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The oldest winery in the country, Mission Estate, is also one of the most technologically advanced and sustainable. Now, in a move that could have implications for the New Zealand wine industry as a whole, Mission Estate is into its final year of a major study on organic grape-growing – a trial that may potentially see this influential winery make a significant commitment to increasing its organics production.
The Organic Focus Vineyard Project is New Zealand’s first public trial of organic grapes grown side by side with conventional grapes. The pioneering participants are Gibbston Valley in Central Otago, Wither Hills in Marlborough, and Mission Estate in Hawke’s Bay, where the project was piloted during the 2010-11 season.
Mission viticulturist Caine Thompson is monitoring 16 hectares of Gimblett Gravels vines, with half being grown in the conventional manner and half under strict organic controls.
“I’ve always had an interest in organics, and its potential to work more closely with nature to create superb wines,” explains Thompson. “In many ways, Mission Estate has been a natural candidate for taking part in an organics trial like this – we have a very long tradition of nurturing our environment. It’s been a fascinating project, and I’m excited about what this will mean for us going forward.”
Thompson, a previous winner of the Young Viticulturist of the Year award, presented his findings to date at the regional awards held last month in Napier. Two years into the three-year trial, the results are compelling.
“Challenges include controlling weeds and preventing disease, maintaining the health of the soil, ensuring strong grape yields and fruit quality, while keeping a rein on costs and producing quality fruit,” he says. “The quality was particularly high in our test Merlot and Syrah blocks this harvest, with intense flavours. We didn’t experience any differences in growth or ripening between the organic and conventional blocks, which was very pleasing to see."
Harvest data and disease control was virtually identical for both the conventional and organic regimes. Crucially, the overall organic production costs were lower.
“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. The 2011 vintage in Hawke’s Bay was one of the more challenging ones in my career, but 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 is already convinced by the results to date. “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?”
In 2008, just 600 hectares of New Zealand vineyards were certified organic. This figure quadrupled to more than 2,500 hectares for the 2012 vintage, and continues to grow rapidly.* Organic Winegrowers New Zealand, who initiated this project, aim to see a fifth of all Kiwi vineyards certified organic by 2020.
* OANZ NZ Organic Market Report