Applauding New Zealand Winegrowers Sustainability Policy

From its initial foundations of Sustainable Winegrowing in 1995, The New Zealand Winegrowers Association launched in 2007 a 'Sustainability' initiative (SWNZ) with the goal that all New Zealand wines would be produced under independently audited environmental programmes by 2012.

That goal has been reached with almost 100% participation from winegrowers covering an estimated 94% or more of New Zealand’s producing vineyard area (approximately 90% of the wine produced) SWNZ certified. A further 3-5% of vineyard area operates under other certified organic programmes.

No other country or wine region in the world has achieved such a cohesive and comprehensive approach to addressing environmental issues and enhancing the biodiversity of its vineyards; from restoring native habitats and creating wildlife corridors to biological control of pests, diseases and weeds, improving soil quality and ecosystems--ultimately enhancing wine complexity and quality.

Furthermore, an ongoing 'best practice' model of environmental practices and utilization of technology both in the vineyard and winery also contribute to 'Sustainability as a Culture'; from reducing the reliance on agrichemicals, energy saving initiatives and renewable energy, to sustainable water management and recycling.

One could say, with the worlds iconographic impression of New Zealand and its '100% Pure' and 'Green' image, there is certain expectation of the country to be at the forefront of environmental and conservation issues. Certainly there is a substantial commitment in effort and resource that goes into the preservation of New Zealand's unique geography, biodiversity and pristine environment, all vital to the countries wine marketing.

But is this enough to maintain such a high standing of environmental integrity and build on 'the story' that underpins the New Zealand wine industry in a fiercely competitive international wine market. Is the next step perhaps to aim for 100% Organic?

Currently 6.8% of New Zealand's vineyards are certified organic and 0.2% biodynamic with over 100 vineyards comprising 7.6% of the country’s vineyards in the organic certification process. Organic production is expected to increase to approximately 20% of producing vineyard area by 2020.

By global standards New Zealand is currently only keeping pace with estimates by world authority, Monty Waldin, "5-7% of the world vineyard is now organic/in conversion". In a series of articles on Jancis Robinson (mandatory and compelling reading). Waldin goes on to say, "To me New Zealand represents the most incredible turnaround on planet wine regarding its approach to organics and biodynamics over the last decade."

As encouraging as Waldin's observations are, New Zealand is still a ways off embracing organics and biodynamics as the Alsace region in France, "Today around 15% of the Alsace vineyard (and growing relentlessly) is certified organic, and of this nearly half is also either certified biodynamic or gets a regular dose of either solid biodynamic compost or biodynamic sprays each year."

Should there be a more concerted effort to increase New Zealand's percentage of organic vineyards? Many New Zealand winegrowers would say that the 'Sustainability' program has already instilled a great awareness of holistic winegrowing and already establishes a platform for conversion to organics.

And yet the very meaning of 'Sustainable' - "A system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse" - by implication means you hang around, or more specifically in winery terms, remain profitable. Organic viticulture significantly reduces yields and possibly the financial viability of a winery.

Clearly, conversion to organics is costly and can take up to three years and longer. To this end, should the New Zealand Government provide direct subsidies for winegrowers (and for that matter, all farmers and agriculture). The European Union introduced such subsidies in 1991, initially for farmers and fruit growers, however countries such as Spain, Italy and France have significant subsidies and tax breaks for winegrowers converting to organics. One wonders if the New Zealand Government is doing enough to support this critical evolution of its primary industry.

There is also the fundamental question--is there is any direct correlation between organic and biodynamic viticulture and wine quality. The notion that many wine enthusiasts associate higher quality or certainly a more defined 'sense of place' and emphasis on terroir with organic and biodynamic wines could be seen as corroborative evidence of improved quality, although the sceptics would see this as anecdotal and emotive.

One of New Zealand's leading biodynamic winegrowers and proprietor of Felton Road in Central Otago, Nigel Greening, has a more profound perspective of organic and biodynamic viticulture on wine quality, in a speech he delivered to the World Climate Conference titled “Biodynamics is a mindset, not a religion or a recipe.” quoting Monty Waldin.

In the final part of his oratory, Greening says, "You may have noticed in all this that I have not said anything about the wine being better. Wouldn’t that be the most important part? I cannot answer that as we have never kept land and treated it to chemical farming for research comparison. To me, that would be almost immoral. But it doesn’t matter. We do think our vines show greater health, greater resilience to difficulties of the season, but even if the wine were no better, this would still be the only way to make it for us. Once you start to make the whole system work, start to get an insight into the extraordinarily complex dynamic ecosystems at work, it would be impossible to ignore them and turn back.” Click here for the full transcript of Greenings speech

In the first of a series of articles on the practicalities of transition to organic viticulture and biodynamic farming in New Zealand, The Wandering Palate is approaching the winegrowers themselves to write on the many issues and complications that confront them, and to explore pragmatic ideas and ways in this transition.

Our first contributor is Mike Eaton, (Eaton Vineyard, TerraVin and Clayvin vineyard) a champion of organic viticulture and one of the pioneers of the Marlborough region instrumental in exploring the Southern Valleys and hills of Marlborough instigating many of the new pinot noir plantings. Along with his wife Jo, he has just launched VinEssence a vineyard tour service in Marlborough that brings a dynamic to vineyard tourism that many wine regions simply do not have; an independent vineyard professional that can conduct vineyard visits at the highest (technical level) and drawing on 30 years experience in Marlborough, offering the most comprehensive insight to the region's diversity, history and future for both wine industry professionals and enthusiasts alike.

Eaton recently attended the NZ Bragato Conference 2013 and shares with us the pertinent topics discussed and his thoughts on organic conversation and what he calls "Sensible Farming".

