The growth of the organic wine industry indicates the demand for a natural way of consuming is on the rise. We take a deeper look into what makes a wine organic and how it can actually help the environment.
What is organic wine?
According to MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries), organic is a term for products created in line with organic production standards, which may be certified by a certification body or authority. This essentially means minimising the use of external inputs, avoiding or excluding the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, antibiotics, growth promotants, genetic modification and irradiations.
An organic wine is grown on vines that aren’t maintained using weed killers or synthetic chemicals. More natural ways of promoting growth and controlling weeds are used. It relies on incorporating the natural rhythms of the land, seasons and weather conditions to produce quality growth even in challenging situations. Organic food and wine must also meet food safety standards.
The dangers of pesticides
At the recent Organic Winegrowers Conference, Dr Andrea Mannetje of the Centre of Public Health Research discussed pesticides, who they affect and what sort of problems arise from their use. She indicated that everyone, from those who work with pesticides right through to their family members and the general population, is exposed to pesticides in differing levels. For example, those who work with pesticides will clearly have higher levels of exposure, but they will take traces home on their clothes and shoes, which introduces these poisons to their family members in smaller levels. She also discovered that 16 of the 38 commonly used pesticide active ingredients in New Zealand are considered as suspected carcinogens.
Currently, New Zealand and Australia are the only two ‘first world’ countries that have a voluntary, rather than mandatory, set of national standards for organics. There are various certifications that organic products, including wines, can be recognised as achieving, but there are no over-arching regulations that all organic products need to abide by. Organic certifiers in New Zealand currently are BioGro, AsureQuality, Demeter and Organic Farm New Zealand.
In order to export New Zealand organic wine, organic and biodynamic wine growers need to be audited every year to ensure they comply with international organic standards.
Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP, said at the Organic Winegrowers Conference that the introduction of New Zealand’s Organic National Standard will mean any product claiming to
be organic will have to prove it.
An organics bill will soon be introduced for the public and the sector to provide feedback. This would be a significant advancement for our organic industry as it protects the use of the term. This would, in turn, comply with international export standards and provide assurances to the consumer.
The soil and the ecosystem
When growing organically, soil health and the ecosystem need to be considered to enhance vine growth. Organic wine growing promotes healthy soil, and encourages growers to work with biodiversity.
In a way, it’s promoting the natural order of the land. For example, growing native plants like mānuka around the vineyard, and planting flowering plants among the vines can attract beneficial insects, which help create a balanced ecosystem. Allowing sheep to roam between the vines is also a way to encourage natural fertilisation – the sheep eat the grass (decreasing the need to mow), and their faeces get incorporated as a fertiliser into the soil by the insects and worms. This helps enrich the soil and encourage vine growth.
Demands and yields
The basic rules of supply and demand would indicate that when demand for a product increases, you increase your supply to keep up. However, when moving to organic wine growing, wine growers can find that yields reduce for the first few years.
Instead, organic wine focuses a lot more on the quality of the grapes rather than the yield or the volume of grapes being grown. Since there aren’t
any chemical additives to organic wines, the grapes produced must be excellent quality. The trend is moving towards drinking less but of a higher quality, aligning with organic winemaking philosophies.
What’s next and why organic?
At the Organic Winegrowers Conference, Richard Lees, Huckleberry CEO said, “Organic is not a fad or fashion, but a distinct market segment …There’s a mood for change driven by conscious consumers.”
Lees, in his capacity as Organic Aotearoa New Zealand (OANZ) vice chair, also said that close to 80 per cent of New Zealanders are buying organic products; 67 per cent say they buy organics to look after their family’s health, 48 per cent say they buy organics because they’re concerned for the environment and sustainability.
OANZ sums up organic farming with four principles: health, ecology, fairness and care. Organics focus on ensuring the health of the land, animals, produce and the workers. In terms of ecology, organics promote sustainable natural systems. Fairness relates to the respect given to all living things, and care is all about restoring the land to good health to provide abundance again in the future.
Conventional growing is the term used for produce that’s grown in what’s considered the “normal” way today, using products like pesticides and synthetics to control weeds and encourage larger crops. Keeping the vine profitable
is the main goal, so removing things that may cause harm is the focus in conventional growing.
Simply put, biodynamic wine is supercharged organic wine. As per organics, the growth of the vines is promoted thanks to compost and the natural materials that are all created within the vineyard. There are no chemicals used and animals and bugs live on the land to help with fertilisation. Where biodynamics goes to the next level is their commitment to promoting diversity, and their consideration of cosmic and spiritual biology. Biodynamic producers take the time to do vineyard work when the seasons and planetary movements suggest they will be most effective. A technique called Prep 500 is used on many biodynamic vineyards, where quality cow manure is pressed into a cow horn and buried for the duration of winter. When dug up, Prep 500 should be dark in colour and moist. Essentially, this manure has become a concentrated mass of bacteria and fungus, and is great for the soil and roots of the vines.