Unlike many in the wine world, the Brajkovich family are not known for over-hyping the quality of their wines at Kumeu River. Despite consistently high praise in critical review for Chardonnays that are – in our opinion – world class, the prices and people behind the wines have remained remarkably modest. And so, when Michael Brajkovich told us that 2020 might be the best vintage he has ever made, we took it very seriously. Could the new vintage possibly top the unquestionably great 2019s?
The vintage started with a warm, precocious spring in New Zealand; flowering and fruit set were two weeks ahead of schedule. Drought marked the summer months in 2020: January through to the harvest month of March were extremely dry. Despite the lack of rain, temperatures remained moderate – mostly in the mid to high 20s with fewer days exceeding 30C than normal. This combination of cool and dry conditions allows for superb health in the vineyard and full ripeness in combination with retained high acidity and low pH. This is a perfect set of circumstances for a great vintage, and so it has proven in the glass.
Farr Vintners customers should be well versed in our opinion of the Kumeu River wines. Produced in the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island just outside of Auckland, the barrel-fermented Chardonnays have more in common with great white Burgundy than their neighbours. The Estate Chardonnay is invariably one of the great value white wines in the world. Made from a blend of six different vineyard sites, it brings together the key elements that make great Kumeu River – smoky reduction in tandem with bright and powerful fruit, a streak of fresh acidity holding together a rich fruit core, layered with the subtle spices of oak maturation. It is hand-harvested, whole-bunch pressed and barrel fermented with 100% malolactic fermentation before ageing in barrel for 11 months. Every decision puts quality first, and this is evidenced in the glass. That the price for new releases is just £155 per dozen in bond is quite remarkable – it would test many wines at ten times the price. The 2020 is less immediate than the 2019, but has beautiful precision and finesse combined with a real structure. Chiselled and refined, it will provide superb drinking pleasure in the mid-term. While it can be drunk now, it should be brilliant with two years of bottle age.
The single vineyards of Coddington, Hunting Hill and Maté’s all carry the unique character of Kumeu River yet have distinct personalities. Coddington is currently at risk due to urbanisation as Auckland expands, but has had a stay of execution for five years. The wines are rich, fruit driven and the most forward of the three – we often compare the style to Chassagne Montrachet. It has been a single vineyard bottling since 2006, and in recent vintages has kicked up a gear. It undergoes the same winemaking as the Estate though with more new oak from a barrel that has a more spicy, toasty character to complement the volume of fruit. The 2020 is a brilliant iteration of this wine – the cool, fresh elements of the vintage tame the richness of site to bring a wine of volume, precision and great length. This layered and complex Coddington could well be the best ever. It still has the trademark approachability, but will benefit from a year or two in bottle before opening.
Hunting Hill is the steely, driven and mineral wine of the three and as such draws comparisons to Puligny Montrachet. These wines need a little more bottle age or decanting than the others, but are magnificent and elegantly powerful. The vines, planted in 2000, reached 20 years old in 2020 and the added depth in recent vintages is a testament to that vine age. It is more often than not Farr Vintners’ favourite wine in the range, and that is the case again in 2020. It displays all the hallmarks of a great Hunting Hill – limey fruit, cutting acidity and mineral drive. There is a pithy, grippy texture to showcase the ageing potential, and with time in the glass it unfurls into a magnificently complex wine. A stunning example that would rival many Premier and even Grand Crus from the Côte de Beaune.
Maté’s Vineyard is the jewel in Kumeu River’s crown, first bottled in 1993. The wines bring the tension of Hunting Hill together with an added weight and richness, partly down to the Mendoza clone of Chardonnay planted here that produces berries of varied size, concentration, ripeness and acidity. This complex and powerful wine has been brilliant in recent vintages and now competes with Hunting Hill as our favourite in the line-up. The 2020 is a notch up in oiliness and ripeness from the Hunting Hill, bringing ripe fruit and pithy structure in equal measure. Despite the concentration and ripeness there is a persistent, fine bead of acidity to keep everything in check. Another outstanding Maté’s.
Rays Road is a recent addition from Hawkes Bay and has a different character to the other single vineyards, as one might expect given the distance between the sites. Here, the character has been more Chablisien, with a savoury, cool and mineral style that is not overly marked by oak or reduction. The 2020 is unquestionably the best Rays Road yet. Keeping its cool and refined character, it builds upon the past two vintages with a saline complexity and creamier texture. This is a subtle but refined wine that shows the progress being made by the Brajkovich team as they understand the site better each year.
2020 is undoubtedly another brilliant vintage at Kumeu River. Time will tell whether 2019 or 2020 will win out, but Michael Brajkovich is clear in his belief that this vintage is his greatest achievement to date. They will be an outstanding pair to taste side by side as they mature. Below are the tasting notes and scores for the vintage – they are must-buys for any serious Chardonnay collector.
