An Amazing Blind Tasting - Kumeu River triumphs over top white Burgundies.
Monday, 11th May 2015 by Stephen Browett
I first tasted Kumeu River Chardonnay at The White Horse, Chilgrove in the late 1980's. It was probably the 1987 vintage but could even have been the first ever vintage - 1985. Despite being a young wine merchant with a focus almost exclusively on French wines, I was really impressed by it and decided to track some down. Not long after this, I travelled to New Zealand in January 1990 where I saw Linford Christie win the 100m in the Commonwealth Games. More importantly, as it turned out, I visited the Kumeu River winery where I met Michael Brajkovich (New Zealand's first Master of Wine) for the first time along with his dad, Maté. I saw the vineyard that they were in the process of planting (that was subsequently named "Maté's Vineyard" following Maté's death) and tasted the 1989 vintage Kumeu River Chardonnay from barrel. This was a brilliant Chardonnay then and it remained so for many years afterwards. This is a wine that I subsequently served blind to visiting French winemakers, and other guests, scores of times over the coming years and they invariably guessed it to be a Corton Charlemagne or a Meursault.
I am very proud of the fact that not only did Farr Vintners immediately order the 1989 Kumeu River Chardonnay but that we have shipped every vintage ever since. It was hard to sell in those early days but those blind tastings worked a treat until I got such a reputation for it that people would guess "Kumeu River" before they'd even walked through the door!
The quality of the Kumeu River wines was always outstanding but in recent years, as the vines have matured, the Estate Chardonnay has got better and better. Maté's Vineyard came into production in 1994 and since 2006 two other single vineyard wines - Hunting Hill and Coddington - have been added to the portfolio. The press woke up to the quality of the wines a few years back and now scores in the mid 90's are regularly awarded. Amazingly, the prices remain modest with the fabulous Estate Chardonnay 2012 selling today at £145 in bond, up just a little from the £120 per case at which we sold this wine over 20 years ago!
For many years now, I have said to Michael, and his brother Paul, that we really must organise a blind tasting of Kumeu River Chardonnay v White Burgundy. With a quarter of a century having passed since my first visit to Kumeu, this seemed like an appropriate time to do it.
First of all, we selected 1 bottle of each of Kumeu's four Chardonnays in four different vintages - Estate 2012, Coddington 2010, Maté's 2009 and Hunting Hill 2007. Then we assembled a range of Premier Cru and Village Burgundies from the best producers - Leflaive, Lafon, Sauzet, Niellon etc from the same vintages.
We then invited a panel of experts to take part in a blind tasting where the wines were served, decanted, in random order and scored before they were discussed. Our experts included Jancis Robinson MW, Derek Smedley MW, Neal Martin (of The Wine Advocate), Mattew Jukes (Daily Mail), Tina Gellie (Decanter Magazine), Jamie Goode (Wineanorak.com) and Will Lyons of the Wall Street Journal.
The flights were as follows with market prices for each wine (GBP per doz in bond) shown in brackets:
The results of this tasting were quite extraordinary, and a stunning victory for Kumeu River!
In flight one the comfortable winner was the Estate Chardonnay with an average score of 17.04 followed by the Sauzet in second place with 16.54.
In flight two the Coddington Chardonnay was a runaway winner with an average score of 17.42. The Fontaine Gagnard was in second place with 16.83
In flight three we had a tie for first place between the Maté’s Vineyard and the Bouchard Meursault Perrieres, both scoring 17.17.
In flight four the Hunting Hill romped home with the highest average score of the entire tasting – 17.50. The Sauzet was second with 16.71.
Full tasting notes will, no doubt, appear soon in The Financial Times, Jancisrobinson.com, The World of Fine Wine, erobertparker.com, The Wall Street Journal, wineanorak.com, dereksmedleymw.co.uk and matthewjukes.com.
We then tasted a range of older Kumeu vintages back to my very last bottle of 1989 – now a deep amber colour but still alive. The best of all were the 2010’s but the 2011’s and 2012’s were all showing really well. We also tasted the full range in 2013 – a very good but tiny vintage with around a third of the normal production.
This was a great day for Kumeu River and Farr Vintners is delighted and proud to have been a passionate distributor of their wines for 25 years.