In what was once a considered a low-end hippy market, organic wine is fast becoming the preferred drop of choice for discerning wine palates worldwide. That growth is seeing the sector gaining momentum throughout NZ vineyards. Today seven per cent of New Zealand wine growers are certified organic or biodynamic.
Better known for being New Zealand's most awarded winery, as early as 1990 Villa Maria has employed organic growing practices and wine production.
According to Fabian Yukich, executive director of Villa Maria Wines, who has been with the company for 18 years, the interest in organic wine grew as the company transitioned all its vineyards towards Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand and ISO140001 environmental accreditation. Says Yukich: "I'm a big believer in organics. We have a duty to look after the land and soil."
Those early environmental improvements inspired founder Sir George Fistonich and his team to convert a 200-acre vineyard in Hawke's Bay into organic production. "We thought it would be easy, but it wasn't. It wasn't good. Going organic on such a large scale back then was quite unusual. The weeds and pests won - and we lost."
So the company scaled back to 27 hectares and learned how to effectively manage organic growing on a smaller scale. Rapidly they discovered a bunch of best-practice techniques, and the block gained BioGro certification in 2007.
Having to eschew all chemical and pesticide use meant the company experienced vast improvements in soil health leading to greater longevity of the vines. "With healthy soil ultimately the vines will get deeper roots. And with healthier, more resilient vines you get healthier grapes. Yukich says their red grapes skins became hardier and thicker, and as a result more resistant to disease, thus promoting the long term sustainability of the vineyards." Yukich says they also understand natural methods for combating pests.
Today 27% of Villa Maria's vineyards are organically managed, across three locations - Auckland, Hawke's Bay and Marlborough. Managers and viticulturists share their knowledge between the vineyards and the plan is for 50 per cent organic by 2020.
Environment asides, Yukich is quick to mention that benefits of organic production also extend to the company's bottom line and the palate. Paramount for a company that prides itself on export- quality, award-winning vintages. "We found that with thicker skins we were getting more colour and tannin from our grapes."
The results speak volumes. Villa Maria's single (organic) vineyard Braided Gravels Merlot from the Hawke's Bay won gold medal at the 2013 NZ Organics Wine Awards and its organic range is taking off in export markets such as Europe and the US. "The exciting thing for us is that with organic we're getting some really great results."
After ten years Villa Maria has also reached a point where its organic vineyards are running close to the cost of its conventional ones. "In a good year we might have slightly higher costs as we have no recourse to herbicides and pesticides, so we have to take more risks and have a much closer watch on what's going on in the vineyards." But minimal added costs have their upsides. The company transplants many organic practices into its conventional vine growing and blends organic grapes into its non-certified varietals. The company doesn't market or charge a premium for its certified organic wine either. "We don't tend to advertise. Quality is in our DNA. Year on year on year our focus has been about the quality of our wine. Be it a particular vintage, harvest, or region, we treat wine as wine. Our aim is top quality and to let the vineyard express itself. Irrespective as to whether it's organic or not."