The Little Winery That Could

The Little Winery That Could

Believe it or not, New Zealand is home to one of the world’s greatest Chardonnay producers.  Not from Hawke’s Bay, not even from Marlborough; the home of this titan is Kumeu.

Housed in a small, unassuming building next to Highway16, just at the entrance to Kumeu township, the Kumeu River winery won’t be mistaken for a great Burgundian domain – at least, not from its architecture.

The scale is less grand than it is quaint and although surrounded by vineyards, this once rural scene is year-by-year fighting a losing battle to the steadily encroaching city.

Back in 1944, Mick and Kate Brajkovich purchased a vineyard and orchard block in Kumeu and began making and selling wine under the San Marino label.  Their son Maté took over in 1949 when Mick passed away.  In 1957 Maté met Melba and through the next decade, four children followed; Michael, Marijana, Milan, and Paul.

Maté and his wines were popular and so in 1979 when he changed from making fortified wines to making varietal table wines, it was a big risk.  Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc were all but unheard-of in New Zealand at that time.

Kumeu River Wines

Image courtesy of Kumeu River Wines

By the ’80’s, eldest son, Michael studied winemaking at Roseworthy Agricultural College, was dux of his class and worked vintage in France.  He, Milan and Paul all became involved in the business with their parents and in 1986, the winery changed names to Kumeu River and began making Burgundy influenced Chardonnay.  In 1989, Michael became New Zealand’s first Master of Wine.

When Maté passed away in 1992, he was mourned not only by his family but by an entire industry, one which he had well and truly pioneered.

Fast-forward to 2014.  Kumeu River’s respected UK distributor, Farr Vintners hosted a blind-tasting in London, inviting the best palates and wine writers in the business.  Kumeu River’s Chardonnays were pitted against premier cru and village wines, from the greatest Burgundian producers.  In each flight but one, the Kumeu River wine was victorious – and in that remaining flight, it was judged first-equal. Read the article in Decanter Magazine for more.

This, is by no means an isolated case.  Jancis Robinson MW recently republished an article from May 2015, in which wines from Kumeu River were again tasted alongside white burgundies from the very top producers.  Read it here.

Kumeu River’s Chardonnay line-up is structured much like that of a Burgundian domain.  At the pinnacle their ‘grand cru’ is Maté’s Vineyard ($70).  There are two ‘premier cru’; Hunting Hill ($60) and Coddington ($50).  The ‘AOC’ wine is Estate Chardonnay ($32) and then the ‘village’ equivalent is the aptly named Kumeu Village Chardonnay ($18).

I recently tasted the soon to be released Kumeu Village Chardonnay 2017.


Kumeu Village Chardonnay 2017

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This wine is 75 percent fermented in stainless steel with the remaining 25 percent fermented in older oak.  This means that although there’s virtually no oak influence to the aroma or flavour, the palate is deliciously creamy and sophisticated.

The aroma is firm and tight with notes of lemon and mineral or flint.

It’s rich in the mouth with that creamy roundness that the old oak imparts.  The flavours have real depth but are still restrained and controlled which again contributes to a sense of tautness of structure.  There’s nashi and white peach and more of the flinty-mineral impression.

The acidity here is bright and refreshing, bringing a real crispness to the palate, while I suspect the pH is relatively high as indicated by the seductive, almost oily roundness and texture.

What’s really impressive for an $18 wine is the concentration and length of flavour and the way the whole package comes together with such balance.

I’ve been a fan of Kumeu Village Chardonnay for years and this 2017 is one of the best I can recall.

Retail Price:  $18

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