2020 Chardonnay Estate, Kumeu River
Kumeu River's Estate Chardonnay must be one of the best value white wines in the world. In a great vintage like 2020 (and 2019) - the high quality of fruit elevates this bottling even closer to the single vineyard wines. Drawn from six vineyard sites around the Kumeu region, it is hand harvested and whole-bunch pressed ahead of spontaneous fermentation and maturation in barrel, of which 20% are new. Michael believes this to be as good as his brilliant 2019 "but with the volume turned up a little bit". Production was down about 25%. Bright, pale lemon in colour. The nose is quintessential Kumeu - bright lemon fruit with a little ripe peach and the classic, seductive reduction of struck flint, layered with a hint of spice from the oak. The palate is thick, richly structured with taut acidity braced against fleshy peaches and pears. There is a crystalline, saline impression here, adding a moreish, savoury complexity. Long and expansive to the finish, this is another excellent Estate Chardonnay. - 94 points
2020 Chardonnay Rays Road, Kumeu River
Kumeu River purchased this Hawkes Bay site in 2017 (which had been planted in 2008 by Trinity Hill) and are continually learning from the different terroir here. The limestone hillside sits at 180m altitude and is dry farmed (i.e. without irrigation). As with all Kumeu's top wines the fruit is hand harvested and whole bunch pressed before fermentation and maturation in barrel at Kumeu - with only a touch of new oak. New clonal plantings are in the blend for the first time in 2020, adding a component that makes this easily the best Rays Road we have tasted to date. Bright, pale yellow colour in the glass. This has a fresh, cool vibrancy on the nose but this year there is a little more richness and ripeness of fruit, bringing a lightly peachy character against a fresh citrus core. The palate follows, with real salinity and a cool note of green fruit before creamy pears and a hint of something riper come through. Silky and fine, this is long and subtle, all about the chalky, textural depth it possesses. - 93 points
2020 Chardonnay Coddington, Kumeu River
The Coddington vineyard has invariably produced the most luscious, rich wines in Kumeu River's range since the decision to bottle it separately in 2006. Hand harvested and whole-bunch pressed, the wine is fermented and matured in barrel, all of which are well toasted from Claude Gillet in St Romain. 30% new oak in 2020. This year Michael said that about 1% of the grapes had some botrytis - giving an extra touch of apricot on the nose and palate. Only 700 dozen produced of what we feel is the best Coddington that we have ever tasted. Bright lemon colour. Luscious peach and apricot fruit on this powerful, expansive nose. This is ripe and instense yet perfectly balanced, finding a layers of gun smoke and sweet spices. The palate is fleshy and full, rich in apricot, cream and a hint of marmalade but the tang of juicy acidity brings ample freshness throughout. Smoky fruits continue to burst through in waves but the structure makes the wine approachable despite its richness. An outstanding Coddington. - 95+ points
2020 Chardonnay Hunting Hill, Kumeu River
The Hunting Hill site sits on the slope that overlooks Mate's Vineyard, and always produces Kumeu's most tightly-wound wines. The vineyard was replanted in 2000 to elevate quality, and at 20 years old in 2020 the vines are producing the best fruit the site has ever seen. This has been bottled as a single vineyard cuvée since 2006. The Brajkovich family are not ones to overstate a vintage, but in 2020 they believe they have even surpassed the magnificent 2019. Hand harvested and whole-bunch pressed, a spontaneous fermentation and maturation take place all in tight-grained Francois Frères barrels, of which 25% are new. Pale lemon-green in colour. Steely and tight on the nose initially, this reveals itself beautifully with air as it always does. Preserved lemon, peach skins and just a hint of lime come through. The palate is chalky and grippy with phenolics, built with superb structure for the long term. Against this is intense, cool fruit. Crystalline citrus and riper stone fruit come through together, building in intensity through the mid palate. The struck flint note is persistent throughout but always in balance with the fruit. Cutting acidity lingers on the finish in tandem with the fruit. Long and expansive, this should get ever better after a few years of bottle age. - 97 points
2020 Chardonnay Maté’s Vineyard, Kumeu River
The vines for Mate's Vineyard turned 30 years old for the 2020 vintage here. The Brajkovich family believe this is the highest quality fruit they have ever harvested from this site, the Mendoza clone bringing the perfect blend of smaller, thicker-skinned berries and larger, fresher ones. The fruit is hand harvested and whole bunch pressed before spontaneous fermentation and maturation in Seguin Moreau and Mercurey barrels - of which 30% are new. 1300 cases produced. Bright lemon colour in the glass. Rich and expansive on the nose, bringing the best of Hunting Hill and Coddington together - there is tension and struck match but also rich, heady apricot fruit. The palate is dense and concentrated, oily with peaches, apricot and lemon oil. The volume is held together by a pithy grip and bright, zesty acidity. Complexity comes in waves from spice, succulent fruit and savoury, mineral tones. A structured and harmonious wine, it is an incredibly impressive iteration of Mate's Vineyard. - 96 points