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The Wine Advocate - Neal Martin

01 June 15

Kumeu River: White Burgundy in Kiwi Clothing

May 29, 2015

That Old World/New World conundrum is getting a bit old hat, don't you think? Some commentators argue that the concept of the "New World" is redundant citing the fact that countries such as South Africa, Australia and Argentina can trace their viticultural roots farther back than many European stalwarts. For this writer, this concept retains validity because it reflects the mindset of a majority of wine consumers, however blurred the lines are. It recognizes the fact that while the Old World has enjoyed continuous, uninterrupted wine production over many decades or even centuries, other countries' viticulture was either diminished or halted under political duress, prohibition and simple lack of investment or market demand.

New Zealand is a genuine New World country because there was hardly any viticulture until pioneers such as Alan Brady, Rolfe Mills and Anne Pinckney began cultivating vines in the 1970s, when nearly all grapes were used for fortified wines. Even then, New Zealand's nascent wine industry did not take off until the 1990s with the explosion of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. These two grape varieties are still synonymous with New Zealand, but of course, the country also makes great Chardonnay.

When I was covering the country for The Wine Advocate between 2008 and 2010, there was one estate that represented the pinnacle of New Zealand Chardonnay: Kumeu River. I regularly applauded their wines in my reports and Lisa Perrotti-Brown continued clapping after taking over reviewing duties. At that time I didn't feel that Kumeu River's Chardonnays were some of the best in New Zealand. No, they were some of the best in the world.

Did someone choke on their glass of Montrachet just then?

But seriously, the dominance of the Old World and the dog-eared dogma that nothing can approach the complexity, profundity and longevity of their wines is eroding. Sure, not every New Zealand Chardonnay achieves the quality of Kumeu River, yet time is on their side. Vines are maturing and exploiting terroirs more efficiently while winemakers are gaining know-how, learning by trial and error, often unbound by strict A.C. regulations. Plus of course, you can afford them, which is always handy.

Kumeu River is one of New Zealand's forefathers, even though the maiden vintage was only in 1985. The family that founded the winery emigrated from the Croatian town of Živogošće (no, don't even trypronouncing that) in 1937: Mick, Katé and their son Maté purchased a property with a few vines in 1944. Maté married Melba and had four children: Michael, Marijana, Milan and Paul. During the 1980s the children became more involved in the running of the estate, inspired by the wines of Burgundy. Michael went on to become the country's first Master of Wine and one of the most important figures in the New Zealand wine industry, especially in terms of promoting alternative closures such as screwcap, which are now the norm. During the 1990s Kumeu River became the standard bearer for New Zealand Chardonnay, even though their location just outside Auckland is far away from familiar wine territories such as Martinborough, Marlborough or Central Otago. I first encountered the wines back in 1999 at a retrospective held by Farr Vintners, who have been importing the wines from their first vintages. I absolutely loved the wines and sung their praises when they were still relatively unknown on my fledgling website.

The wines were arranged in four flights, the vintages 2012, 2010, 2009 and 2007. Ironically, the most expensive bottle, namely the Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Clavoillon from Domaine Leflaive had to be procured from the market and it was completely corked. Of course, there is no such problem with Kumeu River since they have bottled everything under screwcap since around 2001 after the incidence of TCA reached untenable levels.

So how did the Kumeu River wines stack up?

Well, their wine achieved the highest average score in all but one of the flights, when it came in second.

Before reading on, probably best to glance at the prices asked for these wines and phone your local merchant.

I noticed a remarkable consensus between respected wine writers, members of the trade and MW's. Does that imply that Kumeu River's Chardonnays are doppelgangers for white Burgundy? The answer to that is: no. One could see that stylistically the wines are inspired by Burgundy, yet after each flight when asked which was made on the other side of the world, it was somehow easy to spot. Perhaps this is because, despite differences between each vineyard, there are leitmotifs that bind their wines together or perhaps because we were getting accustomed to their wines winning each flight!

We should just examine each vintage in turn, with a ranking of the wines according to average score, not my own scores that you can peruse on the database. I've listed them in order of highest average score...

Flight 1: 2012 Vintage

Highest Average Score:
1) Estate Chardonnay - Kumeu River
2) Puligny-Montrachet - Etienne Sauzet
3) Meursault Clos du Cromin - Patrick Javillier
4) Puligny-Montrachet - Anne-Claude Leflaive
5) Chassagne-Montrachet - Michel Niellon (corked)

"The 2012 was a tricky vintage," Paul Brajkovich said. "It was rainy in the early part of summer and so harvesting was important. The wines showed a fine leesy character after settling. The wines go through 100% malolactic, otherwise the acidity would be too high and it remains on the lees until February, around 12 month in barrel. We use all French oak with around 20% new from three or four different coopers. Each of our vineyards is vinified separately and the Estate can include deselected fruit from the other vineyards. The Estate Chardonnay represents around 25% to 33% of the total production and in 2012 there are 5,000 cases."

