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Wine of the Week for week ending 15 May 2005
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Kumeu River Kumeu Chardonnay 2004
Auckland, New Zealand

Winemakers love to talk up their product.

"It's been a great vintage" .... "the season was fabulous" ....... "We didn't get any of the rain/frost/storms" ...... "this will be our best vintage yet".

And at release tastings, how often have I heard ....... "These are the best wines we have ever made"?

The winemakers are probably right, however, because with each new vintage, they have another years experience under their belt. They know how to manage their vineyards when Mother Nature throws something unexpected at them. They learn from mistakes they make in the winery .... and some of the more respected winemakers admit (though much, much later) that they have indeed made mistakes in the past.

So I wasn't surprised to hear some of these adages at the Kumeu River Wines recent new release tasting. Kumeu River is situated just north of Auckland City and is deservedly one of New Zealand's most lauded chardonnay producers.

Anyone who lives in Auckland knows just how fabulous the 2005 summer has been. We loved those endless blue sky, sunny days. In fact, the region was the warmest, sunniest and driest in the country in the main harvest months, March and April, according to NIWA. And in April, when the red grapes are being picked, the nationwide record temperature was recorded in that historical Auckland grape growing suburb, Henderson, which is not far from Kumeu as the crow flies.

But while Aucklanders revelled in the best pre-harvest / harvest weather they had ever seen, other parts of the country were not so fortunate.

The bottom line is, if Auckland winemakers as a whole don't produce some of the best wine ever from the 2005 vintage, they need to ask themselves some questions.

But the 2005 wines won't be released for some months yet. So let's look at the Kumeu River 2004 chardonnays, which was what three-fifths of the tasting was about.

Michael Brajkovich MW, Winemaker, Kumeu River

"Outstanding vintage ....the chardonnays amongst the finest we have ever made," said winemaker Michael Brajkovich, MW.

It was another dry vintage in Auckland in 2004, but colder than normal throughout the country. So the grapes ripened more slowly than usual but they were clean and ripe when harvested, fulfilling half the parameters for great wine.

The remaining parameters for great wine come from the winemaking process.

At Kumeu River they have, since 1986, let the grapes ferment spontaneously from the wild yeast strains that live in the winery. These yeasts were the catalyst for a University of Auckland Biological Sciences research project by Richard Warren last year. Warren identified at least twelve different yeast strains, none that could be correlated to anything commercially available.

"It appears that over the years we have built up our own 'family' of yeast strains that continue to change and adapt to our conditions by interbreeding with each other," said Michael. These yeasts are unique to the Kumeu River wine cellar, they occur nowhere else in the world. They are, perhaps, what give the Kumeu River chardonnays that sought after 'x' factor.

The chardonnays, of course, were delicious. The Kumeu River Chardonnay 2004 evoked 'yums'. The Kumeu River Maté's Chardonnay 2004 - double yums - more luscious and succulent than ever before. Taste the wines again with food ... The juicy steaks BBQ'ed over smoky manuka wood. Melba's fabulous potatoes. A selection of cheeses and fruit. "Yes, there is definitely mandarin in the chardonnay," after comparing that nuance in the wine to the real thing. It is so easy to come away from a tasting like this and say they are the greatest in the country.

But the real test is when you taste the wines blind, no sign of the label, no sign of the bottle. All you know is you have chardonnay in the glass. And that is what happened last Wednesday night at the First Glass Wines and Spirits weekly Wednesday tasting. The theme was Chardonnay and Shiraz.

The chardonnays, tasted one after the other, seemed to get better and better. That is, until the last one, which was on another tier up altogether. It was the Kumeu River Kumeu Chardonnay 2004. So that is my Wine of the Week.

Kumeu River Kumeu Chardonnay 2004
Straw gold in colour. Rich, toasty oak aromas overlain with ripe figs and juicy nectarines. Lovely richness in the palate with a creamy backbone, spices, mandarin and stonefruit and the elegance of polished oak coming through on the finish with a mealy creaminess as it lingers, and a nuttiness to the citrussy aftertaste with hints of grapefruit. Rather delectable. It seems more rounded - more toasty - than ever before and is delicious to drink already, but has the potential for a long cellar life.
Sourced from five different vineyard sites in Kumeu, the hand-harvested grapes were whole bunch pressed for 100% barrel-fermentation and 100% malo-lactic fermentation with 11 months in oak, of which 25% was new. It's naturally sealed with a screwcap (given Michael's involvement with the Screwcap Initiative), it carries $13.5% alc by volume and costs $36.00, ex winery.

Also rather stunning . . . .
Kumeu River Maté's Chardonnay 2004
Straw gold. Rich and appealing on the nose with an intriguing smokiness, spices, hints of grapefruit peel and baked pear. Beautifully scented though not as immediately forward as the Kumeu River Kumeu Chardonnay. A very polished wine in the mouth with a seamlessness as it flows across the palate and balanced acidity that gives it lift throughout, even with the earthiness of the smoke. Lovely fruit concentration with melon and pear to the fore and a deep, complex, savoury finish. Very understated in its power, drink now if you really want to but it will develop beautifully with bottle age. Similar winemaking to the Kumeu River Chardonnay, but grapes solely from Maté's Vineyard opposite the winery and 30% new oak used. $47 ex winery.

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© Sue Courtney
8 May 2005

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