A Day with Michael Brajkovich at Kumeu River

Kumeu River

looking at the clay-heavy soils of Kumeu as the rain starts

It starts raining as Michael Brajkovich and I step out of the car on the top of Hunting Hill vineyard. Hunting Hill serves as one of the vineyard designate Chardonnays for legendary Kumeu River, located just a bit outside of Auckland. There is only enough time to glance at the vines and soil, then jump back into the car, and already my notebook is dotted with smudges of wet black ink. We drive through the vineyards instead to avoid the rain.

Clay dominates the rolling hills through this area while deep underneath sandstone forms the bedrock. The rain is no surprise. It tends to travel the region, which sits in the skinny spot of New Zealand’s North Island, the Tasman Sea to the west, the Pacific Ocean east. The combination means Kumeu River vines are dry farmed, and predominantly Chardonnay. Here on Hunting Hill they also grow a small parcel of Pinot Noir.

In the mid-1940s, with only a half-acre planted, two generations of the Brajkovich family started what would become one of New Zealand’s great wineries. A decade prior, Mick and Katé, and their son Maté moved to the Antipodes from Croatia to work as gum harvesters on the North Island. Together they saved the money to purchase what is now Mate’s Vineyard, the family’s top Chardonnay block. At the time, hybrid varieties dominated New Zealand’s wine industry for the production of fortified wine.

In the 1970s, under Maté and his wife Melba’s lead, the family would be among the first in the country to shift from fortified to table wines. Their goal was to make one high quality white, and one high quality red. So, they planted Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc to see what would work there. Today, among the original plantings only Chardonnay remains. By the 1980s, when the third generation – Michael, and his siblings, Paul, Milan, and Marijana – would help lead the business, Kumeu River was recognized internationally for quality wine.

the lyre system in Hunting Hill Vineyard

To make him part of the business, Maté and Melba sent Michael to Roseworthy in South Australia to study oenology and viticulture. There, Michael worked with renowned viticulturist Richard Smart. Though the wine world today has outpaced Smart’s work in many ways, at the height of his career, Smart’s notions of vine training and canopy management helped launch viticultural knowledge to a new, important level of insight. It’s an influence that still serves as the basis for managing vigor and shading around the world. Returning home to the Kumeu area, Michael began rethinking elements of his family’s vineyards.

The region’s clay content and rain mean vines rarely struggle for water. Clay gives implicit concentration and a core of power to Chardonnay but in wet years vigor can create imbalance on the vine. To help manage vigor and harness the innate density clay brings to a wine’s flavor, Michael shifted the vines to a lyre-style training system (shown above). The idea came from his thinking on how to bring Smart’s notions of sunlight to the ultra-high UV levels of New Zealand. In opening the vines into the lyre, the fruit hangs below the canopy but is also consistently within a dappled lace effect of sunlight. It allows airflow without sunburn.

As Michael shifted his interest to the winemaking, his brother Milan stepped to the fore in the vineyard. There he further refined the winery’s focus on sustainability, and integrated newer technologies for tracking weather and vine health with traditional hands-on farming. As sales for the winery broadened internationally, brother Paul took over sales and marketing. Sister Marijana serves as a sort of multi-tasker helping to facilitate a mix of tasting room activities, events, and general winery needs. Through it all, Melba continues to act as Managing Director. Her on going leadership of Kumeu River has made her one of the longest standing women in the country’s wine industry.

Michael standing in front of the family’s original fermentation tanks

Kumeu River stepped into the international stage at a time before New Zealand was recognized as a wine region. Until brand Marlborough seized the global imagination’s expectations for Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand had essentially no reputation for wine. The lack of stature was appropriate to the size and infancy of the industry but it also meant that well into the 1990s, Kumeu River was its own category. Chardonnay lovers looking to the brand for its age-ability and unique character didn’t need to know where it was from.

The brand’s iconic reputation has persisted. While they have expanded the number of Chardonnays by making vineyard designates as the sites show such merit, the quality and style have remained consistent. They have added sparkling Chardonnay to their program as well. The first release was last year.

They have also begun to buy land and plant in Hawke’s Bay, on the other side of the North Island. As Michael explains, the Kumeu area is getting planted to houses. As New Zealand’s economy gains, the city of Auckland expands. Today, in Kumeu, what was once far removed from city life and entirely agricultural has become a bedroom community for Auckland’s executive set. The residential squeeze on agricultural land has limited the economic feasibility of expanding in Kumeu. Establishing vineyards in a new region is a way of keeping an eye on the hopes of future generations’ involvement.

