Nerve and Steel: Tasting Kumeu River
Chardonnay is arguably the greatest white grape. Because of its flexibility in the cellar, and its ability to grow well in many regions around the world, Chardonnay also offers perhaps the greatest diversity of any single white grape. The common understanding is that Chardonnay is a cellar grape whereas a grape like Riesling is a grape of terroir.
There is truth to this. However, in my experience the very best expressions of Chardonnay from around the world have a distinct edge and incomparability that complexifies the notion that Chardonnay is a cellar grape.
Chardonnay in the New World
The New World has had a difficult relationship with Chardonnay. Confronting the grape with high ripeness levels and an acute awareness of market trends led many producers to make innocuous flabby wines. In the last several years there has been a renaissance of Chardonnay in many New World regions including California, Australia and New Zealand. However, the most interesting producers are still very difficult to find and do not see much distribution.
New Zealand has dramatically improved its reputation beyond their distinct approach to Sauv Blanc. Now Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and some Syrah and Bordeaux varieties are showing up at very good quality levels. However, while there is plenty of good wine, there is still rarely truly great wine. Only a few producers have reached the upper echelon, which includes producers like Felton Road, Pyramid Valley and, in many people’s opinion, Kumeu River. When it comes to Chardonnay, I personally think that Kumeu’s style is the most distinctive of the three.
A Historic New Zealand Winery
Founded in 1944 by two Croatian immigrants to New Zealand and originally called San Marino Vineyards, Kumeu has grown through several generations of the Brajkovich family and, through many twists and turns, has ended up focusing on Chardonnay. The family has had a significant influence on the New Zealand wine industry, including having the country’s first Master of Wine in winemaker Michael Brajkovich.
Kumeu’s unique location in a narrow band of northern New Zealand means close proximity to two coasts, no more than 20km away in the east and the west. This coastal influence keeps temperatures quite modest, with summer heat spikes almost never reaching above 30 degrees celsius. Because of this unique climate, the wines all possess bracing acidity – you will not find a single wine struggling with freshness.
Kumeu’s farming practices tend towards a focus on ‘sustainability’, but they are not biodynamic farmers or ‘natural’ wine makers. They use various treatments, including fungicides and herbicides, but hold off as long as possible and try to use as little as possible. Further, canopy management plays an important role in minimizing rot. The vines are all planted using U-trellises in order to let the vines breath and to improve air flow. The minimal pruning is done by hand. All the grapes are hand harvested.
In the cellar, all of the chardonnays other than the village wine are barrel fermented. For the estate cuvee, each plot is vinified separately and blended later.
My overall impression of Kumeu’s Chardonnays, which comprise 60% of their total production, is of clean, crisp acids and a cool climate range of aromas from citrus to, at its richest, peach, and plenty of minerality. There is nothing heady or tropical about these wines, and when they do rarely veer into orchard fruit rather than citrus, it is with a very light hand and a total lack of heaviness or awkwardness. These truly are some of the best Chardonnays being made in the New World.
Estate Pinot Gris 2011: Peach, pear, spice on the classic nose. This is a juicy, clean and fresh style of Pinot Gris with slight residual sugar to soften the wine and make it austere. The grapes see a long press that adds tannic grip and gives texture to the wine. An interesting wine. Very Good.
Estate Pinot Gris 2010: More intertwined aromas with deeper spice on the nose as compared to the 2011. It is also riper and richer than the 2011, with some secondary spice notes and a slight honeyed component along with an interesting bitter note on the finish. This comes across less sweet but richer than the 2011. This vintage had some botrytis. Very Good.
Village Chardonnay 2009: Tank fermented with a small amount of rejected barrel aged juice from the estate chard. This is an all wild yeast ferment and is left on the lees in tank. The lees are microoxygenated during fermentation to avoid reduction. With toast and lemon on the nose, this is a clean acid driven style and a good basic Chard without too much complexity. It is, however, very good value at prices in the $20-$30 range. Very Good.
Estate Chardonnay 2008: Kumeu River has been making this Chardonnay longer than any other. Vinified in 22% new oak, with both primary and malo-lactic fermentations in barrel, this is a toasty, dense wine with rich aromas. However, on the palate the acid is quite tangy with a central core of bright citrus fruit. Medium length finish. Needs time. Very Good+
Estate Chardonnay 2005: Toast, butter, cream and ctirus on the nose. Some golden apple and honey showing now as very subtle bottle age notes start to develop. This is still very tangy with an intense lemon focus and a mouth watering finish. It also has a unique bitter character on the finish that seems to thread through most of the vintages of the estate Chardonnay. Very Good+.
Estate Chardonnay 2004: The nose here is less delineated than the younger vintages and the wine is softer and less explosively aromatic. This is due to the greater bottle age, which has transformed this wine into a mature expression of Chardonnay with excellent structure and a wonderful waxy, honeyed style. Very Good+.
The Estate Chardonnays are priced around $30-$40 in this market.
Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2009: A stunning wine and one of the most exciting of the tasting, this had the most elegant, complex aromatics, with flowers, lime and minerals. This is a big step above the estate and an impressive example of both the 2009 vintage and the special qualities of the Hunting Hill vineyard. Excellent to Excellent+.
Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2008: A consistent distinction between this vineyard and all the other wines, including the estate, is a shift from lemon to lime as the dominant citrus. When combined with the florality of the wine I find this a more ‘asian’ style of aroma combinations and, to my palate, a more interesting combination of flavours. The 2008 is not quite as elegant or complex as the 2009, however, which brings it down a notch. Very Good+ to Excellent.
Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2007: The first signs of bottle development show themselves here. Quite acidic and linear. Intense lime, clay and mineral on the palate. Very Good+ to Excellent.
Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2006: The aromas here show the age. It is a bit more dead aromatically than the younger wines, with a softer texture. Of course, that is typical and the honeyed notes on the palate compensate somewhat for the lost aromatics. However, for a vineyard with such exciting aromas, I prefer this wine younger. Very Good+.
Coddington Chardonnay 2009: Known to be the richest of the Chardonnays due to its clay soils and south facing aspect, the Coddington is quite rare, though it tied with the ‘09 Hunting Hill for my favourite wine of the tasting. Apples, honey and peach. This is noticeably the darkest colour of all the Chardonnays and displayed the richest aromas. A very fresh and exciting palate that dances even with the ripeness. This is a roast chicken wine. Excellent to Excellent+
Mate’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2007: Planted with the Mendoza clone (which was the first Chardonnay clone in New Zealand). Toast and nutes on the palate, this wine is quite minerally, savory and succulent. Big and round, but of course very fresh, as is the hallmark of all Kumeu’s Chardonnays. Excellent.
All the single vineyard Chardonnays are priced around $50 in the B.C. market.
Kumeu also makes a limited amount of red wine. To be honest, I did not find the reds particularly interesting, nor would I recommend them when it is clearly the Chardonnay that is Kumeu’s hallmark.
Estate Pinot Noir 2009: Bright cherry, subtle earthiness. A lean pinot with balanced acidity, but in my opinion lacking concentration. It does not even come close to the top Pinot producers in New Zealand (Felton Road and Pyramid Valley). Very Good.
Melba Merlot 2009: I will be honest. I found this wine green and tannic and uninteresting. Fair.
All the wines are under a stelvin closure.