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Wine of the Week for week ending 13th April 2003
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San Marino 1967 Palamino Dry
Auckland, New Zealand

With friends from the Greymouth Gourmet Guzzlers making the trip from west coast of the South Island to the 'big smoke', that is New Zealand's largest city Auckland, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a tour of the local vineyards. Local to me is Kumeu, which is only 25 minutes drive from city central along the north western motorway on a good traffic day. Despite the high profile of Marlborough, Central Otago and other New Zealand wine regions, world class wine comes out of this rural backblock. The best and most internationally famous is Kumeu River Wines, whose chardonnays are consistently rated by all and sundry as among the country's finest.

All the wines of the Kumeu River current release were available for tasting, including the trio of Chardonnay's that the company produces - the 'signature series' Brajkovich Chardonnay 2002 ($17) designed as a lower priced user friendly style, the Kumeu River Chardonnay 2001* ($35) that has fruit sourced from several Kumeu vineyards and the company's iconic wine, the single vineyard Kumeu River Maté's Chardonnay 2001 ($45). These wines, pristine in their flavour no doubt to the screwcap wine seals, were developing well. I thought the two Kumeu Chardonnays in particular tasted divine so I decided not to taste the reds. I wanted that exquisite chardonnay flavour to linger in my mouth as long as possible.

It was then that I spotted the bottle labelled 'San Marino 1967 Palamino Dry' sitting in the display cabinet on the wall to my left.

What a blast from the past. My thoughts went back to some twenty years earlier when we'd tour the Henderson and Kumeu vineyards trying to find something palatable to drink. Many of the table wines, made in the 'Dally' style from Baco and other hybrid grapes, were disgusting to my palate so we'd end our trip at San Marino where I'd usually settle for the San Marino White Port.

Melba's voice bought me back to the present. "Would you like to taste some", she offered. With a huge smile on her face a bottle magically appeared from behind the counter. She explained that it had been made by her late husband, Maté, and had been sitting in old Sherry casks from when it was made in 1967 until it was bottled in 1994.

The golden coloured liquid tasted mellow, smooth and seductive and although labelled 'dry' it had a voluptuous stone fruit sweetness topped off with vanilla and honey. It had a crisp, clean finish and an incredible length of flavour. Age befits this old treasure, although the wine doesn't taste old at all. The 26-years maturation in oak and a further 9 years in the bottle had beautifully complemented the nutty 'rancio' character of the Sherry that if it was Spanish would be 'Amontillado' in style.

Michael Brajkovich M.W. was only seven when the Palamino grapes for this wine were picked but he told me with a chuckle that he remembered it well. "Most of the winery's production was fortified wine and this was a particularly good batch that Dad put aside. It was 'a special batch' that would be nurtured and used for blending".

But before the wine had matured the family made the decision to stop making sherries and ports as the wine climate changed in the 1980's. Quality table wine became the focus and to reflect this the company name changed from San Marino to Kumeu River Wines. The vineyard across from the winery, where the Palomino grapes grew, was replanted with Chardonnay. It is now called Maté's Vineyard, in honour of Maté Brajkovich, the husband, father and San Marino founder who died in 1992.

The 'specials' had been hoarded and the boys had to regularly shift the heavy old Sherry casks around the winery as it underwent expansion. Then when the old distillery was converted into a wine laboratory and once again the casks had to be shifted, Melba said to her boys "Why don't you just bottle it?"

There were five casks in total. Three were a Sweet Palamino and as word got around the bottles sold quickly from the Cellar Door. From the other two casks came the Dry. "We don't push it", said Michael, 'but every so often we sell a bottle or two". Nine years on from bottling there are just 197 bottles left.

If you like old Sherry, this is a bargain. It costs just $15 at the winery. Serve it as an aperitif, with antipasto or tapas type platters or as an accompaniment to a strongly flavoured soup.

* * * * * * * * * *

* Kumeu River Chardonnay 2001 has just been awarded 93 points by Wine Spectator.
In addition, the Kumeu River Chardonnay 2000 was recently included in a blind tasting of old and new world chardonnays, organized by Karen MacNeil, director of the Culinary Institute of America’s new Wine Education Center. The group of writers and industry professionals selected one wine as "probably the ringer- a grand cru Burgundy". It was however the Kumeu River Chardonnay from Auckland, New Zealand.

© Sue Courtney
6 April 2003

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