Sustainable Winegrowing or just Sensible Farming

By Mike Eaton

Nothing sends a shiver through a group of winegrowers quicker than a summary by a leading plant pathologist of the 10 most feared pests that could threaten the New Zealand wine industry.

The NZ Bragato Conference 2013 initiated 3 days of industry narrative and debate on all aspects of viticulture and wine. Discussion at New Zealand’s premier annual wine grower event in 2013 centred round the growing movement from conventional to organic management of the vines.

If I could imagine the look on the faces of some of the growers of the 80s, I remember one vineyard contractor who lost his memory for a few days after spraying some Lorsban (Organophosphate) on his vineyard with no mask. Today, not only would the practice of using Organophosphate be questioned but the grower would be censured for the irresponsible application process.

The fact is, times are changing, what was once standard, is now questioned, what was once questioned is now frowned down upon and what was once frowned upon is now out-lawed. How did the change come about, I have to say it has actually been as a direct result of the push from NZ Winegrowers for Sustainable Wine Growing (SWNZ).

Does it go far enough? I do not think that is really the question we should be asking.

Should the question be, 'How far have we come and how do we keep that momentum going?'

The end result may well be “organics” but it may well be much better than that….sensible farming.

Let me demonstrate, if I legislate organics to a grower, many of them will go out and apply that regime to the letter, for two reasons. First, it is easier and feels good because he has “done” everything. Second; “The Grower” can stand hand on heart in front of the Winery, Banker and Accountant and say ”I have done just as instructed” and an audit will prove that.

Remember if you set a schedule by mandate, you have to be able to guarantee that it does the job. If it does not, who is to blame and who will bear the cost of the disease spread if the schedule fails.

This is what created the 80s and 90s reliance on Spray Schedules” that wine growers followed religiously. The result was a scorched earth with herbicide for reduced frost risk. It involved a religious reliance on every chemical, to control every possible vine disease.

It was not uncommon for vineyards to spray 15-16 times in one season. Why because it was prescribed and for safety, everyone applied it. The same grower now with his monitoring methods may put on just 6-8 sprays and most, if not all, will be “soft” or organic.

The point of Sustainable Winegrowing was to try and make people 'think' before they applied anything to their vines or land. This goes even further than just thinking, it requires the grower or his staff to 'monitor' the vineyard, understand the risks, measure disease incidence or pressure and then…. and only then allows the grower to choose from the “allowable products” (those registered and approved for application to grapevines.)

This list is reviewed annually by NZ Winegrowers in consultation with the industry and its research bodies. If products are found to have higher efficacy than others and with a lower environmental impact, growers are encouraged to use this procedure or chemical. If a chemical is found to be adverse to the environment and there is an effective alternative it will be banned or have restricted use.

You have to understand that just because something is Organic, it is not always safe or sensible.

To illustrate; In the case of controlling leaf roll caterpillar there are conventional insecticide measures, others that interrupt the reproductive cycles, organic BT sprays that interrupt the digestive cycle and then there is the passive biological control.

First, why are leaf roll caterpillars a problem? They get into the middle of a bunch and by the time the berries get bigger and the bunch closes, they are munching away, desiccating berries, 'pooping' the remains and creating a debris site in the middle of the bunch where no air or sun can penetrate, causing a 'hot spot' for botrytis (rot) infection, as soon as there is moisture present.

To control or remove this little critter you could take the organic high ground and spray a BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) that will kill a high proportion of the little critters as would an insecticide, however, there is a more 'sensible' choice; biological control.

Once you understand the life cycle of the Leaf-roll Caterpillar, you understand that there is a predator that can control it. This is the parasitic wasp (of which many are endemic and prolific in the natural environment) which lays its eggs inside the growing caterpillar.

There are two halves to the 'sensible' management here, the first is; ATTRACT MORE WASPS. This is achieved by planting various flowering species of plants inter-row. The second; allow this population to keep the caterpillar population in balance.

Here is where the 'sensible' part comes in, if you kill ALL of the caterpillars, you also KILL ALL of that generation of the biological control. A look around Marlborough now at the number of 'Conventional' vineyards with flowering cover-crops will testify that many are learning 'Sensible Farming'. This is not only great for the environment but has other benefits to the aesthetics and soil structures of the vineyard, not to mention bio-diversity.

This process was not imposed on growers, SWNZ workshops were held around the country sharing research that proved how effective a flowering crop of species like Phacelia, Alyssum and Buck Wheat were at increasing parasitic wasp numbers to a level where they controlled leaf roll Caterpillar numbers to an acceptable level. Research showed that if only one in ten rows was cultivate in these flowers the pest was controlled.

This is just one demonstration of the evolution of growers through the SWNZ scheme. I have to admit, in the 90s I was a sceptic of the scheme, believing it did not go far enough, however now as I look at the progress we have made, I believe there was no other way this could have achieved such widespread industry support. What growers regarded as unsustainable disease risk are today accepted practice or risk management.

Currently through NZ Winegrowers there is a programme trialling Organic Farming and researching best practice, cost, yield and quality impacts. Many of the processes used in this trial are already finding their way into commercial vineyards.

Workshops are held regularly training vineyard owners and staff on the 'best' practice, new research and encouraging people to first understand the cycles of the pests in their vineyard, are there ways this can be controlled or managed without environmental impact. They are not just looking for an 'Organic Solution' they are looking for a 'better Solution'; sensible farming.

Where will we be in 10 years?

If the current trend continues, many of our vineyards will be farmed using organic methods, through choice. In the process of getting there people will have challenged the norm, created new and better ways of solving management problems to achieve the common goal; lower environmental impact – to be truly sustainable.

So where exactly is the New Zealand wine industry headed? Will organic practice become common-place? Does New Zealand Wine-Growers Sustainable programme go far enough?

Mike Eaton