Foodstyle Review Magazine

Organic wines – reaping what you sow 

You might think of 'organic' wine as something of a 21st health conscious trend, yet it is simply a return to the way grapes used to be cultivated, and with a lot more advantages for wine lovers than just health considerations. By Alan Titchall.

Sir George Fistonich, founder and owner of Villa Maria, tells a prophetic story.

"About 35 years ago we used to get grapes from a [leased] vineyard we had in Te Kauwhata that was managed by a farmer who was very particular, neat and tidy.

"The land was sold to a member of the Brethren Church who didn't believe in using any type of chemicals. We ended up getting mildew and every disease under the sun, and lost about two thirds of the crop in the first year.

"In the third year the vineyard miraculously came back to health and so did the [fruit] yield. And all he did was put sheep manure under the plants."

George must have had this viticulture lesson on his mind when one of his Hawke's Bay winemakers, at the end of the last century, became very enthused about an ambitious plan to convert a 200 acre vineyard to organic. Looking back, George, and everyone else involved in the project, concedes that the plan proved over ambitious. The company simply did not have the tools to tackle, on this scale, the inevitable pest, weeds and disease that over-ran the winery.
With the Te Kauwhata experience to go on, they persevered and the Hawke's Bay organic trial was broken down into smaller, more manageable parcels.

In 2007 the winery achieved internationally recognised BioGro Certification for a 21 hectare block of grapes. Two years later Villa Maria became the country's first major winery to become fully BioGro certified from grape to bottle. Its first such wine was the 2009 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Merlot, which won 'gold' at the Air NZ International Wine Show, a month after its release.

"We have come a long way since then," says George. "The equipment is better, works faster, and we now have far more knowledge of organic techniques.

"It takes about four to five years to get results [converting to organic], but there's no doubt about it - you get better quality grapes in the long run.

"It's the way we made wine 50 years when we didn't use chemicals and spraying. Organics is now part of our future and over the past five years there's been a strong acceptance of this practice. But getting here, has been very hard work."

Company viticulturist, Oliver Powrie, picks up the organic story.

"The focus is looking after the soil, the biology of the soil and making sure the land is healthy and productive for the future, and we have a specialist team of organic viticulturists to keep us all motivated in the company."

The secret to organic success, he adds, is in the intensive cultivation in and around the vines, and adding a lot of compost back into the soil. The result is tough vine stocks and thick skinned fruit that will naturally resist horticultural diseases, without the need for synthetic chemicals.
As of last year, only about six percent of vineyard land in this country was certified organic, but more grape growers are adopting the practice.

As Villa Maria can testify, converting a conventional vineyard to organic, initially, makes winery accountants very unhappy. Fruit and juice yields plummet in the initial years. Don't think you can expect savings on not using chemicals, says Oliver Powrie.

"People have been caught out by thinking it is about doing less in terms of stopping spraying, but you have to apply compost and cultivating the soil to minimise weeds."

And that is labour intensive.

An organic vineyard looks very different from a conventional one, says Oliver. "Visitors comment on the amount of 'life' and number of insects, cobwebs and birds.

"The fruit is different – a small berry with thicker skin. At harvest the fruit has an amazing integrity about it. The vines have a closer relationship with the soil – more balanced and very clean fruit, which retains its juice right up to the pressing."

The proof is in the pudding.

Villa Maria's Templar vineyard in Marlborough was converted to organic production in 2009 (certified in 2012) and is now making very good sauvignon blanc.

Before going organic, the fruit from this vineyard was only good enough to be blended with other wine juice. Recent vintages are now sold under Villa Maria's single vineyard label. The 2015 VM single vineyard Templar Organic Sauvignon Blanc is testimony to the quality coming out of this small vineyard in Marlborough.

"People always thought disease would be an issue with organic production, but the Templar vineyard now produces these amazing berries and it is often the last vineyard we pick. We don't have to worry about rain, and the berries retain this lovely flavour," says Oliver. "It is the same with the organic reds, such as merlot, that we are producing in the Hawke's Bay."

The Single Vineyard Braided Gravels Organic Merlot (Gimblett Gravels 2013) is a good example of organic 'quality'. It's a big 'hua' of a Kiwi red wine; densely coloured, big bodied and densely flavoured. Cellar into the 2020s and be rewarded with further complexity for your patience.

This article is based on a wine tasting and degustation lunch for media hosted by Villa Maria at its Auckland, NZ, winery in November 2015.

Summer 2015 

Back to e-magazine

Copyright 2015 Foodstyle Review. All Rights Reserved
This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. Distribution and use of this material is governed by our subscriber terms and conditions. For non-personal use, please contact us.

Sir George Fitsonich

Oliver Powrie