Is organic wine better for you?
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, 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 and biodynamic is the best way to go."
He says organic growing nurtures healthier soil, healthier vines, and produces better wine.
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 to ward sustainability that started 10 years ago.
At Pyramid Valley, Mike and Claudia Weersing have taken it a step further - in addition to following organic standards, they have also adopted biodynamic practices (see factbox). However, Claudia says it was never a branding exercise.
"If you're gonna pay $120 for a bottle of wine, you're not gonna care whether it's organic or not. And realistically, for people who are health conscious, alcohol is a poison."
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 vineyards. 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.
A "long and winding road" to organic certification.
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 in new properties.
Pyramid Valley has been following organic and biodynamic practices from inception, Weersing says, but until recently, getting the certification was not worth the costs as it was not recognised at the international level. The vineyard is now in the process to become certified organic, she says.
Turning organic involves significant initial costs.
Brown says going organic means spending more on labour and special weeding equipment, but less 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 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."
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."
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. 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 to the canopy in spring without chemical sprays, he says.
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.
At Pyramid Valley, Claudia Weersing says organic and biodynamic practices deliver the best, healthiest fruit.
"After about the third year, we were getting weeds that were much easier to work with because we were building up the microbes in the soil. The soil was becoming healthier, more friable and more aired in which worms were working so there was much more life in the soil in general.
"It's not that we're growing great fruit, we're growing great soil."
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."
The 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 means higher prices, but telling the story of the vineyard and how it decided to follow organic practices can boost the brand.
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."
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.
No synthetic chemical fertilisers, pesticides, or herbicides are permitted in the vineyard. Organic grape and wine producers work with ecological processes and natural products.
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.
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)