Kumeu River: A Wine Not to Forget
This past weekend, we tasted wines from Australia and New Zealand in all our stores. Although Kumeu River didn’t make the lineup this time around, I couldn’t help but add it to the current conversation. Gracing my table several times this summer, the Kumeu River Chardonnays have been some of my favorite whites to break out with friends over dinner. These wines are beautiful, vivacious and fantastic with food.
Kumeu River was one of the earliest wineries in New Zealand, and is recognized as one of the pioneers in the region. It began with Croatian immigrant, Mick Brajkovich, and a fortuitous land purchase in 1944. Although he originally didn’t intend to make wine (he had a mixed farm with fruit, veggies and dairy cows) he did plant a few vines to make wine for the family. As it turned out, his plot of land was extremely well-suited to grow grapes, and within a few years his family wines became so popular with the locals that he began to make them commercially.
Fast forward a few decades and Kumeu River Winery has become a standard bearer for Chardonnay in New Zealand and throughout the world. The winery is still run by the family. Michael Brajkovich (grandson of Mick) is the winemaker, while other family members handle the cellar, the vineyards and the business.
While Michael was training in France, he became inspired by the wines of Burgundy, and when he came back home in 1985, he made Kumeu River’s first Chardonnay. Crafted in the popular style of the day, the first few vintages showed quite a bit of oak influence. But since then, they have shifted to an extremely terroir-driven style, filled with tension and precision. They are often compared to white Burgundy (at a fraction of the price). In fact, in 2015 they went head to head with some very serious Burgundies, including Puligny-Montrachets and Meursaults, and were the clear winner in three of the four flights (and in the fourth flight, they tied for first).
Kumeu, which is on the North Island of New Zealand just outside of Auckland, is a very cool region for growing grapes, and quite a bit cooler than Burgundy. Influenced by the ocean from both east and west, summers are often cloudy and temperatures rarely get above 85º F. Heavy clay soils, which are slow to warm, accentuate the cool climate as well. As a result, the grapes ripen slowly, developing rich flavors and retaining their bright acids.
Their winemaking philosophy is simple: grow grapes of the highest standard and treat them with respect throughout the winemaking process to maximize the expression of the land. The grapes are always pressed whole-cluster, followed by a wild fermentation and eleven months on full lees. They only use 20-25% new oak, so the terroir can shine. Lastly, all of their wines are bottled under screw cap, which they believe retains the expression and freshness of the fruit, as well as allowing the wines to age gracefully.
As intended, they do age very well. Our New Zealand buyer Thomas Smith recently tasted through a 10-year vertical of the Chardonnays, which were showing “equally energetic and delicious as upon release.” So grab a few bottles to try now, or save a few for later, whichever you do, I’m sure you’ll be pleased.
- Megan Greene