum of winemaking history: Two massive winepresses—one from the 1500s, the other from the 1750s—stand just inside the wooden front doors, which are covered with elaborate carvings of grapevines. On one wall of an adjacent room hangs the head of a Roman plow found in the Rhône Valley, on another an Aubusson tapestry from the 17th century. It depicts, naturally, a vineyard being harvested.

The house contains other surprises: an extensive wall of masks, gathered during Auroy’s travels in Africa; a collection of antique opium pipes; a wooden, thronelike toilet, emblazoned with poetry and equipped with a bell that rings throughout the house whenever an unsuspecting guest flushes. But the real treasures are in the dungeonlike basement, which houses Auroy’s custom-built wine cellar. The rows of shelves contain some predictably impressive bottles, like a 1926 Château Lafite Rothschild, but they also betray a fondness for wines of unusual provenance, including bottles from Vietnam and Indonesia. Finally, on the back wall, are Auroy’s own wines. The possibility of producing a Polynesian wine first lodged in his entrepreneurial brain some 15 years ago. The impulse appears to have been both lofty and mischievous. “Some very clever people said that it was impossible,” he smiles. “Of course, that’s why I wanted to do it. I wanted to give proof of what man can do when he wants to.”

Auroy faced many obstacles, chief among them the counterintuitive lack of sunshine in tropical climes (at least in terms of hours per day). After initial tests on Tahiti itself failed, Auroy began searching elsewhere in French Polynesia—a nation that, with hundreds of thousands of islets scattered across the South Pacific, covers an area equal to that of western Europe. Eventually, he settled on the vast atoll of Rangiroa, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, some 200 miles from Tahiti and 3,000 miles from the nearest vineyard, in New Zealand.

From that point on, it was a process of trial and error. “We had no science for how to do this,” Auroy says. “We had to invent the science.” It turns out that the Italia, Muscat de Hambourg, and Carignan varietals flourish best in this unusual environment. In 1999, Domaine Dominique Auroy produced its first two liters of wine; in 2000, output increased to 15 liters. In 2009, Auroy expects to produce 75,000 liters of his five wines: three whites, a red, and a rosé. Some of this batch, he hopes, will reach American shores for the first time.

In the past decade, Rangiroa’s population of 3,000—which had previously subsisted on fishing and a small industry exporting black pearls—has undergone an unlikely agricultural revolution. Early on, Auroy sent several locals to Burgundy to study viticulture and vineyard management. At the end of each of the atoll’s two yearly growing cycles, locals harvest the grapes, load them onto boats, and take them across the lagoon to the winery in the village of Avatoru. “They are proud,” Auroy declares. “They can say, ‘This is our wine.’”

Auroy, too, has cause to be proud, says Dubs, who praises the Blanc de Corail—a rare white Carignan—as “direct and dry, with the fragrance of grapefruit and a nuance of minerality.”

“It is really a lovely surprise,” he says.

Perhaps the only person not surprised is Auroy himself, who projects the insouciance of a lifelong gambler and winner. Asked how much the realization of his vision has cost, he answers in typical French fashion. “It is like when you are pursuing a woman,” he says. “When you are in love, you do not count.” Pressed, in typical American fashion, he admits that he has spent about $7 million. Meanwhile, Auroy’s fancy has lately been taken by yet another conquest that experts tell him will be impossible to achieve: He wants to make wine in Gabon.