When Michael Brajkovich wants to visit some of his Chardonnay vines, all he has to do is cross the street. But that's not as easy as it sounds.
Brajkovich's father bought land about 15 miles west of Auckland, New Zealand in 1944, when the country was largely populated by sheep. The land was cheap; it had been a gum farm. Bet you didn't know gum grew on trees!
In fact, kauri gum was a resin from the kauri tree. Now comes a terrible environmental story from the era of them (don't worry, we'll get back to the Chardonnay).
When Europeans got to New Zealand in the early 19th century, the north island had large forests of kauri trees, and hardened gum resin was scattered all over the ground. In part because of the resin, wood from these trees was very good in shipbuilding. Timber!
By 1900, less than 10 percent of the kauri forests remained, but there was still a huge market for the gum. Maori had once chewed it like we might chew Wrigley's, but by 1900, despite the disappearance of the forests, it was a crucial ingredient in most European varnishes.
There was still plenty of gum underground where the forests once were. To get it out, gum-diggers excavated big holes in the ground with shovels. Even though this was back-breaking, low-paying work, immigrants came from Croatia to do it, so much so that the then-racist Kiwi government passed a series of laws limiting the jobs to British subjects.
Despite that, in 1937 Mick and Katé Brajkovich made their way from their small Croatian farm to New Zealand. They had good timing, because New Zealand soon entered World War II. There was demand for gum as a war material, and a shortage of men to harvest it.
Mick made enough by 1944 to buy some land from which the gum had already been extracted. The land wasn't special, so it was cheap, and the Brajkovich family started a farm, with pumpkins, dairy cows and -- as was common in Croatia -- some grapevines.
Now you know where this is going. Fast forward 70 years and two generations. Mick's son Maté, Michael's father, gradually decided grapevines were his most successful crop. He planted a few different varieties, but what really did well was Chardonnay.
Auckland is New Zealand's most populous city because, in a cool, rainy country, it's one of the warmest, sunniest places. However, go 15 miles west to Kumeu and the temperature drops. Kumeu is only about six miles east of the Tasman Sea and Brajkovich says, "On a really windy day you can smell the ocean. You get that salt tang in the air." Warmer, more humid Auckland sucks in fog from the ocean, much like what happens in San Francisco. Brajkovich says that even in summer, "we do not go over 30 degrees" Celsius (86 degrees Farenheit).
Sometimes that chill is a problem; it certainly was when the Brajkovichs tried to grow Cabernet and Merlot. Just last year they lost 2/3 of their Chardonnay to frost. But if you're a fan of good Chardonnay, you know what cool, marginal climate can lead to.
Kumeu River makes, year after year, some of the best Chardonnay in New Zealand. The winery makes a solid, toasty Estate Chardonnay ($30), not to be confused with the second-label Kumeu Village ($20) that's much cheaper in New Zealand and is competent if unexciting.
What's really exciting at Kumeu River are its three single-vineyard wines. Kumeu River Coddington Chardonnay 2011 ($40) is a lively, delicious wine that smells like dark wheat toast smeared with molasses, but tastes like ripe pear and white peach with some salinity on the finish. Brajkovich says this wine gets the most new oak (35%, aging only) of any of his Chardonnays because the fruit is so exuberant.
Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2011 ($40) has the strongest saline character; so salty, with lemon pith notes, that it tastes like a condiment, and is just waiting for the right food to go with (baked potatoes? Fried chicken?). Kumeu River Maté's Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 ($40) differs from the others with its floral aromas, though while it has some nice white peach fruit, its main distinguishing feature is the steeliness of its mouthfeel.
It is Maté's Vineyard, just across State Highway 16 from the winery, that Brajkovich risks his life to visit. Cars whiz by between Auckland and the beaches to Kumeu's west. The whole area has become a bedroom community, as Auckland's population has doubled in the last 25 years, and is expected to grow by another 50% in the next 25. A working farm is only charming in an urban area when it's not actually working.
"People complain when you fly a helicopter over at 3 a.m. for frost control," Brajkovich says.
Nobody in their right mind today would try to plant grapevines on land so close to Auckland; it's worth much more for housing. But the Brajkovichs use the land to support a true family business: Michael is the winemaker, his two brothers and one sister oversee the vineyards and the marketing, and his mother is managing director.
There are nine kids in the next generation, and while that increases the odds of one of them wanting to be a winemaker, it also means there will eventually be more family pressure to extract the most value from land that 70 years ago had little. Imagine if foggy San Francisco had grapevines instead of apartment buildings. That's what I thought of while tasting these expressive Chardonnays from within the new limits of Auckland's urban sprawl.