Kumeu River Wines

Posted on Mar 11, 2015

The roots of New Zealand’s Kumeu River wines extend back almost 80 years to 1937 when the Brajkovich family first left their Croatian home to settle near Auckland. Maté and Kate were the first in the clan to arrive and began working in the vineyards near their new home. By 1944 they had saved enough to buy their own small vineyard and San Marino Vineyards was born, growing grapes and making small amounts of wine. Successive generations of the Brajkovich family continued to run the winery, changing its name to Kumeu River Wines in 1986 to reflect the local region. By now the emphasis on quality Chardonnay was set and the reputation of this small winery was on its way up. Today Melba, Michael, Marijana, Milan and Paul continue the family tradition and are now producing world class Chardonnay.

Kumeu River ChardonnayAdvinetures aren’t the only fans of these wines. The Wine Advocate’s Lisa Perotti-Brown has said ““If you can taste history, duty, and family pride in a glass, it’s there in the Kumeu River Chardonnays…now producing some of New Zealand’s greatest Chardonnays, not to mention the world’s.” Harvey Steiman of the Wine Spectator said “Kumeu makes the best, most long lived Chardonnays in New Zealand”. Praise and high scores for these wines can be found across the wine world.

The Kumeu Estate Vineyard covers 30 hectares and sits just East of the town of Kumeu and North of the City of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. Proximity to the Tasman Sea (20 km to the west) and the Pacific Ocean (30 km to the east) keeps the vineyards relatively cool which no doubt helps contribute to their fresh, crisp style. Clay soils overlie a sandstone base and hold moisture throughout the growing season which means there is no need for irrigation in these vineyards. The Brajkovich family believes this contributes to the quality of their grapes. Another unique feature of the vineyard is the use of the Lyre trellis system. This “U-shaped” system trains the vines to open upwards which allows for greater air circulation and more sun light. The trellis system also helps with the hand harvesting process that allows removal of sub-standard bunches and keeps overall quality at the highest level.

The two choicest blocks on the Estate are the Maté’s Vineyard and the Huntington Hill Vineyard. Maté’s Vineyard was re-planted in 1990 to the Mendoza clone of Chardonnay, the only remaining Brajkovich vineyard to use this clone. Sitting above and looking down upon Maté’s Vineyard is the Huntington Hill Vineyard. This vineyard was replanted in 2000 to Clone 5 Chardonnay. Down the road a few miles is the Coddington Vineyard, owned by Tim and Angela Coddington. This used to be blended into what is now the Estate Chardonnay but the Brajkovich’s liked the richness of the fruit and decided in 2006 to bottle it on its own.

Winemaking at Kumeu is traditional: hand harvests, indigenous yeasts, whole bunches, extended time on lees, 100% malo, 100% barrel fermentation and aged 11 months in new and used barrels. Michael Brajkovich, MW is the winemaker and is the first New Zealander with the Master of Wine designation. Michael’s style is to seek elegance over power. The results are outstanding traditionally styled Chardonnays. There is a strong tendency when describing the wines at Kumeu River to use the term “Burgundian”. And why not? – the Brajkovich’s do. We avoid using the term, however accurate and useful it may be in conveying a description of these wines. We try to resist simply because other regions outside of Burgundy that are producing wines like these need to be known as legitimate and as capable of standing on their own. These are not copies of Burgundian wines but individual expressions of unique terroir that see Burgundy as a mentor to provide influence, not a shrine to be imitated. But Burgundy is certainly the grail for traditionally made Chardonnay and perhaps resistance is futile: these wines approach that grail and do so at a fraction of the price.

Below is our tasting note on the 2009 Hunting Hill Chardonnay. Resting in our cellar is a bottle of the 2007 Maté’s Vineyard, which we will open on a special occasion and provide a tasting note in the Hot Off The Vine section of this blog.

Kumeu River Bottle2009 Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay

Light gold with a green hue. Wonderful nose that offers plenty of minerals and a chalkiness that instantly makes you think Burgundy. Flavours of citrus, melon and grapefruit juice come through in force and are backed up with a lovely acidity. So often white wines, that have this level of acidity, are under-ripe, and come across as tart. This is a unique Chardonnay in that it expresses fully ripened fruit yet coupled with bracing, mouth-watering acidity. Again, that rare combination takes us to Burgundy. But this is not Burgundy, this is Auckland, New Zealand and this is special wine. As it evolves in the glass, and your palate adjusts to its acidity, it gets smoother and even more complex. Out come the green apple notes to replace the earlier grapefruit. The chalkiness, so present at the beginning has morphed into more of a gun-barrel character. (We know how odd a descriptor that is, but anyone reading this who has handled guns will recognize that odd but enticing combination of steel, flint, graphite and a slight petroleum note.) The finish is long and lively, and leaves your palate with a slight tingle as the grapefruit and green apple dance upon your tongue. I would love to see this against a lineup of Premier Cru white Burgundy in the $80 – $120 range. Not only would this be their qualitative equal, it would be a challenge to recognize it as the ringer. Ready to drink now but certain to age well into its teens.

Excellent +  (2011 vintage of this wine is available at BC Liquor stores for $40)

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