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Winemakers taste the organic reward

Last updated 12:00 08/02/2014
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.

Bart Arnst
Bart Arnst Organic Wine Consultant.
Mandy Weaver
Warren Burton vineyard manager and co-owners Sam Weaver (wine maker) with wife Mandy Weaver standing amongst organic sauvignon blanc grapes.
Ben Burridge
Kat Duggan
Organic focus: Wither Hills Winery viticultural technician Ben Burridge, left, Organic Wine Growers New Zealand Rebecca Reider and chairman James Millton are enthusiastic about the progress of their Organic Focus Vineyard Project.

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Despite high initial costs, an increasing number of winemakers are ditching chemical sprays to go organic. Cecile Meier learns more. 

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, of 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, of 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.

More than 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.

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

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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 of 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."

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 spokeswoman 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 setup 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, says Jonathan Hamlet, from Villa Maria-owned Joseph Soler Vineyard in Hawke's Bay.

"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 learnt from our mistakes."

Growing organic wine challenges 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 happen, Reider explains.

Muddy Water and Greystone sit side by side in Waipara Valley, 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 vineyards 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 conventional farmer has."

Black Estate, with its 24ha 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 the canopy in spring without chemical sprays.

But for McAulay, organic growing is "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 that 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." Fairfax NZ

WINE FACTS

SUSTAINABLE

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

Biodynamic 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.

CERTIFICATION

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 the major organic certification agencies.

(Source: Organic Wine Growers New Zealand) 

- The Marlborough Express

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