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To Paint A Picture: Kumeu River Chardonnay 2006-2017

BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 14, 2019

Chardonnay is the blank canvas upon which winemakers can paint whatever they want, whether it be a boring sketch or an awe-inspiring masterpiece. Covering Burgundy, I enjoy my unfair share of dazzling Chardonnay, much of it rare and costing a pretty penny. That does not mean I turn up my nose at the myriad of brilliant Chardonnays born outside the Côte d’Or, not least in South Africa and New Zealand, the two countries under my purview. The best stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the grandest labels from Burgundy, which is not meant as a poke in the eye, just an observation from experience. Amongst the very best Chardonnay producers in the world is Kumeu River in New Zealand. Their Chardonnays were put to the test a few years ago when several were assessed blind, intermixed with some very serious Puligny-Montrachets and Meursaults. Kumeu River triumphed to such an extent that it became almost embarrassing. And to think that you can buy an entire case of Kumeu River for the cost of a single bottle of some Grand Crus.

I have been following Kumeu River and its founders, the Brajkovich family, for many years, and in fact, a tasting held in 1999 formed one of the first pieces I ever wrote for the original Wine-Journal. But I had never undertaken a vertical tasting of their flagship Chardonnays, at least until UK agent Farr Vintners assembled the last 12 vintages of the Estate Chardonnay, Maté’s Vineyard, Hunting Hill and Coddington, inviting co-owner Paul Brajkovich to oversee what he described as “the most comprehensive Kumeu River tasting ever done.” Here was a chance to compare the vineyards, examine their ageing potential (under screwcap, of course) and learn more of their story.


Paul Brajkovich, pictured following the tasting in September last year.

History 

Živogošće. No, I have no clue how to pronounce it, either. This tongue-twister is in fact the Croatian town where the Brajkovich family lived until 1937, the year when Mick, Katé and their son Maté migrated to New Zealand. Having already worked farmland in Croatia, they found employment in local vineyards and orchards; then, in 1944, the family purchased land around 25km northwest of the city of Auckland. Over the next six years, Maté planted vines in what is now the vineyard named in his honour. He married another Croatian émigré, Melba Sutich, in 1957, and together they had four children: Michael, Marijana, Milan and Paul. Mick died in 1949, and so Maté and Katé ran what was then known as San Marino Vineyards, the fruit mainly destined for sherry production, since, as in Australia, the beverage industry was based around fortified wines. I remember Michael telling me once that they grew a lot of Müller-Thurgau in the 1970s that they would sell from the cellar door or to local cafés and restaurants, doubtless inspired by the popularity of German wines at that time. They would also experiment with Bordeaux grape varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Merlot, though it was always the Chardonnay that showed potential.

The children became more involved in the running of the vineyard during the 1980s. Roseworthy-trained Michael Brajkovich worked the 1983 vintage in Bordeaux with J-P Moueix where he was in charge of Château Magdelaine under the guidance of Jean-Claude Berrouet and then visited Burgundy and became inspired by the growers that he saw such as Vincent Leflaive.


Paul Brajkovich sent me this photograph of his father Maté. Not only did Maté establish the vineyard, but he was also one of the leading figures in New Zealand’s wine industry up to his passing.

The name was changed to Kumeu River and the family soon became known within the nascent modern wine industry for their Burgundy-inspired Chardonnays using indigenous yeasts and extended lees ageing. Their first vintage debuted in 1985, and it is fair to say that in those early days, they followed the vogue for buttery Chardonnay, so different from the terroir-driven, tension-filled wines of today. In 1989 Michael Brajkovich became the country’s inaugural Master of Wine and a highly respected figurehead within the industry, one of the first to advocate the use of screwcaps (more on that later). The wines gained a loyal following overseas, and following the Burgundy template, Kumeu River established a small range of single-vineyard sites. It continues as a family affair, Michael’s younger brother Paul Brajkovich working on the commercial side, Milan serving as vineyard director and Melba keeping everyone in order. The story does not stop there; in 2017, they acquired their first vines outside Kumeu, Ray’s Vineyard in Hawke’s Bay. The vineyard had been a joint venture between Trinity Hill and Pascal Jolivet in Sancerre. Kumeu River have now purchased the vineyard outright and are gradually re-planting the Sauvignon Blanc with Chardonnay. 

