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Wine of the Week for week ending 20 June 2004
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Kumeu River Merlot 2000
Auckland, New Zealand

When it comes to recognition of New Zealand wine labels in the lucrative US market, Kumeu River is one of the best known. The Kumeu River chardonnays are absolutely world class and with several appearances in Wine Spectator magazine's annual Top 100, are sought after by those in the know. However the Kumeu River reds are so enveloped in the shadow of the spotlight hitting the chardonnays, that many people don’t even know they exist.

One of the problems facing Kumeu River and in fact many red wine producers from the Rodney region north of Auckland is that their red wines are ten times better when consumed with food rather than as a social drink.

The region's clay rich soils give texture, mouthfeel and deep earthy flavours rather than bursts of sweet fruit that you tend to find in a nubile Aussie shiraz.

Complement a Kumeu red with the right food and what you thought was an ugly duckling of a wine at an after work function or social gathering will morph into the most graceful swan.

Tony Astle with Michael Brajkovich MW in the background
To prove the point Kumeu River's Brajkovich family invited super star chef Tony Astle, of the legendary Antoines Restaurant in Auckland's Parnell, to create some dishes to show the Kumeu River reds at their best. However the diners were not going to miss out on a famous Kumeu River chardonnay as on arrival they were handed a glass of the delightfully creamy Kumeu River Chardonnay 2000, poured from a double magnum (3-litre bottle), for an aperitif. A beautiful wine, even chilled it showed its class.

Tony Astle is renowned for serving offal and there was no exception on this occasion when a duck liver, veal sweetbread and scallop tart was matched to the Kumeu River Pinot Noir 2001 ($30) and a pre-bottling sample of the Kumeu River Pinot Noir 2003. Astle's secret was to use a little palm sugar to bring out the sweetness of the dish, which made it such a success with the wines.

A boned roasted quail with cajun rosti on beetroot risotto brought out the rich, savoury flavours of the Kumeu River Melba 2000 ($25), a 70/30 blend of malbec and merlot grapes. "You shouldn’t put potatoes and rice together, but bugger, we well do that anyway", said Astle. The textures and flavours worked well with the wine.

However for me the star of the meal was the Kumeu River Merlot 2000. This deeply coloured red with its leathery aroma was a rich tasting wine with good structure, sweet berry fruit and a long savoury finish, a very complete wine that with the right food just blossomed.

It was matched to a thinly sliced rare cooked venison back steak on a wild mushroom ragout atop a porcini pea puree surrounded by a venison truffle jus. My menu was on the table underneath my plate so I didn't know what I was eating when I put this green mashy stuff infused with the flavour of porcini powder and topped with some thinly sliced pieces of mushroom in my mouth. The combination with (and without) the wine was just sensational and I said so, causing my fellow diners to laugh at my description of these once frozen peas that had been pureed to such a gorgeous texture. Astle chose mushrooms to complement the Merlot because he thought the wine had softness and the gutsy, earthy, mushroomy flavours would show it at its best. He used five different types of mushroom, including oysters and shitakes. I liked the venison but for people who are connoisseurs of this meat, they probably would have found this farmed version a little mild.

Kumeu River Merlot 2000 was released in August 2002 and after trying it then I gave it a good review …

It is dark cherry red in colour with a seductively smoky and savoury aroma that hints of cigar box and spiced cured meats, then deliciously smooth and flavoursome in the mouth with sweet plum and berry fruit, smoky oak, leather and spice. While leaner than the ripe monsters that we've seen from Hawkes Bay this vintage, the Kumeu River Merlot has a lovely vinosity, that will see it mature finely, and a long sweet-fruited finish.

It definitely has matured beautifully.

It was back in 1983 when Kumeu River last produced a 100% Merlot for their premium label but the grapes produced in the exceptional 2000 season convinced the family that they should do so again. I'm glad they did.

Still the current release and costing a meagre NZ$20 a bottle, find it at the winery in Kumeu, just north of Auckland City a short drive along Highway 16 from the end of the north western motorway. While this wine was never an ugly duckling, it is worth taking the extra effort to match the wine to complimentary food for a very memorable experience.

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© Sue Courtney
13 June 2004

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