28 May 2015 We are republishing this article from June 2013 as background to today's tasting article detailing a blind comparison of some of Kumeu River's Chardonnays with some top white burgundies. See Kumeu River Chardonnays triumph.
7 June 2013 Winemaker Michael Brajkovich MW (centre) was the chair of the judges in the Air New Zealand Wine Awards 2012, the original impetus for my visit to New Zealand at the end of last year. He whisked me straight off the ferry from Waiheke Island so that he and his brother Paul, marketing director (far right), could accompany me through a vertical tasting of their 2009 and 2010 Chardonnays.
My last visit to this West Auckland enclave of excellence was in 2000 and even then I remember being treated to a fine line-up of top-notch Chardonnays. This intensely family company continues to be under the managing directorship of Melba Brajkovich (second from left), mother of Michael, Paul, Milan (far left) and Marijana (second from right) and widow of Maté, who moved as a child from Croatia to Auckland in 1937 and sadly died in 1992. Milan is the vineyard manager and Marijana the marketing director. All were there for the barbecued-lamb lunch immediately after the tasting. (For more on the history of the family and much more, including a detailed vineyard map, go to the Kumeu River website, a model of clarity and lack of hype.) Michael Brajkovich would also be the first to give credit to their long-standing cellar master Nigel Tibbits, who has been with the company for three decades.
Unless it is to do with Chardonnay's supporting role to Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand, I cannot fathom why the Kumeu River wines are not more widely recognised. They are highly rated on many markets but I still don't think they get the recognition their quality (and great value) deserves.
Kumeu River wines follow the Burgundy model: village, estate and single-vineyard wines. The estate's soils are generally heavy, deep clay that cracks in summer, with sandstone way down below. They had always vinified the vineyard lots individually but in 1993 they started bottling Maté's vineyard separately, adding Coddington (ripest and richest) and Hunting Hill (more floral) to the line up in 2006 – and there are other candidates for single-vineyard bottlings. They have been fermenting with ambient yeast since 1986, making them an excellent subject for Dr Matt Goddard's research into unique yeast populations (see my notes on Goldie).
Michael Brajkovich, who is both thoughtful and skilful, has a very particular way with yeast lees for his tank-fermented wines that contributes to the fine texture of the Chardonnay and helps him avoid any problems with excessive reduction or oxidation. His reference to this technique during the tasting reminded me of a brilliant explanation he sent several years ago when I asked him for more information:
'Immediately after fermentation the wine is racked, and the yeast lees transferred into another vessel. The lees are then gently circulated with a pump while a small, measured dose of pure bottled oxygen is added using our micro-oxygenation equipment (although the dose is more macro than micro). This continues until no reductive odour remains, which usually takes a matter of a few minutes. Once thus treated, the yeast lees are added back to the bulk of the wine and stirred in. No reduction is evident, and the lees will not produce any further sulphide problems. This allows us to keep the wine on lees for an extended period, which was previously not possible in a stainless-steel tank because of the continuing evolution of sulphidic odours from the yeast lees. We can thus almost emulate the conditions found in a barrel for extended lees ageing, and the benefits are manifold.
'Firstly the lees afford very good protection against oxidation. Secondly, the autolysis of the yeast over time releases the yeast contents into the wine and builds texture and mid-palate weight to the wine, which is not possible if the wine is racked early. This is the real benefit of "lees ageing". Thirdly, if any MLF has occurred in the wine (relevant in Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, but not in Sauvignon Blanc, where we actively discourage it to preserve the zesty acidity) then the diacetyl content is greatly reduced, and the wines are far less buttery as a result. We usually employ two to three months of lees ageing after fermentation to enable the wine to mature gracefully and take on more interesting characters, like the firm "oyster shell" taste this wine has on the finish. This is why we are bottling much later than most, but I think the results are well worth it. I learnt of this technique in 1999 after hearing of the work in Bordeaux done by Lavigne-Cruège et al.'
Kumeu River also produce a village and an estate Pinot Noir, both are good, and good value, but not yet up to the standard of the Chardonnays. I also tasted a sensational Gewurztraminer barrel sample – fragrant, pure and fresh – but they have very little of this.