Kumeu’s Single Vineyards

Kumeu River presently farms around 30 hectares of vine augmented by another 10 hectares from long-term contracts. The vines lie mainly on clay soils over sandstone, the water-retentive clay allowing the Brajkoviches to cultivate vines without irrigation. The vines are always harvested and sorted by hand. Kumeu River’s portfolio includes Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and a sparkling wine, but the purview of this report is their signature Chardonnays: the Estate Chardonnay, which is a selection from six different parcels and sees around 20% new oak, plus three single-vineyard cuvées. In my cache of old articles, I found useful information about these vineyards, gleaned from correspondence with Michael Brajkovich in 2006, when they were launching Hunting Hill and Coddington.

“All three vineyards share some characteristics,” Brajkovich explained, “but there are important differences, too, which certainly show up in the wines. Maté’s Vineyard is where Maté used to hunt rabbits and pheasants. He passed away before the maiden vintage in 1992 was picked and the wine was named in his honour when released the following year. It is the site of our oldest Chardonnay, all Mendoza clone on a mixture of 3309C, 101-14, 420A and Riparia Gloire rootstocks, planted in 1990. It lies adjacent to the main highway, facing just about north and quite sheltered in a low-lying spot. The soil is quite heavy yellow alluvial clay with 300-600mm clay-loam topsoil, and typically low pH, which we have had to treat with lime. The vines are trained to the Lyre trellis with a spacing of 3.4m x 1.2m. We have to press harder in order to extract the juice, but you get white wine tannins and more extract. It is matured in around 30% new oak from Seguin Moreau. Maté’s can be closed when young and there is always an underlying density and concentration. Although often shy on the nose as a young wine, Maté’s always has the most impressive density and length on the feel, with a mineral edge. As the aromas develop, a pear-like character becomes evident, along with citrus-peel notes and a nutty character.”


The entrance to Maté’s Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Kumeu River.

“Hunting Hill is on the slopes overlooking Maté’s Vineyard, just to the north. It is a slightly cooler site affected by westerly coastal breezes. The aspect is not as favorable as Maté’s, with a lean towards the west. The soil is predominantly clay similar to Maté’s but with a volcanically derived iron pan about 300mm from the surface which has to be broken up before planting. This site was planted in 1982 and provided most of the fruit for our original Kumeu River Chardonnays from the mid-1980s, but increasing leaf-roll virus led to its replanting in 2001. It is also trained on the Lyre trellis, splitting the canopy in two. Here we use Clone 15 and not Mendoza, with the same mix of rootstocks as Maté’s, though the proportion of 3309C is much less. It is matured in 25% new oak from François Frères cooperage. It tends to produce Chardonnay with a lime blossom fragrance, quite linear in style.”

“Coddington is located 5.5km west of Maté’s, between Huapai and Waimauku. The soil is very similar to Maté’s, with a northeastern exposure on heavier clay. Planted in 1994, the trellis is single curtain VSP spaced at 2.2 meters between the rows and 1.5 meters between vines. The clone is UCD15, with the same mix of rootstocks. We use slightly toastier barrels, around 25% new oak with 11 months on the lees. The first vintage was in 2006 and production is 800 to 900 cases. This fruit is always very rich and ripe with distinct yellow peach and apricot characters on the nose, and barley-sugar and honey on the palate, but with a very strong acid finish.”

Paul Brajkovich surprised us all by detailing how Coddington may soon disappear from Kumeu’s portfolio. “Tim Coddington is a movie producer and a keen polo player. In 2015 they began to run the vineyard themselves and it has now been sold. The new owners will not give us a lease longer than one year, so beyond 2019 we have to see what will happen.”  

