In April this year I posted in my ‘blog’ section some thoughts on sustainability, organic and biodynamic grapegrowing in New Zealand, this being a very ‘hot’ topic here, and indeed around the world (click here to see). The article was inspired by my communication with journalism student Mary Fogelberg who had chosen the subject for her essay assignment. Mary has given permission for her essay to be published on my website. I found it very clear, insightful and interesting, and hope that you do too.
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“Bio…Dynamic Green New Zealand Wine”
By Mary Fogelberg
A silent revolution is sweeping across Aotearoa’s prolific wine industry – ‘green’ New Zealand has spearheaded the establishment of a fully-fledged ‘green’ New Zealand wine production industry termed sustainable that is spawning a rising interest in organic and biodynamic winegrowing practices.
Toitu, the Maori term denoting “eternally sustainable” with reference to the life-force of the land, encapsulates Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand’s (SWNZ) underlying purpose, namely: To preserve the nation’s winegrowing regions within an environmental-based culture, ensuring, as SWNZ advocate, “…that our activities lead to continually improving economic, environmental and social outcomes, locally and globally”.
SWNZ, an initiative introduced by New Zealand Winegrowers in 1997, is the nation’s industry watchdog who check that sustainable practice policies are being observed by their members. They have had such a positive influence on New Zealand’s wine industry since introducing a detailed Sustainability Policy in 2007, that 94 per cent of the country’s commercial winegrowers have earned SWNZ certification; the remaining four or five per cent being certified and audited through other recognised environmental-conscious programmes.
It is from such sustainable directives promoted by SWNZ and other qualified programmes, that New Zealand is witnessing a steady upsurge in its organic wine production with approximately 7.5 per cent of the nation’s vineyards now producing a portion, if not all, of their wines organically – the forecast is that by 2020, 20 per cent of New Zealand’s vineyards will have switched to organic cultivation.
Of particular interest however, is that some of the country’s fully organic vineyards have now embraced biodynamic practices.
Biodynamics (bio-life/dynamics-energy) is a holistic approach to organic agricultural and farm management that integrates animals, crops and soil, in alignment with the cosmos, as a single, self-sustaining, bio-diverse eco-system. It was first introduced in 1924 by its founder, the world-renowned Austrian educator and philosopher, Dr Rudolf Steiner, to improve German farming techniques that were lacking and causing farmers concern because of repeated declining production yields.
Back in 1984, a young married couple, James and Annie Millton, established New Zealand’s first organic vineyard using biodynamic methods amid much criticism and ridicule for their “crazy…off-centre” ways as James humorously puts it. They set up house and home with vineyards and winery along the banks of the Te Arai River near Manutuke where the early settlers had planted their first vines in the early 1870s. Manutuke is situated near Gisborne, the main city of the Poverty Bay region that lies on the most eastern part of the North Island’s East Coast, in fact, one of the first areas of inhabited land to see the sun rise. James likes to boast that their Clos de Ste. Anne Vineyard is the “first vineyard in the world that wakes up to the dawn of a new day!”
Millton Vineyards & Winery (comprising four vineyards: Clos de Ste. Anne; Te Arai; Riverpoint and Opou) sits on around 30 hectares of bucolic countryside depicting undulating hills, verdant valleys and riverbanks overlooking the Te Arai River, which dress the stage for one of New Zealand’s most picturesque vineyard settings. Not only does the landscape surrounding the four vineyards offer a treat to the eye (their winery’s outdoor wine-tasting area is worth a visit), but also its geographical features help to facilitate the production of a diverse range of quality varietal wines especially whites, of particular noteworthiness, Millton’s Chenin Blanc. Their Te Arai Chenin Blanc features in Neil Beckett’s classic compilation, 1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die (2008).
The respected New Zealand wine advisor and critic, Raymond Chan, also extols the virtues of Millton’s Te Arai Chenin Blanc (2011 vintage) by saying, “The mouthfeel is smooth and rounded with very fine textured flow and slippery, lacy acidity that carries through to a well-concentrated finish of florals, honey and minerals” (February, 2013). I decided to put words where my mouth is and sample a 2011 Chenin Blanc – I wasn’t disappointed. It is one of the cleanest and most palatable whites I’ve ever consumed. I can see why James and Annie Millton claim that the high standard of their wines is partially due in some fundamental way to their organic preparations which replicate several of Steiner’s ‘weird and wonderful’, but totally workable biodynamic procedures.
