Kumeu River: Astonishingly good Chardonnay from this West Auckland family-owned winery
“We are in West Auckland, in Kumeu. This is the historical heartland of the New Zealand wine industry. Here, Croatian/Dalmatian immigrants to New Zealand decided to make wines like those they were used to at home. Many of the famous names of the New Zealand wine industry have their roots in West Auckland, even though it is no longer such a significant wine producing region— the climate here is quite humid in the summer, which makes viticulture a challenge.
“But there’s one shining star: Kumeu River, famous as one of New Zealand’s top Chardonnay producers, and considered by many to be the best. Chardonnay accounts for 70% of their production, with the balance accounted for by Pinot Gris (20%), Pinot Noir (5%), Merlot (5%) and a little bit of Gewürztraminer. A new addition is an as yet unreleased sparkling wine.
“This is a family operation, headed up by Melba Brajkovich and her children Michael, Milan, Paul and Marijana. The Brajkovich family first arrived in New Zealand in 1937, when Mick and Katé came here and began a new life in Henderson, West Auckland. In their home village of Živogošće in Croatia they had experience of winegrowing. Soon they were working in orchards and vineyards, saving up enough to buy a small property with a vineyard in Kumeu.
“Mick died in 1949 but Katé and her son Maté carried on running the property, and Maté married Melba in 1957. The modern day Kumeu River began to take shape in the late 1970s when hybdrid vines used for fortified wine production were replanted with vinifera varieties more suited to table wines. Michael, Milan and Paul came on board in the 1980s, and the name Kumeu River was first used in 1986. They began making their Burgundian-inspired Chardonnays for which they are now so famous.
“The property is 30 hectares, and a further 10 hectares are rented from growers. Soils are clay/sandstone, and are good at retaining water at depth, so no irrigation is needed. They are planted with the lyre trellising system, which is complicated but which helps intercept maxiumum light. All the grapes are hand picked.
“Kumeu River are famous for their advocacy of screwcaps. ‘We had to throw away a third of the 1998 through cork taint,’ recalls Paul. 2000 was the last vintage they used cork: from 2001 this has been a 100% screwcap winery…”