The grapes are whole-bunch pressed and then transferred into French oak for alcoholic fermentation, as already mentioned, using indigenous wild yeasts from the vineyard (which, along with the variances in soil profile, the Brajkoviches believe lends each cuvée its own character). They go through complete malolactic fermentation on their lees until the following harvest, so around 11 months in total. Returning to the subject of alternative closures, Paul and Michael Brajkovich both furnished me with more information via email. This is worth reading if you want to know exactly why the entire New Zealand wine industry rejected natural corks.

“We used to live with TCA rates of 5-10%, which was annoying, but then in 1998 and 1999 we saw TCA rates at over 30%,” Paul explained. “We had to bring back 600 cases of Estate Chardonnay from the United States because of complaints over cork taint. When the wine arrived back, an insurance assessor had two independent tasters randomly select 100 bottles out of the 600 cases. They found that only 25 bottles of that 100 tasted the way they should and that the rest were affected by the cork in some way, either with TCA, leakage or oxidation. We also isolated 200 cases of 1999 Maté’s Vineyard where we were getting significant TCA problems and decided to open all the bottles and re-cork the good ones. Through this exercise, we threw away 30% of the wine due to TCA, but just as alarming, when tasting through the wines, only 1 in 20 bottles was really good. This led us to believe that all the wine should taste like the good bottle and that apart from the TCA, corks had a problem of variance with their seals. The first vintage that was entirely under screwcap was 2001. The acceptance in New Zealand, Australia and the UK was really good. The United States, Asia and parts of Europe were more problematic but two or three years of explanation and tasting saw the closures being accepted, and now we barely have to mention it.”

Before leaving this subject, Michael Brajkovich added one more important observation about the closure. “The Saran Tin liner is the most important component part of the screwcap. It has a very low oxygen transmission rate, equivalent to the very best corks, but much more consistent. Unfortunately, many US and European producers have been using the Saranex liner when they changed to screwcap. This liner lacks the tin film, and has a much higher oxygen transmission rate. We trialled these many years ago and occasionally taste some wines that have used them. They all show some degree of oxidation, which always gets worse with age.”

The Wines

I will broach the wines by vintage, since Paul Brajkovich offered insights into each growing season. One headline is: consistency, consistency, consistency. Although the growing seasons do not always play ball, I was amazed that so few of the 48 wines did not perform up to standard. Factor in prices that frankly make a mockery of much of white Burgundy and Napa, and you are left scratching your head as to why Kumeu River is not uttered in the same breath as Leflaive, Ramonet or Marcassin.


I commence with 2006, which Brajkovich described as “a perfect year when everything went right.” Maybe that is true, but I must confess that I preferred the subsequent vintage. The 2006 Estate Chardonnay was the pick of the four cuvées, and after 12 years it continues to drink well. “The 2007 vintage was cooler than 2006, similar to 2009 but with more concentrated fruit and lower yields. The wines tend to be citrus-like rather than peachy but with good mineralité,” Brajkovich explained. This was a big step up from the 2006, with scintillating wines across the board. The standout is the magnificent, taut and linear 2007 Hunting Hill, although the 2007 Maté’s Vineyard and Coddington are not far behind. They have aged supremely well over the last decade and there is nothing here to suggest that under screwcap they will not give another decade of drinking pleasure. “The 2008 vintage was warmer and there was a bit of botrytis in the vineyard. The wines tend to be deeper in colour,” Brajkovich advised. The 2008 Coddington and Maté’s Vineyard showed the best here, the former displaying a nose that is a doppelgänger for Corton-Charlemagne. The 2009 vintage was very consistent, though I did fall for the Muscadet-like 2009 Hunting Hill. Brajkovich remarked, “The 2009 vintage was abundant but a good year with no weather issues. It was just slightly cooler in the early part of summer. The fruit was not as ripe as 2010 or 2014 so the wines tend to be fresher in style.”

