Last week I was presented with proof of my theory that the white wine grape of which New Zealanders should be most proud is not Sauvignon Blanc but Chardonnay. For the past two decades the country has seen a tidal wave of Sauvignon Blanc that has drenched even the Australian wine market with what Aussies call a Sauvalanche. Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc may have been a huge commercial success but no one could accuse it of subtlety or longevity.
However, a recent blind tasting of Kumeu River Chardonnays back to 2007, comparing them with some of the finest white burgundy equivalents, suggests that Kiwi Chardonnays — at least from this top producer — can more than hold their own. As for value, they won hands down, costing a fraction of the wines they trounced.
Prices of the Kumeu River wines varied from £140 to £220 a dozen in bond, while Domaine Leflaive’s village Puligny-Montrachet 2012 and premier cru Puligny Clavoillons 2007 are about £700 and £1,400 a case respectively; both Domaine Comtes Lafon’s Meursault 2009 and Drouhin’s Puligny Pucelles 2007 are about £700.
Auckland, on the same latitude as southern Spain, may seem an unlikely location for vineyards capable of making precise ripostes to white burgundy. But Kumeu River’s vineyards in the suburbs of the city are cooled by ocean influence, and summers can be cloudy. “For us, 30C is a really hot day; as a result, the acidity remains high,” says Michael Brajkovich, Kumeu River’s winemaker (and one of the first non-Brits to qualify as a Master of Wine).
Although frost can cause problems in the vineyards, the climate is less of a threat to this family-owned operation than encroaching urbanisation. The Brajkoviches’ Hunting Hill and Maté’s Vineyard, managed by Michael’s brother Milan, are presumably safe. But Tim Coddington and his wife Angela have put their eponymous vineyard, from which Michael has been making a single-vineyard Chardonnay since 2006, on the market. The fear is that other owners of the nearby small vineyards, whose fruit goes into the most basic Kumeu River Village bottling, may also be tempted by rising property prices.
Last week’s tasting was organised by Stephen Browett, owner of fine wine trader Farr Vintners, who has been selling Kumeu River wines since he first visited New Zealand in 1990. Michael’s brother Paul was in London on a sales trip and participated in the blind tasting, but had to be silenced for fear that his scores out of 20 for his own wines (consistently 20) would influence us.
Fourteen wine professionals tasted the wines in four flights of five or six by vintage — 2012, 2010, 2009 and 2007 — and the Kumeu River wine achieved the highest total score in each flight, except for the Maté’s Vineyard 2009 that was 0.7 points behind Bouchard Père et Fils’ Meursault Perrières 2009 — and seemed much more youthful than the white burgundy that many think should have Grand Cru status.
We all guessed Kumeus correctly in most flights even if there was uncertainty over the 2009s because of the tightness of the Lafon Meursault. The Kumeu wines shone because they were better made and more sophisticated. Perhaps the Brajkoviches are simply trying harder. It was not the performance of these inexpensive Kiwi wines that was shocking but the state of some of the white burgundies.
The Laguiche Chassagne Morgeots 2010 had too marked a note of sweaty socks for a wine costing more than £500 a case. The Girardin Meursault Narvaux 2009 oxidised in the glass. Three of the five 2007 white burgundies were past their best, with the Leflaive Clavoillons, the most expensive wine in the tasting, dead as a dodo. At a recent dinner at Ballymaloe near Cork in Ireland, I tasted two bottles of Leflaive Pucelles 2007 and one Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet 2007 (about £400 a bottle retail) that had come straight from the domaine in Puligny-Montrachet. Of the three bottles, only one of the Pucelles was fresh enough to enjoy.
Every one of the Kumeu River wines was fresh as a daisy and clearly had a glorious future ahead of it. Paul Brajkovich claims that their single-vineyard 2004 Chardonnays are in the peak of condition at 12 years old. (He also cited 2010 and 2007 as especially impressive vintages.)
We didn’t even bother tasting the Niellon village Chassagne-Montrachet 2012 because it was so obviously affected by cork taint. One major difference between all these white burgundies and the Kiwi upstarts was that Kumeu River switched completely to screwcaps in 2001 after having to recall 600 cases of 1998 cork-tainted Chardonnay from the US.
The good news is that although 2010 was a remarkable vintage for New Zealand Chardonnay, 2014 promises to be the best yet, and will be released on export markets next year. (Kumeu River is imported into the UK and US by Boxford Wines/Farr Vintners and Wilson Daniels respectively.) After the blind tasting we sampled all the Kumeu River Chardonnays from the tiny 2013 vintage: the precise Village blend that makes up about half of Kumeu River’s Chardonnay output; the taut Estate bottling that constitutes a further quarter to a third; the luscious Coddington Vineyard; the steely Hunting Hill (called “the Puligny of New Zealand” chez Farr); and the dense Maté’s.
Kiwi Chardonnay is moving on from its wilderness years, when growers were encouraged to pull it up to make way for the more popular Sauvignon Blanc. Like Kumeu River, producers such as Bell Hill, Black Estate, Felton Road, Fromm, Millton, Neudorf, Pegasus Bay and Pyramid Valley have remained steadfast in their determination to prove New Zealand an impressive home for the white burgundy grape.
It may be worth pointing out that, although this tasting was held at London’s most significant traders in fine wine on the day that a host of Bordeaux producers, including Château Margaux, released their 2014s en primeur, Bordeaux was not discussed once.
Top wines from the tasting
New Zealand Chardonnay
With prices per dozen bottles in bond for the Kumeu River wines, per bottle for the white burgundies.
● Kumeu River, Hunting Hill Vineyard 2013 (£200 Farr Vintners soon)
● Kumeu River, Maté’s Vineyard 2013 (£220 Farr Vintners soon)
● Kumeu River Estate 2012 (£140 Farr Vintners)
● Kumeu River, Coddington Vineyard 2010 (£200 Farr Vintners)
● Kumeu River, Maté’s Vineyard 2009 (£220 Farr Vintners — sold out)
● Kumeu River, Hunting Hill Vineyard 2007 (£200 Farr Vintners)
● Jean-Noël Gagnard, Chassagne-Montrachet Boudriottes 2010 (£55 Berry Bros)
● Fontaine Gagnard, Chassagne-Montrachet Vergers 2010 (£41.25 Four Walls Wine)
● Domaine Comtes Lafon Meursault 2009 (£54 The Butlers Wine Cellar)
● Drouhin, Meursault Perrières 2009 (£158.80 a magnum Hedonism)
● Jean-Philippe Fichet, Puligny-Montrachet Referts 2007 (not available)
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Stockists from winesearcher.com