Top New Zealand v white burgundy


31 May 2018 It's not often our Throwback Thursday dive into the archives yields something on an almost exact anniversary but we're republishing this three-year-old account of a blind tasting comparison of top white burgundies with our favourite New Zealand Chardonnays because the topic has come up in this thread on our Members' forum about alternatives to the most expensive white wines of the Côte d'Or. 

30 May 2015 A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

See also my detailed tasting notes on both a wide range of Kumeu River Chardonnays and some top white burgundies. 

Last week I was presented with proof of my theory that the white wine grape of which New Zealanders should be most proud is not Sauvignon Blanc but Chardonnay. For the last two decades, the North and South Islands have been engulfed in a tidal wave of Sauvignon Blanc that has even drenched the Australian wine market with what Aussies call a Sauvalanche. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc may have been a huge commercial success but no one could accuse the style of subtlety, nor the wines of longevity.

However, a recent blind tasting of Kumeu River Chardonnays back to 2007 comparing them with some of their finest white burgundy equivalents suggests that, at least from this top producer outside Auckland, New Zealand Chardonnays can more than hold their own. And as for value, they won hands down, costing only a fraction of the wines they trounced.

The prices of the Kumeu River wines varied from £140 to £220 a dozen in bond while Domaine Leflaive’s village Puligny-Montrachet 2012 and premier cru Puligny Clavoillons 2007 are about £700 and £1,400 a case respectively; Domaine Comtes Lafon’s Meursault 2009 is £700; and Drouhin’s Puligny Pucelles 2007 about £700 too.

Auckland, on the same latitude as southern Spain, may seem an unlikely location for vineyards capable of making precise, crystalline, slow-burning ripostes to white burgundy, but Kumeu River’s vineyards in the north-western suburbs of the city are cooled by ocean influence from both east and west, and summers can be cloudy. ‘For us 30 ºCelsius (86 ºF) is a really hot day, and as a result the acidity remains high', according to Michael Brajkovich, Kumeu River’s winemaker – and one of the first non-Brits to qualify as a Master of Wine.

Although frost can cause problems in the vineyards every third year or so, the climate is much less of a threat to this family-owned operation than encroaching urbanisation. The Brajkovich’s own Hunting Hill and Maté’s vineyards, the latter named after the late pater familias and both managed by Michael’s brother Milan, are presumably safe (Maté's vineyard is shown above, Hunting Hill below). But filmmaker Tim Coddington and his wife Angela have put their eponymous vineyard, from which Michael has been making a single-vineyard Chardonnay since 2006, on the market. And the fear is that other owners of the nearby small vineyards whose fruit goes into the most basic Kumeu River Village bottling may also be tempted by rising property prices here.

Last week’s tasting was organised by the owner of fine-wine trader Farr Vintners Stephen Browett, who has been selling Kumeu River wines since he first visited New Zealand in 1990. Michael’s brother Paul Brakjovich was in London on a sales trip and also participated in the blind tasting, but had to be silenced for fear that his scores out of 20 for his own wines (consistently 20) would influence us.

Fourteen of us wine professionals tasted the wines in four flights of five or six by vintage – 2012, 2010, 2009 and 2007 – and the Kumeu River wine achieved the highest total score in each flight, except for the Maté’s Vineyard 2009 that was 0.7 points behind Bouchard Père et Fils’ Meursault Perrières 2009 – and seemed much more youthful than the white burgundy, which many think should have grand cru status.

We all guessed Kumeus pretty correctly in most flights even if there was a little uncertainty over the 2009s because of the tightness of the Lafon Meursault. The Kumeu River wines shone out because they were generally better made and more refined and sophisticated. Perhaps the Brajkoviches are simply trying harder. (The picture below shows the immaculate state of the Hunting Hill vineyard earlier this year.) It was not the performance of these relatively inexpensive New Zealand wines that was shocking, but the state of some of the white burgundies.

The Laguiche Chassagne Morgeot 2010 had too marked a note of sweaty socks for a wine costing more than £500 a case. The Girardin Meursault Narvaux 2009 oxidised in the glass. Three of the five 2007 white burgundies were past their best, with the Leflaive Clavoillon, the most expensive wine in the tasting, dead as a dodo. At a recent dinner at Ballymaloe near Cork in Ireland I happened to have the chance to taste two bottles of Leflaive Pucelles 2007 and one Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet 2007 (about £400 a bottle retail) that had come straight from the domaine in Puligny-Montrachet. Only one of these three bottles, one of the Pucelles, was fresh enough to enjoy.

On the other hand, every one of the Kumeu River wines was fresh as a daisy and clearly had a glorious future ahead of it. Paul Brajkovich claims that their single-vineyard 2004 Chardonnays are in the peak of condition at 12 years old. (He also cited 2010 and 2007 as especially impressive vintages.)

We didn’t even bother tasting the Niellon village Chassagne-Montrachet 2012 because it was so obviously affected by cork taint. One major difference between all these white burgundies and New Zealand upstarts was that Kumeu River switched completely to screwcaps in 2001 after having to recall 600 cases of 1998 cork-tainted Chardonnay from the US.

The good news for us wine lovers is that, although 2010 was clearly a remarkably good vintage for New Zealand Chardonnay, 2014 promises to be the best vintage yet, and will be released on export markets next year. (Kumeu River is imported into the UK and US by Boxford Wines/Farr Vintners and Wilson Daniels respectively.) After the blind tasting we tasted all the Kumeu River Chardonnays from the tiny, cool but impressive 2013 vintage: the precise Village blend that makes up about half of Kumeu River’s Chardonnay output; the taut, barrel-fermented Estate bottling from five different vineyards that constitutes a further quarter to a third; the luscious early-developing Coddington Vineyard; the steely Hunting Hill (called ‘the Puligny of New Zealand’ chez Farr); and the backward, concentrated Maté’s Vineyard.

For many years NZ Chardonnay has been in the wilderness, with growers encouraged to pull it up to make way for the more popular Sauvignon Blanc. But the likes of Bell Hill, Black Estate, Felton Road, Fromm, Millton, Mountford, Neudorf, Pegasus Bay and Pyramid Valley have remained steadfast in their determination to prove New Zealand an impressive home for the white burgundy grape. Winemaker Hugh Crichton is responsible for some particularly fine Chardonnays at Vidal now too.

It may be worth pointing out that, although this tasting was held at London’s most significant traders in fine wine on the day that a host of Bordeaux producers including Château Margaux released their 2014s en primeur, Bordeaux was not discussed once.

With prices per dozen bottles in bond for the Kumeu River wines, per bottle for the white burgundies.

Kumeu River, Hunting Hill Vineyard 2013 (£200 Farr Vintners soon)
Kumeu River, Maté’s Vineyard 2013 (£220 Farr Vintners soon)
Kumeu River Estate 2012 (£140 Farr Vintners)
Kumeu River, Coddington Vineyard 2010 (£200 Farr Vintners)
Kumeu River, Maté’s Vineyard 2009 (£220 Farr Vintners – sold out)
Kumeu River, Hunting Hill Vineyard 2007 (£200 Farr Vintners)

Jean-Noël Gagnard, Chassagne-Montrachet Boudriottes 2010 (£55 Berry Bros)
Fontaine Gagnard, Chassagne-Montrachet Vergers 2010 (£41.25 Four Walls Wine)
Domaine Comtes Lafon Meursault 2009 (£54 The Butlers Wine Cellar)
Drouhin, Meursault Perrières 2009 (£158.80 a magnum Hedonism)
Jean-Philippe Fichet, Puligny-Montrachet Referts 2007 (not available)

See also my detailed tasting notes.