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Kumeu River Wines
Much to the surprise of his colleagues in Central Otago and Martinborough, in the late 1990s Michael Brajkovich, winemaker and manager of the Kumeu River vineyard and winery west of Auckland, pulled out all of his Cabernet Sauvignon vines and replaced them with Pinot Noir. Earlier he had pulled out his Sauvignon Blanc and replaced it with Pinot Gris. After fifteen years experience with the discarded varieties, and some experimental work growing their replacements, he considered that he could make much more elegant wine on his Kumeu sites with these different varieties.
Paying little heed to the environmental hype suggesting that it is the winter chill, diurnal ranges of temperature, and long and dry ripening period that gives the special qualities to Pinot Noir grown in the Wairarapa and Central Otago, Michael Brajkovich’s philosophy, influenced by his French experience, is that great wines are made from understanding the land where you find yourself growing vines and matching the varieties to it. He had already done this with Chardonnay. Now it was the turn of the other Burgundian variety, Pinot Noir, and a white from Alsace, Pinot Gris.
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Kumeu River Wines has been setting national standards for some varieties from the 1980s, but up until the last decade the Brajkovich family were reluctant to source grapes from outside their immediate locality. Pressure from their international distributors saw them finally succumb to having a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in their range. But the fundamental philosophy of their enterprise is to grow their own grapes and supplement these by having a small number of local grape growers. They liaise with them regularly, indeed manage some of their vineyards as well as buy their grapes. No contracts are written. Instead they discuss price per tonne in January each year and arrive at a consensus. The success of Kumeu River wines in the local and international market – notably their elegant Chardonnays but Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir as well – is clear evidence that northern New Zealand will continue to feature in the country’s list of fine wines.
When asked if for some reason it were impossible for him to establish in Canterbury, in which part of New Zealand would he plant grapes, pioneering winemaker Danny Schuster rattled off a list: ‘Martinborough, Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay. They’re all great, even Auckland. Invited to elaborate, he added:
Well, because most people are in a hurry to get away from Auckland. And I think it’s a challenge, number one. And number two, there’s some great wines being made from grapes grown there. So obviously something must be right. I don’t know what it is, but why not?