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Winemaker Talk: Michael Brajkovich

Kumeu River's winemaker talks about the 2009 New Zealand harvest and championing Burgundian-style Chardonnay in the North Island's Auckland region

Robert Taylor
Posted: June 2, 2009

Michael Brajkovich, 49, is the winemaker at New Zealand's Kumeu River winery, where he makes outstanding Burgundian-style Chardonnays. Brajkovich has been involved in the wine business his entire life—his father emigrated to New Zealand from Dalmatia, Croatia, in 1938 and began growing grapes in Kumeu, in the Auckland region on New Zealand's North Island, in the 1940s.

Brajkovich earned a degree in enology from Roseworthy College in South Australia in 1983, and then toured the wine regions of the United States and Italy before accepting a position at a winery in Bordeaux where he worked with Christian Moueix. In 1989, Brajkovich became the first New Zealander to earn the title of Master of Wine, and as a member of the International Screwcap Initiative, he is one of the world's leading proponents of Stelvin closures. He took time out from the 2009 New Zealand harvest to talk to Wine Spectator about growing up in the wine business, his Burgundian influences and this year's crop.

Wine Spectator: What was it like growing up on a winery, and how did you decide to pursue a career in winemaking?
Michael Brajkovich: My father started the business when he was 19 in 1944. He moved to Kumeu with his parents and two sisters and they bought a property with a small vineyard on it and a winemaker's license so they could start making wine straight away, but they also had a small herd of cows and some gardens—they grew pumpkins and strawberries, but in the '60s the business expanded and became solely a wine business. Growing up here it was always exciting during harvest time, with all the tractors going around and all the pickers here. Even at the age of three or four, Dad would sit me on a box next to the pump, and he'd be pumping things and I would turn the pump on and off when he called out to me. He explained to me at a very early age, "If you don't turn the pump off, we're going to lose all this wine!" Winery life was instilled in me at a very early age. I had an inkling at the age of 11 or 12 that this was the business I wanted to be in, so going through high school I chose subjects to suit that—chemistry, biology, physics, and also French became very important.

WS: How did you decide to focus on Kumeu Chardonnay?
MB: We tried a large number of different varieties on our vineyards in pretty empirical, large-scale experiments, and it was the Chardonnay that shone through each time. It's probably the combination of soil and climate that we have here that's well-suited to the variety. Our soils here are prominently clay, and it seems to be a substrate that Chardonnay likes.

WS: Which Burgundian winemaking techniques go into making Kumeu River Chardonnays?
MB: It starts with the harvest—the fruit is all hand-harvested. The fruit arrives intact in bins and tipped directly into an air-bag press, and is directly pressed—we don't use a crusher—and the juice we get from that is very clean and can go straight into fermentation. The barrels are all from selected Burgundian coopers that seem to suit our style of Chardonnay. And we don't add any yeast—we rely on the indigenous population that we have here. There's some time the wine spends in barrel on the lees with some bâtonnage [stirring of the lees]. We've refined our style to make it a more refreshing Chardonnay.

WS: What advantages does Auckland offer in making a Burgundian-style Chardonnay?
MB: We are definitely a different terroir [than Burgundy]—we're by no means continental—our climate is very ocean-influenced. We're fairly well north in New Zealand, but our temperatures are kept quite moderate by the influence of the Tasman Sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The temperatures stay quite cool during the end of the growing season and into harvest, so there are distinct differences between here and Burgundy, but the varietal character comes through very strongly, and those traditional Burgundian techniques seem to work very well with the grape variety, particularly the barrels—the oak is so important to this style of wine.

WS: How was the 2009 harvest at Kumeu River?
MB: We had a really good January, good ripening, and then we had a little bit of rain. We went from warm weather to quite autumnal weather [during harvest]. There was some rot introduced out there, but since we hand harvest, we can go through and pick that out. It was slow and painstaking—not as perfect as we would have liked—but I'm pretty pleased with the results. Maté's Vineyard is just stunning.

WS: You are among the New Zealand winemakers who champion screw caps. Why did you decide to bottle all of your Chardonnays without a cork?
MB: We've been using screw caps since 2001. We would never have gone the way we did with screw caps had I not had the chance to taste quite a few bottles, from Australia particularly, of Riesling that had been aged under screw cap for 20 or 25 years. Tasting those wines and seeing the beautiful bottle bouquet that had evolved, I thought, if that's the kind of bottle age character you get with a screw cap, that's exactly what we want for our Chardonnay. Had I not had that experience we probably wouldn't have jumped into it as much as we did, but having done it, the wines are aging beautifully.

WS: When you're not drinking your own wines, what are your favorites?
MB: I have a pretty good lineup of Bordeaux and Burgundies. I'm a huge fan of Alsatian wines—I think they're just marvelous. I've recently been tasting a lot of Spanish and Italian wines as well, but you always go back to the classics when looking for inspiration. Henri Jayer wrote the book on red Burgundy. There's a whole host of producers in Burgundy that I really like, but my inspirations have always been Ramonet, Leflaive, Roulot, Coche-Dury, Lafon … they're just fantastic wines.

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