The move towards Hawke’s Bay has also opened a way to ensure not just land access but economic feasibility. The fruit from those vines currently feed a small portion of the Kumeu Village bottling, a still snappy, fresh, textural Chardonnay that gives a more affordable option for the wine lover. Where many wineries downgrade the quality and interest of their entry level brand, Kumeu Village manages to retain integrity. Releasing a wine at not-quite half the price of their Estate blend that also manages to over-deliver on complexity, freshness, and length shows too the standards for quality driving the Brajkovich family.

What is remarkable about the Estate Chardonnay proves consistent across the family of vineyard designates, a harmony of natural concentration with restraint, freshness, and energetic drive. It built the iconic status of Kumeu River. All barrel fermented – 20% new – with indigenous yeast, and full malolactic conversion, it marries textural acidity, to a mix of fresh fruits and savory flavor. Most of all, the Estate is a wine that simply gets more attractive with age. It’s well-honed in its youth but becomes deeper, more sophisticated, more satisfying with time in the bottle, many vintages easily achieving 15 years of age. Where the 2016 shows notes of apple, and sweet citrus with just a hint of biscuit and cream, the 2014 has deepened into a savory undercurrent with just a bit of smoke on the edges and a bright, firm close. 

The Coddington vineyard served as part of the backbone of the Estate Chardonnay until 2006, when vine age and experience with the site led to it becoming its own vineyard designate. The site consistently shows riper flavors with more stone fruit notes compared to the orchard and citrus fruits of the Estate blend. The fuller character of the fruit allows it to carry a touch more new oak as well – 25%. With smokey accents, nose and palate, overlaying a hint of sweet, ripe summer fruits, and all spice, the Coddington Chardonnay offers a silken texture, and a bit more weight on the palate compared to the Estate. Even so, it has plenty of drive and fresh acidity. Like the entire Kumeu River portfolio of Chardonnays, this wine is built to age going from fresh, spry, restraint upon release in the 2016 vintage, to a richer palate of baked apple pastry without sweetness in the 2012. The 2012 vintage was a bit wet, showing swifter age than its neighboring vintages but it has also clearly been made with clean fruit.

The Hunting Hill Chardonnay, from the vineyard where we started the visit, delivers a balance of both high tone lift and a savory underbelly. The 2016 is fresh, with pure, mouthwatering fruits and a flinty accent through snappy finish. When we taste the 2010, I am almost embarrassed by how much I enjoy it, wanting to keep drinking it alongside lunch. It has deepened into a mix of late spring flowers and birch bark on the nose, with richer character on the palate including a sweet apple finish, and accents of sweet spice. The natural concentration and restraint on the palate carry consistently through a long finish into a firm, still snappy, clean close. The 2010 vintage started with a difficult frost that took half the crop but the weather following was perfect so that the fruit that did last to harvest was of good quality and natural concentration.

Mate’s Vineyard includes the oldest vines of Kumeu River. It’s also a wine known to show nice evolution in bottle after the first few years, gaining in intensity and concentration as it ages. There is impressive density to the core of the wine here offering both crisp length and savory, palate stimulating presence with a balance of freshness and rich potential. Apple notes accented by a refreshing saline element on the 2016 transform in the 2007 into creme brulee and caramelized apple with still lots of life left in bottle and an ultra long, firm close.

Made with 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, the Kumeu River Cremant began in 2012, made in a non vintage style. Though the first vintage (which we tasted) is predominantly 2012 fruit, 2006 wine was used for dosage. The wine offers pleasing crispness with fresh apple notes and just a touch of caramelized apple alongside hints of white birch bark.

photo courtesy of Dave Nash

The 2017 vintage was known as difficult through much of New Zealand due to a series of rain storms at harvest. However, for many producers everything was showing beautifully prior to the storms. In traveling the country now tasting just-bottled and still-in-cellar wines from the vintage it is clear that there are plenty of very fine wines from 2017. Quality expectations can be judged, at least partially, by known producer reputation and reliability. Producers known for consistently delivering quality wine chose to either leave fruit in the vineyard, or not bottle wine that doesn’t meet their standards. Expectations can also be put in relation to  variety. Varieties that ripen on the early side tend to look good. Most of all though smart farming without excessive crop loads seems to have been the savior for producers. Barrel tasting the 2017 Chardonnays with Michael proves exciting – they have all the elements to lead to a very good vintage.

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