The release of a new Kumeu River vintage is always an event. One of New Zealand’s finest and most sought-after producers, this legendary estate is best known for its Chardonnays which give many a 1er and Grand Cru white Burgundy a run for their money. Located 20 km northwest of Auckland, the estate now boasts two Pinot Noirs, one of which comes from its youngest vineyard, Ray’s Road, purchased from Trinity Hill six years ago. To launch the Kumeu River 2022 vintage, marketing director Paul Brajkovich was in London to host an in-depth tasting of the wines. Sophia Longhi hooked up with him to get the back story of the vintage.
“When we started doing this 30-odd years ago, Burgundy was the benchmark,” Paul Brajkovich says at the London launch of Kumeu River 2022.
Sophia Longhi: Each vintage tells a new story. What’s the story of 2022?
Paul Brajkovich: Another very, very good vintage. I was talking to our viticultural manager the other day and he remembers it being like 2020, which was one of the best vintages we’ve ever had. It was probably not as good as that, but it was very smart. It started with with an early bud burst, the November/ December part of the year was fine. We ran into a few sticky humid moments in late January/February, which was quite hairy. There was also a cyclone threatening, which missed us, thankfully.
Then, we started harvest in early February with the Crémant base and, from then on, it was perfect sunshine and lovely. It was dry, but it wasn’t particularly hot – normally we get a few days of 30°C, but I think the max temp we got was around 28°C. Most of the time through harvest, it was sitting around 25°C, 26°C. It meant that we had really clean, lovely ripe fruit – that’s exactly what you want, really.
Michael called it “an excellent vintage on the heels of three others”.
Yeah, it’s quite amazing having ‘19, ‘20, ‘21 all being terrific. ‘23 wasn’t quite that… That’s when the cyclones really hit and we had a pretty cool, wet summer. We were about 30 percent down on what we’d normally get.
Focusing on the joys of 2022 – as well as favourable growing conditions, did you employ any new viticultural techniques or did you do everything exactly the same as the last three vintages?
Pretty much. The last 30-odd years, Michael, Nigel and Milan have been honing what they do and they’ve got that down to a fairly precise art. The last four vintages I wouldn’t say they’ve done anything particularly different, certainly not in the winery. The only thing they’re playing around with is the Crémant, because we’ve only been making it since 2012. So, there’s been interesting changes and improvements there.
In his vintage report, Michael praised the picking crew. Is it the norm in the region to hand harvest or is it quite unusual?
We’ve always hand harvested on the basis that, for quality, you really need it. If you look at most of the industry in New Zealand, it’s mostly mechanically harvested. In the places that make really top Pinots, they have to be hand harvested. It’s not rare in New Zealand, but it’s definitely not the norm.
Kumeu River is the globally recognised benchmark for non-Burgundy produced Chardonnay. What are the signature characteristics that make it different from Burgundy?
I think just where it comes from. When we started doing this 30-odd years ago, clearly Burgundy was the benchmark. You sort of look at wines like that and think, wow, they taste really, really good. They’re classically complex and interesting and you want to make something along those lines. You look at the land and you look at the techniques they use, how they do it. Fermentation, wild yeast fermentation, hand harvesting, fermenting in barrels, malolactic fermentation, lees ageing – they all play a part, but ultimately it tastes of where it comes from.
You really see that with the Chardonnays. In 2022, it really does seem that they have their signatures quite precisely, from Coddington, Maté’s, Hunting Hill – they’re all quite different and they really look how we would expect them to from those vineyards.
Have those characteristics developed with the age of the vines?
Yes, almost definitely. You’ll see it particularly with Maté’s. It’s the 30th vintage this year and it’s pretty fair to say that we know how that vineyard tastes. As it’s got older, it has got better, probably in the first 10 years, you see the biggest improvement, then after that it’s a little bit more incremental.
Maté’s is our oldest vineyard. Previous to that, we had other vineyards, but you replace them because the variety doesn’t work. At one point, we had some Cabernet Franc with Merlot; Cabernet Sauvignon with Sauvignon Blanc. Then, over the years, as the Chardonnay kept on getting better and better, when you’re looking at replanting things, you just pull out other varieties and plant more Chardonnay. Case in point: Maté’s vineyard was actually planted on the original site that my father had bought in 1944 and that vineyard went through a number of reincarnations over the years with all sorts of varieties.
Eventually, it was ripped out in the late ‘70s. Then, with what we were doing with the Kumeu River Chardonnay through the ‘80s, it made for sense to plant more Chardonnay. So, that vineyard was replanted with the best clone of Chardonnay we had at the time and we made improvements to the rootstocks and to the trellising system, so all of those things helped improve that site. Over that time, it was a period of planting, using better material and just improving things. And, now it’s more of a case of watching those vineyards get better.
So, Maté’s is your oldest vineyard and Ray’s Road is your youngest?
