Cooking to the Wine: Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay with Roasted Sheet Pan Chicken and Vegetables #WorldWineTravel

A favorite Chardonnay from Kumeu River on New Zealand's North Island is paired with roasted sheet pan chicken thighs with veggies for an easy and delicious dinner. 

I’ve shared in the past that I really love roast chicken paired with a bottle of Chardonnay, and today we’re popping open one of my faves – Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay hailing from New Zealand’s North Island. 

I was first introduced to these wines several years ago when I had a chance to sit down for a tasting with Paul Brajkovich, a member of the owning family. I was quite impressed with the whole line and shortly after, I had planned to feature a bottle of a moderately aged but inexpensive Pinot Gris they had released at the time which I had paired with a fried chicken dish. Sadly, we lost all of the pictures related to that dish in a computer crash. Wahwah. I only see current vintages of their Pinot Gris available now, but I can vouch for the wine’s ageability and deliciousness.

I equally enjoyed their Chardonnays, and while their higher-end wines were beautiful, the Estate Chardonnay is moderately priced ($29 average, although I usually see it priced in the mid to low $30s) and delivers bang for the buck. When I first tasted the Chardonnays, I mentioned that they reminded me of a ‘Mersault with the volume turned up to 11.’ I eventually got to experience that comparison in real life. I brought a bottle with me to dinner at a friend’s house with a group of wine industry girlfriends. By coincidence, one of the other ladies brought a bottle of Mersault, so we got to do a side-by-side tasting. 

We enjoyed our Chardonnays from Meursault and Kumeu River with chicken and butternut squash. 

Things played out basically as they had in my head. The Mersault was lovely of course – believe me, I’m not knocking white Burgundy. The wine had elegance, minerality, and some nice fruit, but it was a bit more subtle. The Kumeu River bottle had a similar balance of elements I expect from Burgundy, particularly the minerality, bright acidity, and hints of spice, but with the levels turned up a bit; in particular, the bright, sun-shiny fruit notes just jumped out of the glass more readily. Other wine geeks might counter that this is to be expected of a New World Chardonnay, and yes, you’re right, but the minerality and acidity in this wine are higher than one might expect from many California versions, for example. Another way to put it is that this is a great marriage of New World and Old World styles. 

Let’s go ahead now and travel over to New Zealand to get to know this wine better.

Auckland & Kumeu

New Zealand has become well known for its delicious Sauvignon Blancs, particularly those hailing from Marlborough on the South Island. Today, however, we’re going to the North Island, and fairly north in North Island at that, to the Auckland region, which shares its name with  New Zealand’s most populous city. 

Map borrowed from

As you can probably imagine, being much farther north the most of the rest of the country’s winegrowing regions, the terroir here is a bit different. Most of the area lies on a narrow strip of land between the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific to the east. Having water so close in most directions means the region has a maritime climate that is much more humid than many of New Zealand’s other wine regions. This can make things tricky since humidity brings disease pressures. Moreover, most of New Zealand’s growing regions are in the rain shadow of the island nation’s mountain ranges. Most of the Auckland region gets no such protection. On the plus side, since the region is closer to the equator than most of the rest of the country, they also experience warmer temperatures than much of the rest of the country, which allows them to ripen grapes that simply don’t do as well in the cooler temperatures further south, such as Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, as well as particularly good Chardonnay. The breezes that come off the ocean, in turn, help moderate temperatures and keep things from getting too warm. 

The region was formed by volcanic activity about 50,000 years ago, and all of Auckland’s subregions have similar clay and loam soils that both add minerality to the wines, and can help keep the vines hydrated in drier years. On the flip side, those fertile, water-retaining soils can present challenges in the humidity. Growers have had to be very selective as to the types of rootstocks, grapes and clones, and growing methods they use in order to mitigate the problems with diseases and overcropping that come with the humid weather and fertile soils.

While James Busby brought vines to New Zealand in 1819, winemaking in the region really began in the early 20th century when settlers came over from Croatia, Lebanon, and England. As was often the case, the settlers brought their vines with them and many wineries in the area trace their origins back to these settlers, as we shall see. 

Auckland has several subregions, of which Kumeu is one. The town of Kumeu is located about 15 to 20 miles northwest of Auckland’s CBD. There are several larger-scale wineries based around Kumeu, but many of them source their grapes from elsewhere in New Zealand. However, there are also quite a few boutique producers, like Kumeu River, that have figured out how to work with the elements to make some excellent wines. 

Quick side note to give props: New Zealand as a country has an amazing track record on sustainability. Per, to date, 98% of vineyards are above the ISO 14001 sustainability standard and 7% operate organically, so their wines are an excellent bet if sustainability is important to you.

Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay

Image borrowed from

Kumeu River's history serves as a perfect illustration of the region’s history as described above and they were one of the region’s early pioneers. Mick Brajkovich emigrated from Dalmatia and arrived in New Zealand in 1937 to work in the Kauri gum fields – Kauri gum was a very important resource at the time. His wife Katé, son Maté, and daughters Frances and Nevenka followed him a year later. The family moved a few times, working and saving, and by 1944, they’d saved enough money to buy land in Kumeu. Initially, the property was used for mixed farming and they raised dairy cows and grew fruit and vegetables. There was already a small vineyard on the property, and they made for their own consumption, just as had been common in Dalmatia. Their production quickly exceeded what they needed for themselves, and as the quality was also very good, they started making wine commercially, initially focusing on dry red wines in the style that was popular in Croatia. Sadly, Mick died in 1949, but Maté and Katé kept the business going which became known as  San Marino Vineyards. 

Eventually, Maté married Melba Sutich, whose grandparents had also immigrated to New Zealand from Croatia. They had four children – Michale, Marijana, Milan, and Paul. In 1979,  the family began to move away from the hybrid varieties that were there, and towards  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot, which were unusual at the time. 

The new generation began to take an interest and get involved in the family business, which increasingly focused on quality and built a reputation. In 1986, the winery changed its name to Kumeu River Wines and began making a Burgundy-influenced style of Chardonnay using indigenous yeasts, extended lees aging, and malolactic fermentation. 

Today, Kumeu River has 30 hectares (74 acres) of estate vineyards in Kumeu, and they work with another 10 hectares (24.7 acres) from local growers, producing 250,000 bottles annually.  The wines are farmed sustainably and are vegan. The vineyards have predominantly clay soils overlying a sandstone base, which retain enough water to hydrate the deep-rooted vines, so additional irrigation is not needed. 

Image borrowed from

Fun fact, Michael Brajkovic, who is now their winemaker, became New Zealand’s first Master of Wine. 

I described Kumeu River’s Estate Chardonnay in general terms at the top, and on the night we opened the 2020, it showed all the lovely balance and bright flavors I was expecting. On the nose, I picked up notes of tangy peaches, crisp apples, lemon, and vanilla cream, all laced with minerals. All of those elements continued on the palate, along with a little butterscotch. The oak was well-integrated, and the wine’s bright acidity gave it a juicy quality at the start of the palate that then moved towards a sleek, mid-weight body with lots of minerality. Lovely!

Geeky Details

Details were taken from the tech sheet.

Vineyards: The grape for this wine come from six different vineyard sites in the Kumeu Region,  with careful attention paid to the selection of the grapes. 


Grapes are hand-harvested 

Whole-bunch pressed 

Indigenous-yeast fermentation

French oak barrels, 20% new oak

100% barrel fermentation

100% malolactic fermentation

11 months maturation in barrel


The Pairing: Roasted Sheet Pan Chicken Thighs with Veggies

Since I’ve had these wines quite a few times, I had a good idea of the flavor profile. As I mentioned, I find it hard to resist roast chicken with Chardonnay, particularly one with a bot of oak on it. This time I thought I’d create a sheet pan-style dinner with vegetables and seasonings that would play to the different aspects of the wine. Now, I say sheet pan, but I’d recommend using a roasting pan or at least a deeper sheet pan since the chicken and vegetables give off a lot of juices. Of course, you want to avoid a mess, but likewise, you’ll want to catch those juices to serve on chicken and veggies because they’re delicious. 

I used yogurt flavored with lemon and garlic as a marinade in order to play to the wine’s tangy, juicy qualities.  Meanwhile, I opted for cauliflower, mushrooms, and potatoes to tease out more earthy elements. I used parsley as a garnish, which is optional, but I do think it also helped bring out herbal notes in the wine and worked with its minerality as well. While I kept the seasonings fairly simple here, feel free to play around and change them up.

Everything worked as I’d hoped and different flavors in the wine came out depending on the composition of the bite – sometimes the citrus notes were highlighted, while at others the wine appeared more earthy or minerally. It was delicious, easy, and in the end, there was only one pan for my husband to clean. 


This month the World Wine Travel (#WorldWineTravel) blogging group is taking a virtual trip around New Zealand's North Island. Linda of My Full Wine Glass is hosting and you can read her invitation here and be sure to check out the rest of the group's posts:

Additional sources used for this post and extra reading:



  1. What a fascinating story about this Croatian family and the region they settled, and this pairing is amazing! I want it all - the Chardonnay with lees aging and the sheet-pan chicken and veggies.

  2. Thank you for sharing your trip and your memories of this winery with us. I am going to keep an eye out for their wines.


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