Kumeu River, Rays Road Chardonnay 2018 Hawke’s Bay

Kumeu River's Rays Road vineyard in Hawke's Bay

A fine, burgundian Chardonnay that's already drinking well, from the vineyard pictured here by David Nash, who has done a great job introducing New Zealand to my wine glass and is responsible for a great film about NZ Chardonnay, A Seat at the Table.

From NZ$40.99, £24, $33, AU$48, €29.90, HK$297, 239 Danish kroner

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Any long-standing visitor to JancisRobinson.com knows how enthusiastic we are about the Chardonnays of Kumeu River. See, for example, Top Kiwi v white burgundy.

Members have been impatient (see this thread on the forum) for tasting notes on the heavily touted 2019 releases that recently reached the UK. I managed to taste them almost immediately on my return to London last weekend and published Kumeu River’s 2019s and the new vineyard on Wednesday as a result. The 2019s are indeed special, the result of an unusually concentrated vintage. But some of them, especially the single-vineyard bottlings, need a bit more time.

Kumeu River is a family-owned winery with a long history – so long that it is based in the suburbs of Auckland, Kumeu in this case, where many of the first serious winemakers settled but where land is becoming increasingly expensive and developed (‘developed’ being so often a euphemism for built up and spoilt). I knew that the family had bought their first vineyard outside the Auckland suburbs, way over on the east coast in Hawke’s Bay, so I was particularly interested to have my first chance to taste wines from there.

The vineyard, once owned by Trinity Hill and now called Rays Road, is on a limestone base, which can imbue a freshness – even salinity! – that I assume attracted these producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It’s at an elevation of 180 m (590 ft), faces north (the midday sun) and is dry-farmed and hand-picked. Apparently, they picked the 2018 in two lots, 10 days apart. Two-thirds of the fruit that went into the 2018 Rays Road is from the early pick, described by winemaker Michael Brajkovich MW as ‘very distinctively limestone in character, with mineral, salty, flint characters that were certainly reminiscent of Chablis’, while the last third was much riper. The Rays Road Chardonnay is made in exactly the same way as their other single-vineyard wines, being whole-bunch pressed, fermented with ambient yeast entirely in barrel, treated to 100% malolactic conversion and aged for 11 months in barrel.

The Rays Road Chardonnay 2019 will undoubtedly settle and age into something very fine but the 2018 is already drinking beautifully and will probably continue to do so for the next five years. My tasting note:

Quite a ‘stony’ nose and already lots of fun. Seems more than a year more evolved than the 2019. At a very nice stage now. Fresh and minerally and super-crisp but quite satisfying and not meagre at all. Super-clean. Just right for current drinking. If only all white burgundy offered this accessibility (I'm talking both price and taste). Really quite long. A neat, complete wine. At the moment I prefer this to the more intense but unformed Rays Road 2019. VGV

Kumeu River, Rays Road Chardonnay 2018

Since Rays Road does not yet have the following of their Kumeu single-vineyard bottlings – Coddington, Hunting Hill and Maté's – its wines are being offered at a lower price. On the winery’s own website, for instance, the Rays Road 2019 Chardonnay is NZ$40 whereas the Kumeu single-vineyard 2019 bottlings are NZ$55–NZ$80 a bottle. I cannot believe consumers will benefit from this introductory discount for very long. Although the Brajkovichs are admittedly some of the slowest wine producers in the world to increase their prices. Long may this continue.

In the UK the Rays Road Chardonnay 2018 is currently being sold by the single bottle by Tanners, Lea & Sandeman and The Vineking, according to Wine-searcher.com, and it is also available as part of a six-bottle case shared equally between this wine and the Rays Road Pinot Noir 2018 (which is not as thrilling) for £125 from The Wine Society. Sheldon's Wine Cellars in Shipston-on-Stour assure me they carry a wide range of Kumeu River wines too. In the US it’s available from SommPicks and JJ Buckley. And there are also listings in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Denmark, Belgium and Ireland.

The 2019s are definitely worth seeking out but have not yet reached many markets. Kumeu River's US importers Wilson Daniels will include them in their Fall Luxury Offering in October and November.

Footnote: Yesterday Paul Brajkovich, who is responsible for sales and distribution, reported about his brother responsible for the vineyards, 'Milan is on frost watch tonight. A relatively mild winter has meant bud burst about a week early so tonight could do some real damage to the 2021 vintage if we are not careful. Helicopter on standby!'

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