Three Sources for Exemplary New World Chardonnay
“This has been a year of discovery, but then every year, every day, I learn something new about wine. I was particularly excited to discover–or, in one case, rediscover–three glorious New World Chardonnays. All three are produced by wineries whose founders have been pioneers in their regions and prescient, as well as persistent (you might even say dogged), in their pursuit of exceptional examples of a wine that can be quite trivial. I was introduced to the Chardonnays of Kumeu River Wine of New Zealand and Vasse Felix of Margaret River (from Western Australia), and got reacquainted with Stony Hill of Napa Valley. If you haven’t tried them yet, you are in for a series of treats.
“At the end of the TEXSOM International Awards last February as we were breaking down the backroom, James Tidwell, MS handed me a glass of a white wine. I gave it a sniff and took a sip. It was like nothing I had experienced before. I thought my ears were ringing, but realized it was the effect of extravagant, yet tightly wound layers of flavors resonating through my head. Me: ‘What IS this?’ James: ‘The Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2012 ($27, importer Wilson Daniels) that has been open since yesterday when it was poured for the judges.’ Me: ‘From where?’ James: ‘New Zealand, near Auckland.’ Me, showing my ignorance: ‘Auckland? That’s not wine country.’
“Well, it turns out that despite the fact that New Zealand’s capitol city is well north of New Zealand wine country, Kumeu, located northwest of Auckland, is blessed by the temperature-moderating effect of both the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, making it possible to grow high quality wine grapes.
“I finished that glass and took the remaining bottle with me back to my hotel room and had it with room service dinner the following night. It had lost a little of its vibrancy, but was still an intensely delicious, polished wine.
“Who are these people at Kumeu River that can make such an astoundingly good Chardonnay? It all began with Mick and Katé Brajkovich, immigrants from Croatia, who bought a property that included a small vineyard in 1944. After Mick died in 1949, Katé and their son, Maté, continued making wine and selling what the family did not consume under the name of San Marino Vineyards. In 1979, Maté made a daring change in the name of quality by pulling out hybrid grapes that made fortified wines as well as basic reds and whites. He replaced them with vinifera grapes, including Chardonnay, less common at the time. In 1986, Maté’s sons joined the business, changed the name to Kumeu River Wines and focused their efforts on high-quality Chardonnay.
“Kumeu River includes 74 acres of dry-farmed vineyards. They also work with almost 25 acres of grapes from local growers. Grapes are hand-harvested and whole-bunch pressed. The juice is fermented by indigenous yeasts in a combination of new and old French oak barrels. It goes through malo-lactic fermentation and is aged in barrel on lees for 11 months with regular stirring of the lees. Reading that winemaking description, you might think that the wine will be over-the-top with oak and buttery notes from the malo-lactic fermentation, but it is not. Winemaker Michael Brajkovich, MW, has a Bachelor’s Degree in Oenology from Roseworthy College in South Australia, and is also New Zealand’s first Master of Wine–as well as an avid scholar of wine and winemaking. His model for Chardonnay is a white Burgundy. He aims for a style that is, ‘Light, elegant, and flinty’ to be enjoyed at the dining table. Based upon the 2012 Chardonnay I tasted, his aim is true.
“The founders of these three wineries were pioneers in their respective regions. They chose to focus on making world-class Chardonnay true to their region. Each winemaker has a different winemaking approach, but they work with intimate knowledge of their region, their vineyards, and their fruit to make the best Chardonnay each vintage allows. Their exemplary efforts demonstrate the heights that can be attained with Chardonnay in multiple New World locations, and should prompt other vintners to strive for comparable levels of excellence.”