For example, each winter James buries cows’ horns filled with manure produced from their lactating Red Shorthorn milking cows. In spring these horns are dug up and the manure, which has undergone humification (faecal matter converted to humus), is applied biannually to the soil. This has a dramatic effect on the land with earthworm numbers increasing and deeper rooting of plants occurring. Furthermore, this nutritiously rich compost helps to stabilise the soil conditions keeping it moist and healthy.
Another common biodynamic compost method practised by the Milltons is the ‘cow pat pit’ (sometimes known as barrel compost) using stimulant cow dung. To affect this, the Milltons combine pats of dung with volcanic rock dust (silica) and crushed egg shells (calcium) produced from eggs laid by their own hens. Then to give it all a hearty boost, the biodynamic compost preparations of medicinal herbs including: dandelion, yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark and valerian are added. The mixed cow dung preparation is buried in a 12-inch deep pit that is lined with bricks, covered with sacking and left for three months or so to ferment. Furthermore, this cow pat pit when mixed with a ‘coating slurry’ – a cocktail of bentonite (naturally formulated absorbent clay powder), seaweed and fresh whey – is effective in managing sucking insects and bringing them into balance. Coating slurry is also used as a spray for controlling fungus and aiding the general well-being of the vines.
Steiner’s preternatural concept of synchronising growth and production according to the positions of the moon and planets may appear a tad off-centre to mainstream cultivators, but is zealously adhered to by biodynamic ones. Just as the lunar cycle controls the movement of the tides, so too, cosmic forces energise and breed form and balance to farm cultivation. According to James, the ideal situation for biodynamic wine production is to “work amongst the vines during the rising moon and in the cellar on the descending phase”. Lars Jensen of Richmond Plains (more on Lars and Richmond Plains later) says he applies compost and horn manure to his vineyards “during a descending moon when the lunar effects promote root growth and soil activity”. However, the compost and tea sprays are applied “during an ascending moon when the lunar effects increase vitality and vigour of the vine shoots, fruit and leaves”.
To attract bees and native birds (such as tuis and bellbirds) for scaring off fruit-eating predators, the Milltons plant native grevilleas and bottle brush alongside the vines. James fittingly suggests that biodynamics is not about disease, but ‘dis-ease’. He upholds that if biodynamics is implemented correctly, natural balance and harmony will ensue; “the rest is easy”.
As New Zealand’s foremost pioneer and leader of organic winegrowing, James has been instrumental in establishing Organic Winegrowers of New Zealand (OWNZ), of which he is Chairman. Apart from offering on-going support to organic winegrowers, OWNZ help them to obtain certification with New Zealand’s organic regulator BioGro; a rigorous and lengthy process ensuring that New Zealand’s organic wines maintain standards of the highest quality.
As well as BioGro, Millton’s has Demeter certification. Demeter, named after the Greek Goddess of the Harvest, is the international regulator that ratifies biodynamic status. David Wright, the Secretary of Demeter New Zealand and a fountain of knowledge on all things biodynamic, told me that he is “very encouraged” by the growth in numbers during recent years of organic wine growers using biodynamic methods. There are now 10 wine growers who are certified Demeter and one in conversion.
David Wright articulated Demeter’s underlying philosophy very clearly to me saying, “Demeter does not allow a person to manage both a conventional farm and a Demeter one. The grower must commit his/her thinking to at least the organic process for everything that is done. Terroir (a French term defining arable land that reflects similar soil and weather conditions specific to a particular region, which gives crops and animals produced in that region their unique characteristic qualities) has an echo in biodynamics in the concept of the farm as an individuality – that each farm is as distinct from any other as one person is from any other, and needs its own consideration and its own site-specific solutions. It is difficult for a manager to enter into such thinking if they are also thinking about, for example silver bullets that may kill a certain pest but require no examination of why or how that pest came to be present in the first instance. Demeter effectively says: If you want to be Demeter certified, you need to leave that other one-size-fits-all thinking behind.”