“The 2010 growing season was very good,” Brajkovich continued. “There was a spring frost but there followed a good summer, resulting in concentrated wines.” Again, the 2010 Hunting Hill really stood out here and left others trailing behind. Slip it into a line-up of posh Burgundies and you would not be able to pick it out. “The 2011 was a tough vintage. We had to dodge the rain during the harvest and so we had to use twice as many pickers.” Perhaps for that reason, the blend of vineyards shows the best, since they could select the best parcels in the challenging growing season. It does not rank amongst the best wines from Kumeu River, although it should be considered a success given the context. The 2011 Estate Chardonnay excelled the following year as well, although here it must vie for “best in show” against a superb 2011 Maté’s Vineyard. “The 2012 vintage was similar to 2017, with healthy fruit. It is not as concentrated as 2013 or 2014, the wines subtler in style,” Brajkovich observed. I suspect that these will drink sooner than other vintages. “With regard to 2013, there was a severe frost in September 2012. Helicopters were used [to circulate the air] but they could not find warm air. Then there followed a warm summer that produced incredibly concentrated fruit, but it was a tiny vintage.” Here the single-vineyards assert their authority over the Estate Chardonnay. Again, I was smitten by the precision shown by the 2013 Hunting Hill Vineyard – it’s just a shame so little was produced.


Perhaps inspired by Christian Moueix, who used the same technique over Petrus in the early 1990s, this helicopter was hired in September 2012 to try to move the cold air away from the vineyard and limit frost damage.

“The 2014 vintage was spectacular: clean fruit that was ripe and easy to harvest. Michael describes 2014 as generous. The wines were always luscious in bottle but have retained tightness. It is a benchmark for Kumeu River,” enthused Paul. He is not wrong. Consistent across the board, including the Estate, it is difficult to choose between the three single-vineyards, although the 2014 Maté’s Vineyard really is a benchmark release from Kumeu River, equal to a Premier Cru Burgundy in all but price. The Maté’s Vineyard also shines the following year, although the growing season was more challenging. “The 2015 season was one of the cooler years, good in quality but a small crop. The Chardonnays tend to be more citrus-like,” Brajkovich said, “and the 2016 was a good vintage, riper than 2017 and more peachy in style. It was a more abundant growing season in recent years.” Maybe I was just expecting a little more from these wines despite their youth. That said, I admire the tension displayed by the 2016 Coddington, though Maté’s might constitute the long-term prospect. The youngest vintage was 2017. “The growing season was slightly cooler,” Brajkovich told us. “It started promising but became more difficult during harvest. Hand-harvesting was important this year to obtain good fruit. I like the fragrance of the 2017s.” That attention to detail certainly pays rewards, with 2017 Maté’s Vineyard and Hunting Hill the standouts in what is an impressive set of wines all round.

Final Thoughts

World class: two words loaded with import and used too liberally these days. Apropos of Kumeu River’s Chardonnays, those two words are apt. My expectations were high coming into this tasting and I did not depart disappointed, thanks to consistency and quality. No wonder Kumeu has such a devoted following. The tasting revealed my predilection for Hunting Hill, which stood out in many of the flights, closely followed by Maté’s Vineyard. Maybe I am less enthused by Coddington. It is a pity that Kumeu River may lose this vineyard, and being constrained by 12-month contracts risks impeding long-term investment, but in my view their two strongest single cuvées will remain. To reiterate, prices mean that in terms of value for money, these Chardonnays (available through Farr Vintners in the UK and Wilson Daniels in the United States) are almost unbeatable. Since the early days of the New Zealand wine industry, Kumeu River has been the standard-bearer for Chardonnay. They have not diversified too much or expanded into other New Zealand wine regions – at least not until recently, with their new project in Hawke’s Bay. For me, their signature will always be Chardonnay. When the Brajkovich family was given a canvas upon which to paint their own expression of this grape variety, they decided to create a masterpiece.

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