The rise of organic wine

New Zealand is in the front pack when it comes to sustainably grown wine, write Good’s wine writer Joelle Thomson 

Organic wine is hot. It has risen from zero to sustainable hero in the past two decades and 98 per cent of New Zealand’s vineyards are now aligned to a sustainable scheme – a figure unmatched anywhere in the world.

It makes a great story and organic wine even passes the taste test, but is it actually better for the planet (and us) than the alternative?

If the numbers stack up, the answer is ‘yes’ – but you know what they say about statistics. And this one only represents those who have reduced toxic sprays to combat fungal and other diseases. 98 per cent belong to Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, which is an independently audited body that encourages the systematic reduction of sprays. 

So, there’s still a way to go.

It’s tricky to rely on numbers, especially since the two most reputable sources suggest that New Zealand’s organically certified vineyards range from 6 per cent to 7.6 per cent. Whichever figure is correct, it’s a significant rise from 0.7 per cent in 1999.

There has never been a toxic product used at Fancrest Estate in North Canterbury, where owner Diane Holding has been organic since day one in 2003.

It was hard to find advice, information or a like mind when she began, but it has become second nature to grow grapes organically and find alternative ways of combating fungal disease – one of the biggest problems in a maritime country with high rain and wind.

Despite its climate, New Zealand has the third highest percentage of organically certified vineyards on Earth.

If you had to name the country leading the organic wine charge, it probably wouldn’t be one that was once tarred with a diethylene glycol wine scandal in 1985, but Austria has the biggest percentage (9.2 per cent) of certified organic vineyards today. Italy cruises into second place, followed by New Zealand and France.

So organic wine is growing. More than five per cent of the world’s vineyards are now certified compared to less than one per cent in 1999. The question is: why are people converting?

Health and environmental concerns are key and to push people along this path, New Zealand Winegrowers only includes local wineries in its international marketing if they are aligned with a sustainable scheme, hence the 94 per cent figure above.

Organic wine is growing. More than five per cent of the world’s vineyards are now certifies compared to less than one per cent in 1999.

To be fully organic is a whole other level. Erica Crawford of Loveblock Wines wanted to make organic wine after a car accident, which highlighted how tired she felt and prompted a healthier lifestyle.

“I buy very little processed food compared to 10 years ago and feel significantly better because of it, so making organic wine was exactly the same,” she says.

Erica and Kim Crawford founded Loveblock Wines in Marlborough in 2004. They gained organic certification in 2012 for their 13-hectare coastal vineyard, which rises to 150 metres, where its thin topsoil, strong wind and erosion are challenging to combat with compost and natural remedies. “This vineyard is more vulnerable to pests, diseases and wind, but by building up the soil slowly and steadily with compost, eventually the vines grow more resilient.”

Big wineries are getting in on the act too. Villa Maria makes organically certified Merlot from Hawke’s Bay and Dog Point owns about 10 per cent of New Zealand’s organic vineyards. This well-known Marlborough winery uses a small proportion of its organic grapes, supplying 14 other companies with the balance from its 250 hectares of organic vines.

The plunge into organics was in 2006 when Dog Point’s grape grower Nigel Sowman asked winery’s co-owner, Ivan Sutherland, why they used man-made sprays when many vines grew well without them.

“In 2008, Ivan asked me how far away we were from being fully organic. I said drop one spray and asked which part of the vineyard we should focus on next. He said “all of it”. Sowman says it was the best decision ever.

The most famous organic winery in New Zealand is The Millton Vineyard, whose owners James and Annie Millton, made their first Bio-Gro certified wine in 1989. Their decision to ditch sprays was made when their workers suffered skin rashes. The sprays and rashes disappeared at the same time and the Milltons initially used organic certification as a marketing tool to show that none of their wines contained any controversial nasties, such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and fertilisers. All are banned from certified organic and biodynamic grape growing. James Millton has now taken it to the next level. He is one of the founding fathers of biodynamic grape growing and the certification is no longer a marketing tool but a belief system. This has inspired others to follow, such as Pyramid Valley, Rippon Vineyards and Urlar in the Wairarapa.

“Organics takes out things that are bad for us and the land but biodynamics goes a step further by focusing on how to feed your land properly. That’s what we’re about now,” says Angus Thomson of Urlar.

It doesn’t happen overnight, however. Despite Dog Point’s decision to go fully organic nearly a decade ago, its first fully organic harvest was 2016. The proof may be in the bottle, but it is also in the ground, which can be harder to quantify. Watch this space.

What do the names mean?

Organic wine – the definition of organic wine is certification from an independent body, namely, BioGro NZ in New Zealand, a trademark certification that appears on the labels of organically certified wines (on the back or front label). Other countries have their own organic certification bodies. Unless a wine has independent certification on it, it is not organic.

Biodynamic wine – based on lunar cycles that focus on a holistic environmental approach following the phases of the moon; biodynamics stems back to lectures in 1924 by the late Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner. The certification mark for biodynamic wine today is Demeter. This is a growing movement, based on principles that eliminate all man-made sprays in viticulture and horticulture. It also encourages farms to be self-sustaining entities.

Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand  Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand is a voluntary scheme established by New Zealand Winegrowers in 1995 and encourages sustainable wine production from the vineyard to the glass. It provides a best practice model of environmental practices, and is externally audited (as organic and biodynamically certified wine producers are), however, it has no organic or biodynamic certification.

Organic fast facts

· The world’s leading organic wine country is Austria.

· Organically certified wine is made from grapes grown without chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides and fertilisers, and it is certified by Bio-Gro NZ. 

· Organic Winegrowers New Zealand (OWNZ) has an Organic & Biodynamic Winegrowing Conference in Marlborough in June 2017. Tickets from organicwinenz.com

· New Zealand’s organic wineries include: Dog Point Vineyards, Fancrest, Kaimira,  Loveblock Wines, Pyramid Valley, Te Mania, Richmond Plains, The Millton Vineyard, Rippon Vineyard, Urlar Vineyard and Villa Maria, among many others.

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