The owners of Richmond Plains Vineyard mentioned above, Lars and Samantha Jensen, can proudly lay claim to the fact that their winery is the only one in New Zealand to have their actual wines certified Demeter, as opposed to just the vineyards – namely, their Pinot Noir and Blue Moon Sauvignon Blanc. Lars informed me that for the wines to qualify for Demeter certification, his winery and winemaking methods must follow certain procedures. For example, their Sauvignon Blanc is stored in natural vessels like oak barrels that enable the juice to ferment naturally over time. The yeast used must be wild, which is yeast naturally produced in the vineyard and also found growing on the insides of oak barrels.Lars emphasised to me that allowing wine to stabilise naturally over time is the key to making biodynamic wines. “For example”, he said, “making wine like our Blue Moon Sauvignon Blanc becomes a lengthy process without the use of chemicals to enhance stabilisation and can take10 to 15 months from harvesting to bottling”. Typically in New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc is bottled for only 3-5 months after harvest.
The Jensens, who have been making organic wines since their inception in 1991, became New Zealand’s first vineyard to receive biodynamic certified Demeter status (2008). Likewise, they were the first in New Zealand to receive Bio-Gro certification (1992). Lars said that his inspiration to switch from an organic to a biodynamic vineyard came in some respects from James and Annie Millton who he says, “make fantastic wines”.
When I spoke with Raymond Chan about his views on Richmond Plains as a leading New Zealand organic wine producer, he said, “Lars and Sam Jensen of Richmond Plains in Nelson have shown how wines can be taken to the top level with a focus on organic and biodynamic winegrowing. Though coming from a corporate background with little experience in the practicalities in viticulture and winemaking, their open and enthusiastic frame of mind, approach and adoption of the philosophies and mechanics of organics and biodynamics has been part of the steady rise in quality of the wines as well as a noticeable difference in their confidence and a gaining of a sense of knowing their place in the world. Their recent accolade, the Perpetual Trophy for Best Sauvignon Blanc at the 2012 Sydney International Wine Competition, the first organic and biodynamic winery to take such a top award, must be an achievement for the Jensens”.
Quartz Reef is another of the 10 New Zealand vineyards that is Demeter certified. It is located in the Central Otago region of the South Island that is also home to Felton Road Vineyard, the only other Demeter certified vineyard in the area. Both these boutique vineyards are producing internationally acclaimed wines, especially Pinot Noir, due not only to their excellent winemaking methods, large diurnal temperature variations (average summer days see highs of 30+ degrees and evenings down to 10) and semi-arid soil conditions that facilitate easy drainage, but also their biodynamic practices.
In contrast to the lush verdure that showcases most of New Zealand’s celebrated green landscape, Central Otago paints an alternative picture portraying a much starker, but rugged beauty of harsh craggy mountain ranges and desert-like terrain covered in long parched grasses out of which naturally-sculptured volcanic rock mounds protrude – its autumn season is glorious – around every corner is a blast of burnt oranges, reds and yellows from the leaves of deciduous trees, particularly poplars and vines, that hit the eyes with graphic force especially when viewed under Central Otago’s strikingly deep-blue cloudless skies.
It is from such intense landscape that, in spring and summertime, Quartz Reef’s rows of green leafy vines cascade down steep, north-facing, sun-drenched slopes all of which add further complexity to the wine from this southern-most winegrowing area of New Zealand. The vineyard is positioned on top of New Zealand’s largest deposit of quartz reef, whence it derived its name.
Quartz Reef’s winemaker and part-owner, Rudi Bauer of Austrian background, is one of New Zealand’s most notable winemakers and a pioneer of the Central Otago winemaking region where he has been instrumental in cultivating the area’s world-class Pinot Noir. He has won several prominent awards for his winemaking prowess such as New Zealand Winemaker of the Year (2010, 2011) and is the only New Zealander to be nominated for the prestigious International Wine Maker of the Year award “Der Feinschmecker Wine”.
