How Do You Sustainably Power A Vineyard?
Meet the country's winegrowers harnessing Clydesdales and "beautiful chaos"
High on a hillside in Marlborough’s Waihopai Valley, Gordon is getting ready for his work ploughing between the rows of Churton’s vines.
Rather than the countryside echoing with the harsh rattle of a tractor engine, the vineyard is peaceful; just birdsong to be heard and a gentle blowing from Gordon as he enthusiastically greets his handler, Emma Rossignol.
Gordon and his fellow Clydesdale, Peigie, are key members of a team of what will be Aotearoa’s first modern horse-powered organic vineyard.
It’s an example of one of a number of initiatives by the country’s winegrowers to tread more gently on the planet. In Churton’s case, this is literal, as the hooves of Gordon and Peigie are far lighter than the weighty wheels of the tractors used in most vineyards today.
Heavy machinery compresses the soil, leading to a loss of important nutrients and organic matter. It’s happening the world over, and has been highlighted as a worsening issue in Marlborough by an ongoing soil quality monitoring programme.
“With the horses, we avoid soil compaction,” explains Emma, who, before joining Churton in 2020, was working with horses in vineyards in France, where this practice is being increasingly revived.
“The plough can also get much closer to the vines when it’s pulled by a horse and avoids damaging the vines, which happens with tractors. And of course, you don’t add diesel to your carbon footprint.”
As an organic winery following biodynamic principles, relying on fossil fuels to work the vineyard “didn’t seem right” to Churton’s Sam Weaver. But he’s also convinced the estate’s new equine employees do a “better job”.
A comparative trial he ran last year confirmed that a horse-ploughed block required far less irrigation than one worked by a tractor. This is an important advantage given water is a major industry issue as climate change means our wine regions are getting warmer and drier.
When Gordon and Peigie are fully trained, they will also not only be nimbler with the plough but make faster work of the job than a tractor.
“In terms of biodynamic practice, the horses are also bringing animal warmth into the place,” says Sam, of an approach that seeks to balance the relationship between plants and animals in a holistic system. “There’s a positive energy from having animals.”
Back in the days when horses were a regular sight plodding through the world’s wine regions, vineyards were part of varied and less intensively managed agricultural systems.
However, the kind of mechanisation, chemical use and monoculture that’s occurred in the modern era has had a massive effect on the ecosystems of which vineyards are a part.
The result has been a loss of the biodiversity that’s subsequently been recognised as both able to provide benefits such as natural pest and disease control, and crucial to the soil health that supports the quality of grapes and the environment.
As highlighted by the barren soils once found in some of the world’s classic wine regions, the old winegrowing model was simply unsustainable.
Here in Aotearoa, our wine industry is well ahead of the herd in terms of sustainability. It was the first to establish a national sustainability programme, Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ), in the mid-1990s.
This proactive audited programme sets industry standards for practices in the vineyard and winery to protect the environment and human health, while economically producing premium grapes and wine.
Now an impressive 96 per cent of the country’s vineyard area and more than 90 per cent of the wine produced here is made in facilities certified by the programme, with 10 per cent of the land under vine accredited by recognised organic schemes.
One of SWNZ’s first major achievements was breaking the once widespread adherence to destructive chemical spray programmes, which saw synthetic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides applied to vineyards whether they needed them or not.
Now only minimal use of the least harmful agrichemicals is permitted, with wineries having to justify their use. SWNZ’s scheme is also encouraging members to foster biodiversity in their vineyards, improve soil health, conserve water, reduce energy use and minimise, reuse and recycle their by-products wherever possible.
It’s encouraged the entire industry to up its environmental game. For example, last year 99 per cent of SWNZ vineyards used some form of non-chemical control to manage pests and diseases. Its members have also made plantings for biodiversity protection, restoration or enhancement that now cover close to 3000ha; that’s equivalent to seven per cent of the total national vineyard area.
“Our vineyards look quite messy; they don’t have that manicured mowed look you see in some others,” acknowledges Robert Holdaway from the middle of one of his family’s wild Lowlands blocks down in Marlborough’s Lower Wairau.
“It’s because we sow cover crops, and let the grass grow. There’s more than 100 species of herbs and flowers at all times of year, which is great for insect life. Biologically this means our vineyards have diversity, and proper diversity is messy.”
This beautiful chaos is actually the result of Robert’s scientific approach and the adoption of techniques from regenerative agriculture at his family’s 180ha of vineyards.
He returned there five years ago to help manage these alongside his brother Richard, after completing a PhD in Ecology from Cambridge University and spending time as an ecosystem ecologist with Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research.
For Robert, “the approach of regenerative agriculture is the one that’s working most closely with the science behind how ecosystems behave”. It’s the direction his family’s conventionally farmed vineyards were heading and is a philosophy that’s currently creating a buzz among winegrowers large and small.
“It’s more of a mindset than a set of rules,” explains Robert, who’s reluctant to define regenerative agriculture, which is broadly concerned with developing more resilient ecosystems from the soil up.
“It’s an approach that works more with nature and with biological processes. It’s thinking about how you’re farming and trying to manage all the components of the natural system to your advantage, rather than just focusing on chemicals, pests or production aspects. It’s an innovative questioning approach that’s very farmer-led.”
