The Organic Focus Vineyard Project followed the experiences of three prominent wineries - Mission Estate in Hawkes Bay, Wither Hills in Marlborough, and Gibbston Valley Wines in Central Otago - while each company transitioned one of their vineyards to BioGro-certified organic production.
The vineyard managers agreed to participate in a sort of reality show by switching half of their land to organic methods while the industry watched their every move via the internet, scientific reports, and on the ground at public events.
"At the start of the project I was a little unsure of how the regimes would compare with one another," said Caine Thompson, the viticulturist at Mission Estate. "After two years I was totally convinced with the quality of fruit being achieved when we were growing organically."
Heady times led up to the project's genesis in 2011. The organic wine scene in New Zealand was growing rapidly. Total organic vineyard area nationwide quadrupled within a few years, making wine the fastest-growing organic business in New Zealand.
But as the buzz built, no one could tell newbies just how the transition would go. Was organic growing for everyone? Could grapes really stay healthy without synthetic chemicals?
"We created the project in response to an industry need for accurate information on organic conversion and management," said Jonathan Hamlet, chair of Organic Winegrowers NZ. "Production costs, quality and yield, disease levels, soil quality and wine quality were all monitored to provide clear information on the costs and benefits for growers and wine companies."
The organic transitions went smoothly nearly across the board. Some aspects required investment at first. The switch from poisoning weeds to cultivating under the vines was particularly labour-intensive. Some vines needed extra inputs of compost and organic fertilisers to nourish them through the change.
Reflected Max Marriott, assistant manager of the Gibbston Valley trial block: "When you've been fed junk food all your life, and then switch cold turkey to greens and lentils, there's definitely a 'what-the-hell-is-this phase' and some rebound time involved."
Once things were operational, most of the organic blocks posted similar ongoing costs to the adjoining conventional vineyards. Most of the organic vines churned out competitive yields as well; one young Pinot Noir block struggled, but was on the road to recovery by the trial's end.
Surprising some naysayers, the project showed just how unnecessary synthetic pesticides may be. Despite some high-disease-risk seasons, the organic vineyards came through with healthy fruit due to proactive management practices. The managers monitored their vines closely, sprayed beneficial microorganisms and other natural solutions onto the soil and vines, and planted flowering crops to lure helpful insects into the vineyards.
Though the project produced reams of scientific data, perhaps most telling was the outcome after it ended - all three wineries decided to either maintain or expand their organic vineyard areas.
But what of the final result in the bottle? Does organic wine taste better? The jury is still out on that one. Winemakers at Wither Hills and Gibbston Valley Wines were hesitant to say as so many variables were involved that strict comparisons became difficult.
However, winemaker Paul Mooney at Mission Estate declared organic the clear victor. The organic and conventional vines had similar yield levels, but "the organic wine is showing more fruit weight and intensity," Mooney reflected on his Syrah. The organic Syrah showed "riper aromas and better tannins," he said. His peers at a public tasting in Hawke's Bay agreed.
There's currently no fixed price premium for organic wines, but market-savvy kiwi wineries report that having organic wines help them connect with new market opportunities, particularly in Europe.
Will the trial's results cause more growers to wake up and smell the compost - and make the switch? That remains to be seen. At New Zealand's first major Organic Winegrowing Conference in July, speakers from across the country, across the ditch, and across the planet will gather in Marlborough to put the case to the rest of the industry.
The full report from the Organic Focus Vineyard Project has just been released. It can be found on organicfocusvineyard.com, along with blogs and photos documenting the vineyards' journeys.