Flying into Auckland, New Zealand’s most populous urban area, is nowhere near as dramatic a journey as it is, say, flying into Blenheim in Marlborough, or, indeed, Queenstown in Central Otago… especially at midnight, on a Sunday. But, what this city lacks in terms of steep, textured mountain ranges, which seem to scrape the sky with snowy white peaks, or endless green rows of vines and rolling hills, it makes up for in startling, early morning fire alarms sounding just before you sit down to eat your breakfast on day one of a two week journey, from north to south, to discover and explore New Zealand’s winegrowers and their commitment to sustainability.
Sustainability can be a confusing word, and one must be very careful how and when it is used. Most of the time, sustainability gets inextricably linked to clean, green notions of environmental custodianship, which, to be fair, is most often true. However, when spoken from the mouths of the unscrupulous, sustainability can easily be greenwashed to disguise some undesirable intentions. It’s easy to confuse sustainability with organics (or biodynamics), and the average wine purchasing punter will almost always connect the word, sustainability, to its environmental connotations and forget the equally important elements of economic and social sustainability. Organic wine is not the same as sustainable wine, and so, therefore, sustainability needs to be defined, before we can go any further…
Sustainability is, “the continuous pursuit of equilibrium between economic, social, and environmental variables, and their trade-offs over time,” (Santiago-Brown, Jerram, Metcalfe, Collins, May, 2014).
Just to be clear… Organic means non-(synthetic) chemical, or chemical free. Biodynamic is also the absence of synthetic chemicals. Sustainability, on the other hand, means, to keep up, carry on, keep in existence, maintain, preserve, perpetuate, protract, and well, you get the idea. What it doesn’t mean is non-chemical, or chemical free.
New Zealand has one of the best sustainable winegrowing programs in the world, and while it does allow for the use of some synthetic chemicals to grow grapes, it encourages their use only as a last resort and provides its members with a “best practice” model that allows for continuous improvement over time, as new research is uncovered and technological improvements are made.
Globally, New Zealand accounts for less than 1% of the world’s total wine production, but over 94% of its producers, their vineyards and wineries, are accredited by some form of third-party sustainable, organic, or biodynamic accreditation program. Currently, New Zealand Wine, the country’s unified representative body, recognises four third-party accreditation programs; Sustainable Winegrowers New Zealand (SWNZ), Assure Quality, BioGro, both of which are organic certifiers, and Demeter, the world wide biodynamic certification system, which is trademarked and enforced by the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association of New Zealand.
For a small country of around 4 million people, which producers less than 1% of the world’s wine, to have 94% of its wine produced under an independently audited system of sustainability, including organic and biodynamic certification, is quite a remarkable achievement. Further, organic producers among this 94% are aiming to achieve 20% of NZ vineyards to be certified organic by 2020.
SWNZ, by far the most popular accreditation system amongst New Zealand winegrowers, was started as a pilot project by a group of Hawke’s Bay winegrowers in 1995. Their original intentions were to look at and assess vineyard chemical usage. By 1997, the group had close to 120 vineyards self-assessing their operations, and by 2002 the program included both vineyard and winery standards. The SWNZ program defines sustainability as, “delivering excellent wine to consumers in a way that enables the natural environment and the businesses and communities involved, to thrive,” (New Zealand Wine). To do this, the SWNZ program focuses on monitoring and measuring water, energy and agrochemical use. With the data collected from these indicators, an industry benchmark is set where each member can self-assess their operations annually, against the industry standard, and compare themselves to their peers in their region and further out, across the country.
Like organic and biodynamic certification, the SWNZ program is voluntary, but since 2010, to be eligible for export and to be involved in New Zealand Wine’s various marketing and promotional campaigns around the world, a NZ wine producer must be fully certified by at least one of the four recognised certification programs.
Unlike organic or biodynamic certification, where only the vineyards and winery’s are audited, sustainability has the potential to extend out into the wider community and integrate with projects, such as wetland restoration, native tree plantings, and building up biodiversity in and around the vineyard and farm. Many of New Zealand’s sustainable, organic and biodynamic winegrowers participate in extra curricular programs that contribute positively to their community. For example, in Wanaka, Rippon is involved in Te Kākano, a, ‘community based native plant nursery program that specialises in propagating plants of local origin… and uses these plants for localised native habitat restoration.’
“We’ve set up this nursery on our property and have taken seeds from up in the gullies and from remnant forests that has genetic matter that was growing here before humans,” explains Rippon winegrower, Nick Mills. “We bring those down, with help from volunteers in the community, and propagate them here in the nursery, and then plant them around the lakes and all throughout the town to increase our area’s native biodiversity.”
Up on the North Island, but down south around Waiarapa, Gladstone Vineyards have been slowly working on building up a wetlands area, in a previously, perpetually boggy paddock on the Gladstone property. Owners, Christine and David Kernohan, with help from staff, family and friends, tapped into the water table underneath the property by digging a pond, and converted this unsuitable grazing land into a flourishing habitat for all kinds of native birds, fish, plants, and other species. Doing this has greatly contributed to a more biodiverse ecosystem, as well as improving the overall water quality, reducing flood risks, and higher density plant life means more opportunities for carbon storage, which can go some way to help mitigate climate change.
“Sustainability, for us, means doing the right thing,” says Christine Kernohan, “and minimising the impact we have as a business on our environment… the SWNZ program has made us think about how we deal with energy and waste and how we operate within our community. And, also, about how we grow our grapes and produce our wine, which is why we’ve started converting our vineyards over to organics.”
One of New Zealand’s biggest family owned wine producers, Villa Maria, is also one of the country’s biggest proponents of sustainability, and organic vineyard management. Initially, Villa Maria introduced an organic regime into their vineyards in 1999 with an ambitious plan to convert a 81ha vineyard in Hawke’s Bay. This was later scaled down to 21ha, because they lacked the appropriate tools and knowledge to properly and effectively tackle pests, weeds and disease on such a large scale during the conversion process. Without abandoning the project altogether, Vila Maria started again and broke up the conversion process into smaller, more manageable sites. This 21ha site was eventually certified by BioGro, in 2007, with the winery going on to make New Zealand’s first organically certified wine, the 2009 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Merlot.
“When we started really thinking about sustainability and how it applies to us, as a company,” explains Villa Maria’s Executive Director, Fabian Yukich, “we, of course, thought about our vineyards and the environment, but also, sustainability means working in a socially responsible way, in terms of how we interact with our community, and we also need to make sure that we’re still here, because there’s no point in being sustainable if you’re out of business.”
From north to south, and from the bottom up, New Zealand’s winegrowers are committed to the future of their land and country, and are producing wines which reflect the breathtaking beauty that surrounds them, in every glass. Those winegrowers, all 94% of them, are first class pioneers of environmental, economic, and social sustainability, and should be the envy of the rest of the wine world… (especially, Australia).
D// – The Wine Idealist
Links and Further Reading:
*Disclaimer: The Wine Idealist (Daniel Honan) was a recent guest of New Zealand Wine, April/May 2015