Many of the methods of regenerative agriculture are akin to those of organics, but synthetic chemicals can be used if required, with “conscious awareness”, Robert stresses.
It’s also more about “pushing the upper boundaries” than basic sustainable winegrowing, he says. For him, it’s a process of constant trials and experimentation, which currently includes spreading the entirety of the Marlborough district’s green waste as mulch across Lowlands’ vineyards.
These vineyards may have initially turned heads for their unruliness, but Robert has noticed more neighbours starting to follow suit and let their grass grow a little longer.
Cutting carbs for the climate
Combatting climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions has become a growing environmental focus in the New Zealand wine industry. It’s become a key element of its sustainability programme, with the wine industry’s national body, New Zealand Winegrowers, currently assisting its members to measure and minimise their emissions.
Given the latest national target to halve net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 announced at Cop26, “it must be a decade of action”, according to Edwin Massey, general manager for Sustainability at New Zealand Winegrowers. However, the wine industry looks well placed to meet the challenge.
“New Zealand wine is still lower in emissions than other agricultural practices, such as dairy, sheep and beef farming,” Edwin notes. “Combine that with our high-value land use, and wine has a real place as a low-emissions industry.” Confidence is such that the industry hopes to hit carbon zero before the country’s overall 2050 deadline.
“Typically the main emissions sources for the wine production process include fertiliser and fuel use at vineyards, and electricity and other energy used in the winemaking process,” says Belinda Mathers of environmental certification body Toit Envirocare, highlighting some of what wineries have to tackle.
But the carbon footprint tracks way beyond the vineyard and winery, as Belinda notes: “The emissions from materials used for packaging and emissions associated with distribution of the wines are significant, and often exceed the emissions from the production of the wine.”
Classic wine in new vessels
Nadine Worley and Logie Mackenzie have just launched the first wine under their new organic Fugitive label. However, you won’t find a bottle of their Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc anywhere.
That’s because it’s only available on tap, with the decision to supply their wines only through reusable kegs driven by the desire to halve the carbon footprint they would have had if they’d used traditional wine packaging.
“For us, being organic is key, but only half of the story,” says Nadine. “We wanted to look at the whole life cycle of the wine, and make a wine that makes a difference. The more we looked into it, wine on tap just made sense: such a simple change with minimal impact on the wine can have such a huge impact on the overall carbon footprint.”
“All Life Cycle Analysis research shows the same thing: the biggest contributor to a wine’s carbon footprint is single-use glass bottles and depending on the weight of the glass this can be up to 60 per cent,” she elaborates.
“This doesn’t make sense as most wine is drunk within a couple of weeks of purchase, yet it is packaged in glass bottles like it will be cellared for 20 years. The benefits of single-use glass bottles don’t justify the environmental impacts.”
Fugitive’s sauvignon is currently available in selected bars and restaurants, with plans to expand to retail. Here Nadine and Logie envisage customers would be able to bring their own bottles to fill with as much wine as desired, observing that “the 750ml bottle size does not fit everyone”.
That kegs can only supply the local NZ market fits with Fugitive’s philosophy, but doesn’t work for wineries who want to send their wines to further-flung places.
Given many of New Zealand’s wineries regularly ship their wines across the globe, many have endeavoured to mitigate this footprint by moving to lighter-weight bottles. However, some have taken more radical steps.
Major wine group Constellation recently challenged the traditional wine bottle shape for its new environmentally friendly carbon-positive wine brand, Round Theory. Its flagon-shaped vessel is consequently seven per cent to 10 per cent lighter than a standard lightweight bottle and uses 20 per cent less glass.
At 65 per cent of the height of most bottles, this further lowers its carbon footprint, improving shipping efficiency by 25 per cent.
“As an industry we’ve been very creative in working with our vineyards and wineries, and need to take that creativity and confidence to packaging going forward,” says Archer McRae’s Chris Archer, who makes the Joiy brand, and after 2017 has put all his wine in cans.
Initially an early adopter of cans for quality wines when exploring smaller formats, Chris was additionally wowed when he discovered their lower environmental impact.
“For the power it takes to convert sand into a 750ml glass bottle you can make four 250ml cans, so they have a 30 per cent lower carbon footprint from the start,” Chris says. “We can fill a shipping container with two and a half times more volume in cans than bottles, which gives them a 40 per cent fuel saving on a journey to somewhere like the US. Then when it comes to recycling, you can make 118 250ml cans with the energy it takes to make one 750ml glass bottle.”
“I have been blown away in terms of the quality of cans,” says Archer, addressing past negative associations, which don’t seem to be bothering the rapidly growing number of drinkers cracking open canned wines across the world. “If you put the effort in with the can and use good-quality wine, it will age similarly to wine in a bottle.
“I have wines that have been in a can for more than five years that are developing as they would in a screwcapped glass bottle,” he maintains. “And a Joiy Central Otago Pinot Noir that was in a can for two years won a gold medal at the San Francisco wine show in a class with premium wines in-bottle.”
From looking to gentler traditions, and innovations that challenge the way wine has been made and consumed for years, moves to greater sustainability are starting to radically shift wineries’ practices.
Gordon may be a rare beast in the country’s vineyards at present. However, as he happily trots off to plough, his soft hoofprints leave an impression symbolic of the lighter, more sensitive path we all must urgently aspire to take.
This story was originally published in volume seven of Viva Magazine.
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