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NZ's Best? Hint: Not a Sauvignon or a Pinot

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 1, 2009 11:23am ET

When you mention New Zealand in a wine conversation, no doubt the first thing that comes to mind is Sauvignon Blanc. Indeed, the country has hung its hat on the tangy, bright, zingy wines that come out of the Marlborough region. Those Sauvignons are good and there are plenty of them. Plus, Marlborough produces more wine than anywhere else in New Zealand.

What else? After a moment of thought, someone might bring up Pinot Noir. And yes, the Kiwis have made huge progress with Burgundy's classic red wine grape. Deftly balanced, vibrant wines come from several regions, including Marlborough, Martinborough, Central Otago and Waipara.

Even more consistently outstanding, however, are the Chardonnays from Kumeu River Winery. And by outstanding I mean exactly that. In the 2000s, of 23 Kumeu River Chardonnays reviewed by Wine Spectator, mostly by me, 21 have rated 90 points or higher ("outstanding" by definition). (Some of those reviews have yet to be published.) And yet, Kumeu is seldom the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “New Zealand wine.”

Maybe that’s because the vineyards and winery lie near Auckland, far north of those other regions making their names on Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, so there's little context as there is for Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Too, New Zealand hasn't established an identifiable style for Chardonnay. No one else around Auckland makes wines anything like these Chardonnays, and the best Chardonnays from Hawkes Bay, Marlborough and Otago seem different and not quite so complete.

All this crossed my mind as I tasted through an impressive vertical of 16 Kumeu Chardonnays from this decade. The winery (which is pronounced KYOO-mee-oo) had sent me the wines so I could taste them without the winemaker prompting me about what I should be tasting. As I did, I could only admire how distinctive they were. The structure was tight and mouthwatering with bracing acidity, yet their flavor profile was impressively generous and broad, hitting every note on the scale from honey to lime to pear to apple to tropical fruit in varying degrees, and always with the kind of minerality we have come to expect only from the best white Burgundies. Tasting them blind, I rated them all between 90 and 94 points.

That's a lot of character, and quality, for the price. Comparably distinctive Chardonnays from Burgundy or California almost always cost much more than the $35 the estate bottling gets, or the $42 to $48 for the single vineyards. There are now three of those, Maté's (pronounced like Matty's), Coddington and Hunting Hill, plus a $19 "village" bottling of remnants that’s usually good in a more easy-going style.

Kumeu was out front of the parade to screw caps, making the switch in 2001. When I visited Michael Brajkovich in January of that year, he spent the better part of lunchtime worrying over whether to bottle all of his wines under the then-controversial closure, or keep some under corks because more conservative buyers were nervous about them. In the end, he jumped in with no reservations, bottling everything under twisties. Following his leadership, more than 90 percent of New Zealand's wine now comes with screw caps. Because of that, all of the wines in this tasting were pristine. (And they didn’t need to send any backup bottles.)

A bottle of the 2002 Maté's, the single-vineyard Kumeu has bottled separately the longest, will disprove any lingering thoughts that wines can only age well under cork. Soft and deftly balanced, it has developed into something less tart than the younger vintages, its acidity integrated with honey and hazelnut overtones to its still-fresh pineapple, pear and cream. 93 points non-blind. Or the 2003 Maté's, my favorite of the tasting. It shows both maturity and freshness, with hints of oatmeal cookies and cream against lemony acidity, balanced against pineapple and pear, while the finish lasts and lasts. 94 points. The oldest vintage, Maté's 2001, a couple of degrees darker than the '02, has almost a botrytis character, with more apricot, peach and honey than the other wines, finishing long and silky, poised and balanced. 93 points.

OK, six to eight years is not a long time for Chardonnay in classic Burgundy. But these wines are aging along the same lines, retaining freshness and adding extra nuances in the bottle. I would not hesitate to hold on to the 2002 or 2003 Maté’s for 10 more years. The screw caps provide extra assurance that they will not poop out.

The estate bottling from 2002 is less exuberant and showy, more mature and complex than the Maté's. It has style, but lacks the depth. 90 points. The 2003, however, is polished, round and complex. Although the acidity sticks out, the flavors have deepened and picked up honey and spice that come up strong on the finish. 92 points. Both are right there, ready now.

The estate bottlings stand out as more delicate and approachable than the single vineyards, which have more depth and flavor to munch on. Of the younger wines, the shining star was Maté's 2004, much more flavorful that its brethren, distinctive with lime and orange marmalade notes around the juiciness of star fruit, long and zesty on the finish. 94 points, maybe going past 95 with more time.

The younger wines are aging along the same curve, only further behind. That’s a good sign. Bottom line for Kumeu Chardonnays: Drink them young if you favor the vibrancy, but don’t worry about leaving them in the cellar for a few years. They only get more complex, without losing their vitality.

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  July 1, 2009 4:56pm ET
Good point! We went there on our way to the airport for a return flight to the US after a 6 week New Zealand trip in 2000. Micheal is a gracious host, the wines were wonderful and we bought a few bottles to drink on the plane ride home plus shipped a case--which even under cork, have aged well. IMHO, the only other wine which competes purely on quality and consistency with Kumeau Chard is the Terraces blend from Esk Valley
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  July 1, 2009 4:56pm ET
Good point! We went there on our way to the airport for a return flight to the US after a 6 week New Zealand trip in 2000. Micheal is a gracious host, the wines were wonderful and we bought a few bottles to drink on the plane ride home plus shipped a case--which even under cork, have aged well. IMHO, the only other wine which competes purely on quality and consistency with Kumeau Chard is the Terraces blend from Esk Valley
Cute Rate Liquor Wine
Knoxville, TN, USA —  July 2, 2009 2:15pm ET
I have a question about your phonetic spelling. Is the double O a long o (as in go) or an oo (as in moon)?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  July 2, 2009 2:36pm ET
It's oo as in "good."

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