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Three Sources for Exemplary New World Chardonnay
By Rebecca Murphy
Nov 17, 2015
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This has been a year of discovery, but then every year, every day, I learn something new about wine.  I was particularly excited to discover--or, in one case, rediscover--three glorious New World Chardonnays.  All three are produced by wineries whose founders have been pioneers in their regions and prescient, as well as persistent (you might even say dogged), in their pursuit of exceptional examples of a wine that can be quite trivial.  I was introduced to the Chardonnays of Kumeu River Wine of New Zealand and Vasse Felix of Margaret River (from Western Australia), and got reacquainted with Stony Hill of Napa Valley.  If you haven’t tried them yet, you are in for a series of treats.

At the end of the TEXSOM International Awards last February as we were breaking down the backroom, James Tidwell, MS handed me a glass of a white wine.  I gave it a sniff and took a sip.  It was like nothing I had experienced before.  I thought my ears were ringing, but realized it was the effect of extravagant, yet tightly wound layers of flavors resonating through my head.  Me:  “What IS this?”  James:  “The Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2012 ($27, importer Wilson Daniels) that has been open since yesterday when it was poured for the judges.”  Me: “From where?”  James: “New Zealand, near Auckland.”  Me, showing my ignorance: “Auckland?  That’s not wine country.” 

Well, it turns out that despite the fact that New Zealand’s capitol city is well north of New Zealand wine country, Kumeu, located northwest of Auckland, is blessed by the temperature-moderating effect of both the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, making it possible to grow high quality wine grapes. 

I finished that glass and took the remaining bottle with me back to my hotel room and had it with room service dinner the following night.  It had lost a little of its vibrancy, but was still an intensely delicious, polished wine.
Who are these people at Kumeu River that can make such an astoundingly good Chardonnay?  It all began with Mick and Katé Brajkovich, immigrants from Croatia, who bought a property that included a small vineyard in 1944.  After Mick died in 1949, Katé and their son, Maté, continued making wine and selling what the family did not consume under the name of San Marino Vineyards.  In 1979, Maté made a daring change in the name of quality by pulling out hybrid grapes that made fortified wines as well as basic reds and whites.  He replaced them with vinifera grapes, including Chardonnay, less common at the time.  In 1986, Maté’s sons joined the business, changed the name to Kumeu River Wines and focused their efforts on high-quality Chardonnay.

Kumeu River includes 74 acres of dry-farmed vineyards.  They also work with almost 25 acres of grapes from local growers.  Grapes are hand-harvested and whole-bunch pressed.  The juice is fermented by indigenous yeasts in a combination of new and old French oak barrels.  It goes through malo-lactic fermentation and is aged in barrel on lees for 11 months with regular stirring of the lees.  Reading that winemaking description, you might think that the wine will be over-the-top with oak and buttery notes from the malo-lactic fermentation, but it is not.  Winemaker Michael Brajkovich, MW, has a Bachelor’s Degree in Oenology from Roseworthy College in South Australia, and is also New Zealand’s first Master of Wine--as well as an avid scholar of wine and winemaking.  His model for Chardonnay is a white Burgundy.  He aims for a style that is, “Light, elegant, and flinty” to be enjoyed at the dining table.  Based upon the 2012 Chardonnay I tasted, his aim is true.

In early July I met Virginia Willcock, chief winemaker of Vasse Felix in Margaret River, Western Australia.  She was visiting the USA, and took the time to meet with me to show a few of her wines.  The Margaret River is relatively new for wine.  It wasn’t really considered for wine grape growing until Harold Olmo, Professor of Viticulture from UC Davis, visited at the request of the Western Australian government to assess the viability of wine grape growing in the state.  He singled out Margaret River as having particularly favorable conditions.  A decade later, Dr. John Gladstones, an Australian agricultural and viticultural scientist, also wrote a report that highly recommended the area for grape growing.  If you look at the Margaret River area on a map, its profile looks a bit like a pig’s snout sticking out from Australia’s far southwestern coast.  It is surrounded on three sides by water.  The Southern and Indian Oceans meet here.  As with Kumeu’s proximity to water, Margaret River’s climate is moderated, making it hospitable for wine grape growing.