Raymond Chan has this to say about Quartz Reef’s winemaker: “Rudi Bauer is one of the most experienced and serious winemakers in Central Otago”. Raymond commends Rudi’s foresight in locating such a “unique” winegrowing area as Quartz Reef in Bendigo, Central Otago, and is as equally laudable about his wines saying, “(they are) seriously sophisticated and designed for the long haul, the Pinot Noirs in particular…” (February, 2011).
Rudi told me that right from the start of his winemaking days he has always wanted to follow biodynamic practices in order to augment the quality and taste of his wines. Coming from someone born in Mozart’s home town of Salzburg, Rudi aptly describes what he seeks to achieve in his wines as nothing less than “a symphony of flavours (that) capture attention and entertain so that you forget everything else”. Try sipping on a glass of Quartz Reef Pinot Noir in the quiet of the evening whilst listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 – especially the Second Movement (Andante) – accompanied by the glow of the Pinot…transcending.
In 1996, together with a couple of major shareholders including prominent Dunedin businessman, Trevor Scott, Rudi established the 30-hectare Quartz Reef Vineyard. They converted from conventional to 100 per cent biodynamic production in 2008 and three years later received their Demeter certification. Like Millton Vineyards and Winery, Richmond Plains and other New Zealand Demeter certified vineyards, Quartz Reef follows Rudolf Steiner’s concepts of planting in synchronisation with cosmic forces and using cow manure that has been composting inside a cow’s horn or buried in a cow pat pit. However, unlike Millton’s, Quartz Reef doesn’t accommodate its own cows, instead, their manure is brought in from a neighbouring organic property ensuring it is sourced from a similar terroir.
When I questioned Raymond Chan about his views on New Zealand’s organic wine industry, his remarks to me about its progress were quite revealing: “Once reaching the required criteria, the quality is now seen to be superior to what the traditional methods can provide” and from a wider global standpoint Raymond added, “My impression is that the New Zealand wine industry has a stronger acceptance of the green approach than the rest of the world”. Raymond substantiated this by saying that even though there are many notable organic vineyards around particularly in France, “…in the scheme of things, they have yet to exert a practical influence on their peers and the rest of the industry in (their) country”.
Some of New Zealand’s longer-established well-known wineries (namely, Babich, Mission Estate, Villa Maria and Wither Hills) are now producing some, if only a small portion, of their wines from organic grapes. This adds weight to Raymond Chan’s argument above that New Zealand’s wine industry is more willing to accept a green approach compared to the rest of the world; exemplified further by the fact that virtually 100 per cent of the country’s winegrowers embrace sustainable practices. All this adds credibility to the prediction, that by 2020, 20 per cent of New Zealand’s vineyards will be organic.
With over 100 commercial organic and biodynamic vineyards sprouting up around the Nation’s various wine districts, the tide is turning within New Zealand’s wine industry. So winemaking world, look out – New Zealand’s organic wines are steaming ahead on full throttle. It’s become a serious industry that’s no longer perceived to be run by crazy, off-beat, troublesome hippy types, but one that’s producing world-class wines that can best be summed up in the words of Millton Vineyards & Winery’s core philosophy, “Before a wine can be great, it must first be true”.
· Established in Berlin in 1928 to standardise biodynamic farming production
· The process of receiving certification is rigorous and requires three years of 100 per cent biodynamic production once the switch has been made from conventional methods
· Demeter regulators audit and inspect certified vineyards regularly to check that members are following correct biodynamic procedures
List of the 10 New Zealand Demeter certified vineyards
· Felton Road – Central Otago – certified 2010
· Green Ridge Estate – Marlborough (grape growers only) – certified 2013
· Millton – Gisborne – certified 2009
· Pyramid Valley – Waipara – certified 2012
· Quartz Reef – Central Otago – certified 2011
· Richmond Plains – Nelson – certified 2008
· Seresin Estate – Marlborough – certified 2010
· Te Mania – Nelson (joint licensee with Richmond Plains). Only some of Te Mania’s organic vineyards are Demeter Certified – certified 2011
· Turanga Creek – Auckland – certified 2013
· Vynfields – Wairarapa – certified 2011
In conversion to biodynamics under Demeter certification regulations during 2013 vintage:
– Saltings Estate – Matakana