Carl Kanowsky | Chardonnay reigns on Kumeu River

Carl Kanowsky on Wine

We began our New Zealand adventure in Auckland, staying at the Hilton Auckland, sitting right on the wharf where, of all things, Princess Cruises’ ships dock. (The ship, when docked, was less than half of a football field from the balcony of our room. In the morning, surprise roommates!) 

Both the North and the South Islands are divided into wine regions. Fortunately for us, one of New Zealand’s top chardonnay producers makes its tasty whites (along with pinot noir and others as well) just about 20 miles north of the Hilton in the Auckland Wine Region. The winery? Kumeu River Wines. 

We met with Paul Brajkovich, essentially the director of sales. As the Kumeu website says, “Paul has been instrumental in securing Kumeu River’s place within the international market.” 

He took us on an extended tour, along the way providing us with the history of Kumeu River Winery. The Brajkovich family hails from Croatia. Paul’s grandparents migrated from there to New Zealand in 1937, founding what would eventually become Kumeu River Winery in 1944. It took several decades but eventually the winery began to gain a reputation for its wines. From that humble beginning, Kumeu River now produces 250,000 bottles annually from 74 acres of estate vineyards in Kumeu, along with fruit from local growers. 

While 80% of the wine exported from New Zealand to the USA is sauvignon blanc, we found several distinctive Kiwi wines that did not match this profile. From Kumeu, the headline grape is chardonnay. 

But before we get to that, let’s talk about their 2023 Pinot Rosé. It features a nose of cherry, vanilla and nutmeg, with a bright personality and a long, smooth finish. Terry detected tastes of strawberries, cherry and vanilla. 

We then got into the chardonnays, starting with the 2023 Village with 80% of its fruit coming from south of Auckland in Hawke’s Bay. It was flinty, crisp and bracing, with lemon singing through it. It fulfills its role well as an introduction to Kumeu’s chards. 

Let me tell you about four other chardonnay offerings that excelled. 

First up was the 2022 Hunting Hill, which is aged in 25% new oak. Terry’s nose is always more perceptive than mine. She got aromas of slate, lime and peach. But upon drinking it, I could wax poetic. It evoked cooler breezes, with an elegant presentation and finish.  

I asked Paul how he thought this particular chardonnay would age. Rather than guessing, he opened a bottle of 2016 Hunting Hill. Maybe because of its age, the 2016 was more subdued than the 2022. But I did get a welcoming, lovely peach perfume. The tastes were a mix of citrus and stone fruit, particularly white peach.  

We finished with two vintages of Maté’s Vineyard. Maté Brajkovich, the son of the founders of what would become Kumeu River and the father of the four children who now run it, came over from Croatia and learned to work the land with his mom and dad, and took over once his dad died just a few years after buying the vineyard. More than 45 years after his parents planted their roots in Kumeu River, Maté ripped out the old vines, planting new chardonnay in 1990. Unfortunately, Maté did not live to see the results of his bold actions. But the vineyard that bears his name produces the flagship chardonnay for Kumeu. 

Paul poured both the 2022 and the 2012 vintages. This exercise demonstrated even more than the Hunting Hill what proper aging can do. Terry’s comments on the 2022 reflect this, “Minimal oak, but more flinty than the other chardonnays. It has an acidic finish, but a long one. Is this maybe a bit young – needs more time?”  

The 2012 addressed that straight on. Even though it’s more than 10 years old, it has much more vibrant aromas where all of the elements come together for a delightful glass of wine. And, there’s enough body left to see that five more years won’t hurt at all. 

Kumeu River – where chardonnay is king. 

Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker.  

Gallery below: Photos by Terry Kanowsky.

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