This is the first part of a four-part report from my tour of some key New Zealand wine regions in 2020.
Benchmarking. It’s a funny old thing. How does Central Otago Pinot Noir stack up against Burgundy? Can Hawke’s Bay Syrah capture the essence of Côte-Rôtie? Do you prefer Marlborough Sauvignon or Sancerre?
New Zealand’s 40-odd years of a serious wine industry is of course the blink of an eye compared to centuries in classic French wine regions, but having asked myself those questions on my first visit almost 20 years ago, it suddenly struck me as odd – unfair even – that the same questions so often spring to mind today. Vines are maturing, winemakers are learning, and terroir is better understood across the regions, so isn’t it time to simply judge these wines for what they are, instead of ‘benchmarking’ them against someone else’s notion of an ideal?
Interestingly, of the dozens of winemakers I spoke to about this, almost all said they were still happy to be judged against the great classics of Europe, and that’s because they share a love for these wines that remain their inspiration in so many cases: their goal is to capture the elegance and nuance of a top Burgundy, Rhône, Loire or Bordeaux, while expressing something that is uniquely New Zealand.
NZ in brief
Over the next three parts of this feature I will report in depth on the regions of Central Otago and Marlborough on the South Island, and Hawke’s Bay on the North island, the three areas of focus for my January 2020 visit.
Central Otago stands alone as the world’s most southerly wine producing region, and the only one in New Zealand with an inland, continental climate. All of the others hug the coast and enjoy a milder, maritime climate moderated by the ocean.
Extending over 1,000 miles from the sub-tropical north to the snow-capped mountains of the south, there is diversity to spare here, in both climate and soils. Almost all of the wine regions lie in the east of the country within 80 miles of the coast, with shelter provided by mountains to the centre and west.
Though still a minnow on the world stage with around 1% of global production, 302 million litres of wine are produced in New Zealand, over 250 million litres of which is exported. Sustainability in this green and super-fresh environment is a big driver, with 98% of vineyards operating under audited sustainability standards, and an ever-increasing proportion certified as organic.
Sauvignon Blanc… and beyond
Most ‘New World’ wine producing countries would give their right arm for the combination of Sauvignon Blanc and the South Island region of Marlborough. Chile may have its Carmenere and Argentina its Malbec, but nothing compares to the phenomenon of Marlborough ‘Savvy’ – instantly recognisable, immensely popular, and a category with global reach. Marlborough accounts for 77% of New Zealand’s entire wine production, and around 80% of that is Sauvignon Blanc. And yet, the story is not so simple: not only is there fantastic quality among that ‘other’ 20% of wines made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and the rest, but Sauvignon Blanc is no longer the ‘one size fits all’ pungent and herbaceous style that was once totally dominant: today there are many less ‘typical’ styles as will be revealed in this report. And while producers in other regions will often source their Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, there’s more confidence now about the styles of Sauvignon coming from Hawke’s bay, Nelson, and host of other regions.
Time constraints meant I managed only one visit in the Auckland region, and the easy choice for me was to take a trip less than an hour north of the city to see Kumeu River.
Family-owned and run, Kumeu River was established in 1944 by Croatian immigrants Mick and Katé Brajkovich. Though Mick died in 1949, their son Maté took up the reins and established a reputation for the wines of Kumeu River, along with his wife, Melba. Since Maté’s death in 1992, their three sons, Paul, Milan and Michael, along with sister Marijana, have joined Melba in running the company, though various members of the fourth generation help out too.
Michael Brajkovich (who passed his M.W. exams in 1989) is in charge of winemaking, while Milan looks after the vineyards, with Paul and Marijana looking after commercial aspects. Melba, however, is ever present, not only as custodian of the firm’s legacy, but involved in managing the company. Pictured left to right, Paul, Melba, Marijana and Michael.
It’s fair to say the Brajkovich’s are synonymous with their home vineyards around the family home in Kumeu, and with Chardonnay. Thirty hectares of vineyard are planted on predominantly clay soils, which retain enough moisture to allow unirrigated farming. The Burgundy-influenced style of the Chardonnays, vinified with indigenous yeasts, extended lees ageing and malolactic fermentation, has earned fans and plaudits around the globe, with the Estate and single vineyard wines hailed as some of not just New Zealand, but the world’s finest.
Auckland’s huge growth has impacted this family business, as the suburbs spread ever outward, and land is acquired for development. Michael tells me that some of the best of their contract vineyards have been sold to overseas property investors, ‘banking’ the land for future development, but luckily continuing to lease it to the family.
Perhaps as a hedge against this, and aware of the soaring reputation for Chardonnay in the Hawke’s Bay region several hours further south, Kumeu River has acquired the substantial Rays Road vineyard in Hawke’s Bay. Though already producing a single vineyard Chardonnay, the vineyard was originally established as a joint project between Trinity Hill and Pascal Jolivet of the Loire, and so planted substantially with Sauvignon Blanc. Part of that will be grafted over to Chardonnay, but it also gives Kumeu River its own Sauvignon Blanc for the first time.
Go to part II – Central Otago