Yes, although the Ray’s Road vineyard was planted by someone else. We bought it off Trinity Hill and it was originally a joint venture between them and Pascal Jolivet from Sancerre. It was planted 12 years before we bought it in 2017/2018. That vineyard, as you’d expect from a Sancerre producer, was mostly planted with Sauvignon Blanc, but they also had some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which is what we were interested in. Since we’ve taken that over, we’ve ripped out some of the Sauvignon, planted for Chardonnay, planted a bit more Pinot Noir and we’ll keep doing that for the next five to 10 years.
What are the distinct differences between the Hunting Hill Pinot Noir and the Ray’s Road Pinot Noir?
You’ll see it in the Chardonnays as well: the soils that we have up in Kumeu are all clay-based and the vineyard in Ray’s Road is limestone. The differences with the limestone, for both the Chardonnay and the Pinot, tends to be that the wines are a little bit more fragrant, a lot more edgy. In terms of the Chardonnay, it’s quite cool and in terms of the Pinot Noir, it really does have this cherry-like fragrance.
When you go to the clay soils, you tend to get a bit more richness and plump characters. The Hunting Hill Pinot Noir, it’s cherry, but it’s a bit more plush; sort of forward, rich and layered, probably a little bit more tannic as well. With the Chardonnays, they’re quite peachy and rich.
Sophia joined a tasting at 67 Pall Mall, led by Paul – here are her notes:
Kumeu River Kumeu Village Crémant Rosé NV
60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir
This pretty peach-coloured Crémant is rich and creamy on the nose, with aromas reminiscent of a summer trifle. A prickly effervescence on the palate, those summer fruits come to the fore. The texture feels quite weighty (100% malolactic fermentation) and a flavour of toasted brioche lingers on the finish, thanks to 42 months on lees.
Kumeu River Ray’s Road Pinot Noir 2020
A fresh and fruity nose of cherry and a hint of mint. A cranberry and sour cherry tartness on the palate makes this a juicy and refreshing red. A floral character is present, like a nibble on a rose petal, and there is a stoniness on the finish.
Kumeu River Hunting Hill Pinot Noir 2020
Focused aromas of ripe red cherry, black plum and spice. Even though the oak appears to be more present in this wine compared to the Ray’s Road Pinot Noir, the vinification was exactly the same (11 months maturation, 10-15% new oak). Plush and dense, with a note of clove on the finish. (Note: 2022 will be the last vintage of this wine.)
Kumeu River Kumeu Village Chardonnay 2022
A blend of grapes from Hawkes Bay and Kumeu, there are aromas of orchard fruits, such as green apple and pear, plus some ripe lemon. There’s a hit of citrus on the palate, making this a lively and refreshing “apéritif” style Chardonnay. The oak treatment (33% barrel fermentation in five year old barrels plus French barriques) is barely detectable.
Kumeu River Ray’s Road Chardonnay 2022
Michael Brajkovich describes this wine as having an “electric” character. It’s more restrained on the nose than the Kumeu Village Chardonnay, with aromas of lime zest. A line of acidity races through the palate and there is a creaminess midway through, which creates balance and moreishness. There is a finish of juicy citrus, that begs for another sip.
Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2022
The best grapes are selected from six different Kumeu vineyard sites to create this wine. There’s fleshy peach on the nose, leading to subtle tropical fruit aromas, like guava, mango and pineapple. It’s weightier and more rounded on the palate, compared to Ray’s Road Chardonnay, balanced with a spike of freshness. The finish is very long and the fruit is persistent. A saltiness is left on the lips afterwards.
Kumeu River Coddington Chardonnay 2022
The Coddington vineyard was planted in 1994 and produces rich and “unctuous” Chardonnay. On the nose, I detect freshly-squeezed peach juice spiked with lime. Tasting it is initially like biting into a ripe juicy peach, but then the depth and the power is unveiled. There’s a subtle hint of toasted hazelnuts, which lingers on the finish. According to Paul, this is the single-vineyard Chardonnay to drink now because it’s so delicious and enticing.
Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2022
Lemon drops and lime blossom freshness on the nose belies the rich, ripe, fleshy fruit you experience on the palate. A linear acidity and a mineral character brings complexity to the wine and the finish reveals more layers as it lingers on. This is the wine to save for a couple of years to discover its depths as it evolves.
Kumeu River Maté’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2022
30 year old vines and a low yielding clone brings concentration and density to this wine. A ripe, fruity nose of mandarin, lime and peach, mingling with white blossom and toasted nuts. Despite the power and intensity of flavour, this wine feels elegant, with a fine-boned structure and a bit of tannic grip that sticks in your cheeks. This is the single-vineyard Chardonnay to drink in 10 years’ time, according to Paul.
*All grapes were hand harvested and fermented using indigenous yeast.
The wines of Kumeu River are imported and distributed in the UK by New Generation Wines, which is a commercial partner of The Buyer.