Organic farming keeps growing

By Roger Moroney

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With lower costs and good harvest data organic grapes could be the future of wine.

Mission Estate's Caine Thompson is confident organic vineyards are the way forward. Photo / Paul Taylor
Mission Estate's Caine Thompson is confident organic vineyards are the way forward. Photo / Paul Taylor

Five years ago just 600ha of New Zealand vineyards were certified as organic.

But in a clear sign of the times that figure was pushed out to about 2500ha at the conclusion of the 2012 vintage, and is expected to grow.

At the forefront is Hawke's Bay's Mission Estate Winery.

For the 2010/11 grape-growing season Mission joined up with Wither Hills in Marlborough and Gibbston Valley in Central Otago to pioneer a trial of organic grapes alongside conventional grapes.

The study, initiated by Organic Winegrowers of New Zealand, whose aim is to have a fifth of all vineyards accordingly certified by 2020, is now into its final year and the results so far have been encouraging, Mission viticulturist Caine Thompson says.

"One of the real surprises for us has been that after only two years the berry quality is on a par with conventionally grown grapes. I think there's a perception that it takes longer to transition to organic production, but the trial has shown that's simply not the case."

Thompson says though the 2011 vintage in Hawke's Bay was one of the more challenging of his career the organic programme still produced "very pleasing" results.

The final year of the trial will see the participating wineries make wine exclusively from organic grapes and then evaluate the quality against wine made from the trial's conventionally grown grapes.

Thompson has been more than convinced by the results.

"If you can grow the same quantity at the same quality for the same cost by going organic, then why not go down that route?"

He is presently monitoring 16ha of Gimblett Gravels vines - half being grown in the conventional style and half under strict organic controls.

He has long been interested in organics and says Mission was perfectly placed to be part of the project as it has a long tradition of nurturing the environment.

The results so far looked good. Harvest data and disease control were virtually identical for both growing systems, while the costs of organic production were lower.

Thompson says the challenges included controlling weeds and disease prevention, maintaining soil standards and ensuring strong yields "while keeping a rein on costs and producing fruit quality".

He says quality was high in the test merlot and syrah blocks for the recent harvest.

"We didn't experience any differences in growth or ripening between the organic and conventional blocks.

"One of the real surprises for us has been that after only two years the berry quality is on a par with conventionally grown grapes."

He says that effectively put aside perceptions that it took longer to transition to organic production.

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