Panning for Gold in the Kumeu River: New Zealand
Monday, 19 February 2018 by Peter Carter
Peter Carter is an old customer and friend of the company who sent us through this blog after a recent trip to long-standing Farr favourite Kumeu River. Thanks to Peter for this piece.
I am a die-hard White Burgundy lover. I have paid ridiculous sums of money for Montrachets. I used to think of village Puligny Montrachet as house wines.
Then came the 1996 oxidations and the constant fear of corked wine. There were still highlights that kept the addiction alive; a Criots-Batard-Montrachet that made your senses spin and your mouth go into sensual reverie, but you could no longer count on reliability.
Then Farr introduced me to a little discovery from New Zealand, Kumeu River wines. Some years ago, Kumeu released a Maté’s vineyard selection, planted by the deceased Croatian founder, from vines across the highway from the winery.
Whilst he never tasted this wine, his name lives on in a seam of Chardonnay gold treasured and nurtured by the next generation. Three sons, the first Master of Wine in New Zealand, an Engineer, a Marketing specialist and to complete the team, their sister, the Accountant.
I have bought this wine ever since, totally reliable, totally delicious every time. Never a corked wine since it’s bottled under screw-cap and never oxidized.
The 1996 Maté’s vineyard matures a little more each year, losing incremental steps of acidity and releasing soft honeyed fruit to fool you into a reminiscence of the Batard. Farr suggests I withdraw the wine from their cellars but I am having a rethink following my visit to the winery.
We are circumnavigating New Zealand in a smallish ship and we are due into the metropolis of business like Auckland on a Sunday when the wineries are usually closed. However, Farr mentioned to Kumeu River that I was a big fan and Paul Brajkovich has agreed to meet us after lunch. Despite a third of the population of New Zealand living in Auckland, we travel from dock to vineyard straight out on a highway in twenty minutes or so.
I was way over excited, I had brought my notebook for tasting notes but just walked around, listened to Paul, asked loads of questions, took photos, tasted as much as we could and just smiled.
Our first impression was of a very functional and clean winery. We walked through the back door with Paul chatting away in a general marketing sort of way. I asked about the vines nearest us and Paul replied that they were two rows of Merlot for his mother who likes to have them close at hand to enjoy straight off the vine. I knew then that I was in the presence of an honest family man dedicated to life to be enjoyed, with respect for those around him.
We learnt that the grapes are all hand picked by local pickers, whole clusters, no de-stemming. Indigenous yeasts with full Malo-lactic fermentation to soften the high innate acidity.
So what makes the Kumeu River wines so good?
“A whole combination of little quality improvements and taste.”
Around 20% new all French barrels but continuous use of good barrels for around ten years with toastings that allow you to taste the difference.
No overclaims of unique terroir, no unobtainable chardonnay clone not used by anyone else. There is an emphasis on continuous taste monitoring and the effects of any part of the vinification or selection on the taste.
The lab area had the expected test tubes and sensors but also, throughout the room, there were tidily placed reference bottles of top Burgundy. No antipodean rivals, no southern hemisphere cost comparisons just the good stuff from the Chardonnay homeland.
We tasted the full line up of 2016 from the basic ‘village’ Chardonnay with some grapes brought in, to Matés vineyard. Complexity grew but all retained their clean fresh acidity and vibrant fruit. This reminded me of tasting in Alsace with the emphasis on deliciously drinkable wines that go great with food.
Moving onto earlier vintages and Paul’s feeling that the 2012’s are perfect now; softened acidity, retention of fruit and a honeyed sweet aroma that entices the palate.
Surrounding us were photos of Maté, the current directors as children, the young vineyards and the buildings. We were not surrounded by ego driven awards or marketing paraphernalia, no T -shirts, umbrellas or bottle openers, only current and past memories of a proud family business.
There was no artifice; even the labels seem to be merely providers of information; the vineyard or blend, no pretension or marketing spiel.
It seemed fitting that the Maté’s vineyard was the most loved wine of the day for us all. I never under estimate the preferences of casual wine drinkers to appreciate quality more easily in a blind tasting. My usually un-impressable friend asked why Maté’s was so great all the way back to the ship. Even Paul admitted that the Maté’s had them fooled as it seemed to get better every year with no sign of it falling away-yet.
Just before we left we were joined by Michael Brajkovich MW who came by sniffing for some wine to drink. We sampled the new Kumeu Cremant, not a light frizzant as the French used to make (Mumm) but a sparkling wine reminding us of a young Nyetimber. This needs tasting in five years. (Note to diary for return home. Order some from Farr.)
Great visit. Thank you Paul. Thank you Kumeu River wines for returning great Chardonnay at more than good value prices to the centre of my drinking life.
No hype, great wine, great hope for the future. “No Worries”, as they say in New Zealand.