High Praise for an Unsung Hero
02 October 12
New Zealand generally isn't associated with great chardonnay, but this producer has rewritten the rules.
Huon Hooke, Sydney Morning Herald
2 October 2012
For a long time New Zealand chardonnay wasn’t really on the radar. Australia has always been a jump ahead. We fell in love with their sauvignon blanc and drank it like water, but chardonnay was lost in the wake of the savnami. Few Kiwi wineries even bothered to export it here.
The best were outstanding: wines such as Te Mata Elston, Fromm, Ata Rangi Craighall, Neudorf Moutere, Cloudy Bay, Villa Maria Reserve, Clearview Reserve and Kumeu River Mate’s Vineyard. And in more recent times, Felton Road and Bell Hill. But if there is one producer of New Zealand chardonnay that rings the bells consistently, it is Kumeu River.
Winemaker and co-owner Michael Brajkovich graduated dux of the oenology course at South Australia’s Roseworthy Agricultural College in 1982. Since then he’s been making chardonnay at his family’s winery and has developed and refined the wines enormously.
Kumeu River makes five chardonnays now, with the Village ($24) at the base of the pyramid, the Estate ($42) next – frequently of gold-medal quality – and then three single-vineyard wines: Coddington and Hunting Hill (both $54) and Mate’s Vineyard ($68), named after his father, the late Mate Brajkovich, who was also a leader of the country’s wine industry.
Why has New Zealand traditionally lagged with chardonnay? It has a lot to do with the cold climate and naturally high acid in the grapes, which necessitates malolactic fermentation.
The wines of the 1980s and early ’90s had massive malos because the grapes had such high levels of malic acid (which the bacterial malolactic fermentation converts to softer, lactic acid). This resulted in big fat yellow wines dominated by butter and butterscotch aroma and flavour.
As well, the grapes were often affected by botrytis to a greater or lesser degree, which added even more weight and fatness as well as eccentric apricot flavours. And if such wines were grown in Marlborough, they often also had passionfruit/tropical characters like the region’s sauvignon blanc.
Add all these elements to the vanilla derived from enthusiastic use of new barrels, and what resulted was a bizarre cocktail that didn’t always resemble something drinkable.
There are now many more wines that have restraint, finesse and drinkability.
Oak has been pared back and vines have matured, giving deeper, more structured and complex wines. And winemakers have learnt how to tone down the buttery effect of vigorous malolactic.
Brajkovich says if the winemaker chooses to leave the wine on its yeast lees in the barrel unsulfured, the buttery character – produced by a compound called diacetyl – doesn’t appear. And there’s a side benefit: ageing chardonnay on its lees in oak tends to add softness and improve texture, at the same time contributing its own creamy aroma and flavour elements.
Brajkovich was one of the first to adopt this technique, and as a result his chardonnays are some of the finest in New Zealand. All Kumeu River’s vineyards are owned by the Brajkovich family, except Coddington, which is owned by filmmaker Tim Coddington. This vineyard is near Waimauku and is the furthest from the Kumeu River winery, 3.5 kilometres away.
Its grapes consistently achieve the highest ripeness, giving the richest and ripest-tasting wines. Hunting Hill has the highest acidity and most restrained fruit character because it’s a cooler site thanks to its higher altitude and south- and west-facing slopes. Brajkovich is most excited about this vineyard, but it’s still early days (the vines were quite recently planted, in 1999; Coddington in ’94).
Then there is Mate’s Vineyard, a favoured site as it’s directly across the road from the winery.
It was planted in 1990 and has a character all of its own. This is because the clone of chardonnay is Mendoza, a virus-affected clone that yields hen-and-chicken bunches (small, undeveloped berries alongside fat ones). It’s the same clone West Australians call Gingin and is largely responsible for the particular character of Margaret River chardonnays.
The Mate’s Vineyard wines don’t taste much like Margaret River, though, because the terroir is markedly different.
Margaret River is much warmer, and drier, and the soils are different. To give an idea of how cool the growing season is in Kumeu, Brajkovich says most years they only have one or two days above 30 degrees, and last summer, none.
‘‘In 2008, a hotter year, we had one day of 33 degrees, which is unheard of,’’ he says.
When Brajkovich returned to New Zealand in the mid-’80s, he introduced malolactic, barrel fermentation – ‘‘to get a more subtle integration of oak characters into the wine’’ – and has gradually moved towards more subtle barrels to achieve a more balanced oak effect.
All grapes are hand-harvested, whole-bunch pressed and fermented by ambient yeasts.
‘‘Because of the high humidity, we have high disease pressure so we do a triage as the grapes come into the winery,’’ Brajkovich says. ‘‘We want the fruit as clean as possible.’’
In other words, no botrytis or other moulds. ‘‘We try to be on the same page as Burgundy – with our own terroir differences,’’ he says.
A perfect 10
I tasted 10 recent Kumeu River chardonnays, and all were outstanding. There were subtle differences: the Coddingtons were richer and fuller-bodied, the Hunting Hills more restrained and taut with slightly higher (but balanced) acidity, and the Mate’s Vineyard were more rounded, ample and mealy.
The Estate wines showed tremendous value: a little lighter, and with restrained oak, but also complex, with a marvellous honeysuckle character and a propensity to dance on the tongue. The wines covered ’09, ’08, ’06 and ’04 vintages – all splendid years. They age gracefully, gradually building colour, complexity and richness. If these aren’t the best chardonnays in New Zealand (and some of the best in the world), I’d like to see what could roll them.