Flight 2: 2010 Vintage

Highest Average Score:
1) Coddington Vineyard Chardonnay - Kumeu River
2) Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Vergers - Fontaine-Gagnard
3) Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Morgeots - Marquis de Laguiche
4) Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Boudriottes - Jean-Noël Gagnard
5) Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Champs Gain - Michel Niellon

"It was a great vintage," Paul said. "We were affected by frost this year. We tried to move the air using a helicopter but it just pushed down cold air because that's all there was. This is always the most forward of the vineyards: heavy clay and north facing, the wines prone to a peachy lusciousness. It went into the Estate Chardonnay until the 2000. It's a nice counterpoint to Hunting Hill vineyard."

Flight 3 - 2009 Vintage

Highest Average Score:
1) Meursault Village - Domaine des Comtes-Lafon
2) Maté's Vineyard Chardonnay - Kumeu River
3) Meursault 1er Cru Perrières - Bouchard
4) Meursault 1er Cru Perrières - Drouhin
5) Meursault Narvaux - Girardin (oxidized)

"The 2009 was quite a big vintage but we got good ripeness levels," Paul explained. "There was fine acidity in the wines, especially in Hunting Hill. This vineyard was planted in 1990 using the Mendoza clone and it often produces the most mineral-rich Chardonnay. It does have a mild form of leaf-roll that can cause some hens and chickens (millerandage). It tends to produce a preserved peach like aroma."

Flight 4 - 2007 Vintage

Highest Average Score:
1) Hunting Hill Chardonnay - Kumeu River
2) Puligny-Montrachet Hameau de Blagny - Etienne Sauzet
3) Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru les Referts - Jean-Philippe Fichet
4) Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Champ Canet - Louis Carillon
5) Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Pucelles - Drouhin
6) Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Clavoillon - Leflaive (oxidized)

"There is an iron pan below the surface of the Hunting Hill Vineyard. The 2007 vintage was a cooler year that produced more citrus than peachy wines. It's one of my favorite vintages. It was a lower than usual crop because of flowering, but the late summer was terrific. All the 2007s are beginning to look really good now. The vineyard itself sits above Maté's Vineyard, replanted with Clone 15 in the late 1990s. It always produces fragrant Chardonnay with lime blossom, almost Riesling-like characters, and the wine tends to be a bit lighter on its feet."

Conclusions

It is unwise to use a tasting such as this to make some ex cathedra statement of a "New World Order" (no pun intended). If I listed my all-time top wine experiences with Chardonnay, I bet that nearly all of them would originate from the Côte d'Or. However, it serves notice that the Old World should not take their supremacy for granted. Terroir is a term used by the French, but they do not have exclusivity. Some might scoff at the idea, but there is as much terroir expression at Kumeu River as anywhere on the Elysian slopes of Burgundy.

Of course, history imparts a cerebral and intellectual aspect to a wine. If I served you a Chardonnay from a vineyard farmed by the same family over multiple generations whose name was baptized by medieval Cistercian monks, then this context imports undeniable gravitas. Likewise, if I told you that the Coddington Vineyard was actually a polo pitch until it was planted with vines in the 1980s, you might argue that a comparison is unfair. But of course, what counts is in the glass. I would not denigrate either wine if they both give pleasure to the imbiber, though of course you would pray that the bottle of Burgundy is not corked or pre-moxed and that you're not factoring price into the equation.

As I commented at the tasting, the Burgundy whites showed well, so this tasting in no way disgraces or disparages what were some gorgeous Chardonnays, especially the Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Vergers from Fontaine-Gagnard and the Coche-like, Puligny-Montrachet Village from Etienne Sauzet. However, it proved that countries like New Zealand and winemakers such as the Brajkovich's can create wines that are every bit their equal. Cognoscenti who uphold the view that great wine can onlyderive from hallowed historic names are fooling themselves. Moreover, as the classic regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy price themselves out of genuine wine-lovers' purses, so those same wine-lovers are finding alternative sources of great and affordable wine that are beginning to be accorded with their own sense of magic and kudos. When establishing Kumeu River, Burgundy wines inspired Maté, Michael and his siblings. They still are to some extent. Likewise, there is something that Burgundy growers might learn from Kumeu River (not least their experiences with screwcaps for a start!) This tasting did nothing to dampen my respect for white Burgundy, but it did enhance my already lofty appreciation for Kumeu River. It proved once and for all, that this is a world-class estate producing world-class wines.

(Thanks to Farr Vintners for organizing this tasting and for the comments of Paul Brajkovich.)

—Neal Martin