Winemakers seek organic grail

CECILE MEIER
Last updated 05:00 18/01/2014
Muddy Water (Waipara)
JOSEPH JOHNSON/Fairfax NZ

PASSION FOR ORGANICS: Nik Mavromatis stands in a Muddy Water vineyard with planting of Phacelia and Buckwheat for pest control.

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When winemakers talk about going organic, they don't use business language. The decision seems to be based on passion rather than financial return.

For Nicholas Brown of Black Estate in Waipara, it's all about making the best wine possible.

''We just hope that [going organic] will help us grow better, more expressive wine.''

Nik Mavromatis, from Muddy Water and Greystone agrees.

''If you want to make fine wine, you're not talking about what's the cheapest. You're talking about what's best for your vines - clearly organic is the best way to go,'' Mavromatis says.

For Kaye McAulay from Vynfields in Martinborough, organics is the only way.

''I was brought up eating organic food so when we started the vineyard there was no option for us.''

Motivations are similar for bigger businesses like national winemaker Villa Maria. It's about more than just the bottom line.

''As a family company, the desire to leave something for the next generation is an ever-present and overriding business objective,'' owner and founder Sir George Fistonich says. 

Over 20 per cent of Villa Maria's vineyards are certified organic or transitioning to organic as part of a drive toward sustainability that started 10 years ago.

But sticking an organic wine label on the bottle does not necessarily mean increased prices and sales, and Mavromatis says there might even be a stigma associated with organic practices.

''There's a perception of organic wine as hippyish, and not as good as conventional wine. For a long time, organics could put some people off,'' he says.

Despite this, the organic movement is steadily picking up in New Zealand. Figures from Organic Winegrowers New Zealand (OWNZ) show that in 2012, 2550 hectares of vineyard land was certified organic in New Zealand - about 7.6 per cent of the country's total vinelands. Of these, half were fully certified, and the rest were in conversion to organic production. 

Marlborough was home to about 80 organic vineyards, 7 per cent of the region's total vineyard area. In both Central Otago and Martinborough, organic vineyards made up 13 per cent of vineyards.

LONG ROAD TO HOE 

It takes commitment for growers to get an organic label on their bottles.

According to the OWNZ, growers must use solely organic practices for three years before attaining full organic certification.

For Mavromatis, who is in the process of getting Greystone certified organic, it is ''a long winding road.''

''To actually be certified is a big deal and you have to jump through a lot of hoops,'' he says.

At Black Estate, Brown started the process to become organic in 2009, but had to start over in 2012 when he brought on new properties.

McAulay from Vynfields says keeping the certification up to date can be tedious.

''The paperwork is a bit of a bore, but my husband does that.''

Turning organic involves significant initial costs.

Brown says going organic means spending more on labour and special weeding equipment, but less on on chemical sprays.

''From a business perspective we had to be very mindful of the costs involved all the way through. It took us a long time to get the right equipment to do weeding.''

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The initial cultivation work to turn the soil organic is labour intensive and hard, he says. But once it's up and running, the costs are similar to conventional winegrowing.

OWNZ spokesperson Rebecca Reider agrees. The association initiated a study in which selected vineyards across New Zealand compare conventional and organic growing side by side.

''We're now in the third season of the trial. What we're seeing is there's not a huge cost difference between organic and conventional. In the first year, there were some extra set up costs associated with switching over to organic production, but they're not huge costs,'' Reider says.

At Villa Maria, managing the conversion costs on a bigger scale took time and learning, Jonathan Hamlet from Villa Maria-owned Joseph Soler Vineyard in Hawke's Bay says.

''When we first started organic growing, we found that it cost us much more than conventional production. But in the last five years, we've managed to change some of our methods to be a lot more efficient and now our costs of production on our organic blocks are equivalent to our non organic productions.''

''We've definitely learned from our mistakes.''

CHALLENGING PERCEPTIONS

Switching to organic production requires a complete ''mindset change'' as it involves more manual work and increases workers' awareness, Reider says.

Brown agrees.

''By being in the vineyard more and observing the subtle changes in the soil and in the weeds, everyone becomes more fine tuned,'' Brown says.

Organic growers have to be proactive in monitoring for pest and disease before they occur, Reider explains.

Muddy Water and Greystone sit side by side in the Waipara Valley in north Canterbury. Muddy Water has been certified organic since 2010. Greystone, a much bigger vineyard, is in the process of getting the certification.

Mavromatis manages both and says going organic is challenging for big vinyards sitting on sweeping hills.

''That's a lot of space and when you get down those roads it becomes challenging if you get a disease and you don't have the tools that a convential farmer has.''

Black Estate, with its 24 ha of grapes is smaller than Greystone but the challenges of turning its slopes organic are significant, Brown says. He is still looking for the best way to manage the weeds and the beetles damaging to the canopy in spring without chemical sprays, he says.

But for McAulay, organic growing is not difficult.

''We don't find it difficult at all, it's just the way we do it. On the whole, organic growers strive to make more quality product, which means more work by hand anyway.''

Despite the initial challenges, growers say it is worth making the move

Motivations include taking care of the land, protecting the health of those who work and live around the vineyard, and making a better, healthier wine. All growers interviewed noticed a decrease in the disease pressure over time.

Brown says as an added benefit, vineyard staff have become more enthusiastic about their work.

''One of the most powerful parts of the process is to see everyone in the vineyard so interested and thinking about why we are doing things.''

McAuley had similar response from her staff. ''Staff want to work on the farm because nobody likes spray around their workplace or where they live.''

TRUTH IS IN THE GLASS

Reider says organic wine makers tend to compete in the high end of the market, where top quality makes the difference. 

Brown says an organic label does not necessarily mean higher prices, but telling the story of the vineyard and how it decided to follow organic practices can boost the brand.

''People are becoming much more aware about everything that they eat and drink and wear.'' 

Reider says more and more consumers have become health-conscious.

''Occasionally you encounter outdated stereotypes but more and more producers and consumers see organic as a safe, healthy way to grow nutritious, quality products.''

But most important of all is the wine's taste.

''The truth is in the glass. There's some really special organic wine being made right now. Many growers are going organic because they are interested in producing high quality wine.''

CERTIFICATIONS

Sustainable

The most basic accreditation for producers. Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand is a programme administered by the New Zealand Winegrowers, a government body that all wine producers in NZ must legally belong to.

Organic

No synthetic chemical fertilisers, pesticides, or herbicides are permitted in the vineyard. Organic grape and wine producers work with ecological processes and natural products. 

Biodynamic

Bodynamic growers follow the same standard practices as organic growers, with a greater focus on understanding and managing the vineyard as a holistic organism. Biodynamic methods include the use of special plant, animal and mineral preparations. The rhythmic influences of the sun, moon, planets and stars are recognised and worked with where possible.

THE PROCESS

All certified organic and biodynamic producers must pass annual audits to ensure compliance with international organic standards. Growers must adhere to organic methods for three years before attaining full certification.

Organic certifiers in New Zealand:

BioGro and AsureQuality are New Zealand's major organic certification agencies, both accredited by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. Demeter and Organic Farm New Zealand also deliver certifications.
(Source: Organic Winegrowers New Zealand)

- Fairfax Media

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