Wine: Only Natural

As more vineyards convert to organic, a study sheds light on whether they can still produce top-notch wines, writes Jo Burzynska

Huia Marlborough Pinot Gris; Clos Henri Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc; Gibbston Valley “Le Maitre” Central Otago Pinot Noir. Pictures / Supplied.

Organic wines certainly possess plenty of feel-good factor but are they any better than their conventionally produced peers? It’s a question that the results of a three-year comparative vineyard trial help answer and one that’s become increasingly relevant with the growing conversion of New Zealand’s vineyards to organics this decade.

The results of the vineyard study were presented at the recent Organic and Biodynamic Winegrowing Conference in Blenheim, an event exuding feel-good vibes, but founded on rigorous research. I’d attended its inaugural convention back in 2009 when delegates fitted into a small hall. However, this time around they packed out the Marlborough Convention Centre, testament to the fact that since then the movement has put down strong roots and grown like Topsy.

In 2009, just 2 per cent of New Zealand’s vineyard area was organic or in conversion, a figure that saw it lagging well behind many European winegrowing nations. Today this figure has edged above the world average to 5 per cent, making the ambitious target to have 20 per cent of the country’s vineyards organic by 2020 look more achievable.

Smaller producers led the initial organic charge. However, larger companies are now getting in on the act, with Villa Maria now managing an impressive 27 per cent of its own vineyards organically.

Speaking at the conference, I charted my encounters with organic wines internationally over close to two decades of my career. In this time I’ve seen it transformed from a sector where it was often produced by those concerned more about ethics than quality, to today when many of my favourite wineries have embraced organics out of a conviction that their wines will be better for being made using more natural methods.

Although what I’ve observed suggests organics are playing their part in helping these wineries take their wines to new heights, as they were already highly quality-focused entities, it is hard to qualify. So I was intrigued to see what light The Organic Focus Vineyard Project could shed on how organic wine production compared with conventional.

For the past three years this experiment has been run by Organic Winegrowers New Zealand with funding from the Sustainable Farming Fund and New Zealand Winegrowers. In three wine regions across the country, a vineyard was split in two, with one block managed conventionally and the other converted to organic production.

Presenting the results, Jonathan Hamlet, chairman of Organic Winegrowers New Zealand and Villa Maria Vineyard manager, described how across all the organic vineyards the pest and diseases dosed with chemicals in the conventional vineyard were managed effectively with organic treatments. Weed control was the only ongoing challenge faced in the organic vineyards but there were plenty of positive spin-offs, such as increased biological activity in their soils.

Wines were made from all the sites in the final year, with the organic examples judged to be just as good, if not better, than their conventional counterparts.

At the trial’s Hawke’s Bay vineyard at Mission Estate, the organic syrah “showed more fruit weight and intensity, had riper aromas and better tannins and was perceived to be a better wine”. In Marlborough, the sauvignon blancs produced by Wither Hills were significantly different in styles, with the organic example described as having “greater length and texture”. And the assessment from the Central Otago trial at Gibbston Valley was that there was “no doubting the intensity and phenolic complexity of the organic wines”.

Tellingly, at the end of the trial all the wineries involved opted to maintain or expand their organic growing areas.
“The study indicated how the whole industry can move forward confidently in organics,” says Jonathan. It’s likely more wineries will come on board now there’s proof that organic vines can indeed make great wines.

Great organic picks from producers showing wines at the Organic and Biodynamic Winegrowing Conference.

Huia Marlborough Pinot Gris 2013 $28.95-$30
A fresh and dry pinot gris with a lovely weight and texture to its palate of lemon, mineral and nut. From Caro’s, Point Wines, Titirangi Wines & Spirits, Fine Wine Delivery Company,

Clos Henri Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $32
Rich and creamy, with ripe fruit, hint of smoky barrel influence and a fresh spine of citrus and flinty mineral. From Maison Vauron, Village Winery, Point Wines, Fishbone Wine Shop.

Gibbston Valley “Le Maitre” Central Otago Pinot Noir 2014 $85
Stunning pinot noir from 31-year-old vines in this historic estate’s Home Block. There’s a great balance between elegance and depth to its silken palate of cherry and plum fruit and fragrant spice supported by fine tannins and a bright undercurrent of acid and mineral. From fine wine stores,

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