In 1967, Dr Thomas Cullity established Margaret River’s first winery and named it Vasse Felix.  He sold the property to the Gregg family, which in turn sold to the current owners, the Holms á Court family.  Virginia Willcock, also a Roseworthy College enology alumnus, joined the winery in 2006.  She has been making wine in Margaret River for over 25 years, which has given her the opportunity to see how the vineyards perform in different conditions.  One of her goals is to get the best expression of each vintage. 

The vineyards are farmed with organic and sustainable practices.  Grapes are hand-harvested, and fruit lots based upon vineyard site and clone are selected for the designated Chardonnay levels Filius, Premier or Heytesbury.  Grapes are chilled, whole-bunch pressed, and unclarified juice is transferred to French oak barrels to ferment on natural yeasts.  Wines are aged on the lees with regular battonage (stirring of the yeast lees).  For the 2013 Heytseybury there was no malo-lactic fermentation.

The 2014 Filius ($25, importer Negociants USA) was light and bright with pineapple, buttery aromas and round citrus flavors with crisp acidity.  The 2013 Chardonnay ($40) showed vanilla, citrus, stony aromas and textured, chalky, ginger, peach flavors with bright acidity.  Heytesbury ($60) was intense, concentrated, elegant, yet powerful with citrus and stone fruit and vivid acidity

Later in July, I trekked up the side of Spring Mountain in Napa Valley on a narrow winding road to visit Stony Hill.  Fred and Eleanor McCrae purchased the property in 1943.  They planted their first Chardonnay vineyard in 1947.  At the time, the grape that was to become California’s most widely planted wine grape (97,826 acres reported in 2014 according to Wine Institute) was scarce and not well understood.  The McCrae’s were warned that Chardonnay was not a particularly good choice, but they followed their dream and released their first vintage in 1952.  They may be the first to market wine direct to consumers, because they sold their inaugural wine by sending letters to friends.  They continue to sell to their mailing list, as well as to select restaurants and through distributors in some markets.

Fred McCrea was the winemaker until his death in 1977.  Mike Chelini, who was hired in 1972 as vineyard manager and assistant winemaker, became the winemaker.  He still holds that job today, making wine the way it has always been made at Stony Hill--by showcasing the fruit.  The grapes are dry-farmed and hand harvested, then crushed then pressed with no skin contact.  The juice is inoculated with Montrachet yeasts and barrel fermented using at least 10-year-old- barrels that impart no woody flavor.   “I don’t want the taste of oak in my wines,” said Chelini, who also insists that the wines not exceed 13.5 percent alcohol.  The wine is racked off the lees to avoid yeasty flavors and mal-lactic fermentation is blocked: minimal winemaking, maximum fruit.

My visit was hosted by Sarah McCrea of the third generation, along with Chelini.  It was a gloriously sunny day and vines were bathed in golden light.  We met our hosts at the California ranch-style house that was the McCrea’s home, but now is a guesthouse.   We walked down to the barrel room (which looks like the only change over time has been replacement of old barrels with different old barrels), then back through the vineyards to taste a few wines.  Chelini poured four vintages of the Chardonnay beginning with the 2012 ($27), which was lean with bright citrus, lemon zest, green apple fruit layered with stony mineral notes and bright with crisp acidity.  It was linear and tangy, but not sharp.  As we tasted our way back through 2011, 2010 and 2009 the wines became more round in the mouth, but retained their crispness.

The founders of these three wineries were pioneers in their respective regions.  They chose to focus on making world-class Chardonnay true to their region.  Each winemaker has a different winemaking approach, but they work with intimate knowledge of their region, their vineyards, and their fruit to make the best Chardonnay each vintage allows.  Their exemplary efforts demonstrate the heights that can be attained with Chardonnay in multiple New World locations, and should prompt other vintners to strive for comparable levels of excellence.