Bart Arnst is one of New Zealand’s leading organic grape growers. In another life, he may well have been a prop in the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, or, perhaps a member of the Hells Angels MC. But, in this one, he plays the role of a gentle giant sitting amongst a sward of yarrow cover crop, which has been methodically planted between a row of organically grown grape vines.
“I look after a number of vineyards in Marlborough and in other parts of New Zealand, and I’ve helped a lot of people to convert over to organics,” says Bart.
Bart arrived in Marlborough in 1994 to work for Montana – now known as Brancott Estate Wines, and owned by Pernod-Ricard, and soon began experimenting with organics as an alternative to managing some of their vineyards in Marlborough.
“When I came to work for Montana there was all this flash chemistry around and I remember looking at containers marked with a skull and crossbones and labels that said ‘don’t go into the vineyard after spraying’ or ‘wear protective clothing while spraying’,” recalls Bart, “and you know, maybe I’m lazy, but I just thought there must be a better way than this.”
The search for a better way led Bart to team up with Lincoln University and study the use of cover crops in organic vineyard management. Through this work, they discovered they could control pests like the light brown apple moth, by planting buckwheat and phacelia, which act as an attractor for beneficial insects, including the Trichogramma wasp. A parasite, the Trichogramma wasp lays it’s own eggs in the eggs of the light brown apple moth, which can be a cause for grape bunch rot to occur and spread throughout a vineyard. The wasps eggs will generally hatch before the offspring of the light brown apple moth and, in the process, destroy its embryos, thereby going some way to controlling the potential for pest and disease problems in a vineyard, by using natural biological controls, rather than chemical pesticides.
“I became involved in organics as a way of growing grapes,” explains Bart, “because, a). I wanted to create a safe environment, b) we’d found that there was a change in the overall composition of the fruit… we were getting thicker skins, and everything just looked healthier and stronger, which leads you to being able to make better wine, and c), we knew there were people out there who wanted to drink wines made from organic grapes.”
Bart met Brian Bicknell, who was then making wine at Seresin, and was charged with converting over their vineyards to an organic regime. Bart also helped to establish their 51ha Raupo Creek vineyard, which is Seresin’s largest vineyard and includes not only grape vines, but olive trees, vege patches, pasture and farmland as well. Bart was then asked by Rock Ferry’s owner, Tom Hutchinson, to convert his vineyards to organics.
With all this growing interest from Marlborough winegrowers, and others spread throughout New Zealand, Bart set up his own vineyard management and consulting business to provide assistance and information to those considering taking off the mask and spray suit. He was also one of the founding members of Organic Winegrowers New Zealand (OWNZ), and a consultant for the Focus Vineyard Project, which was a three year side by side study of organic vs conventional viticulture regimes, and whose results are due to be published any day now.
“One of the most important things I look at whenever I’m asked to help out converting a vineyard to organics,” says Bart, “is ‘what’s your driver?’ Because, often I see people who know a fair bit about growing grapes and making wine, who fail because they think they can just sell more booze for more money, if they’re organic. And if that’s your initial driver for converting,” argues Bart, “then you probably won’t be very successful… If you’re a grower whose goal is to grow as much tonne per hectare as possible, then organics is probably not the game for you,” he adds.
In 2007, Bart met Chris Darling, a winemaker from Orange via Geelong, who studied wine making at Roseworthy in Adelaide and went on to work vintages in Europe and Margaret River, eventually ending up in Marlborough. Chris is the senior winemaker for Matua, and together, he and Bart established The Darling Wines. Bart, being the viticulturist, grows the grapes and Chris, being the winemaker, makes the wine. Bart is the definite article. Chris is the surname.
“When I met Chris, he was thinking about making some wines under his own name, and he wanted to use organic fruit if he could,” says Bart. “Because I worked with a few organic growers in Marlborough we decided to partner up. I grow and source the grapes and Chris makes the wine… If I think the fruit is going to be suitable for what we’re trying to do, then I’ll propose this to the owner of the vineyard and guarantee that we’ll buy the fruit from them, as well as helping them to covert their vineyard and get it certified,” explains Bart.
The Darling Wines source fruit and make wine from certified organic vineyards, which Bart manages, all over Marlborough. The range includes Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir.
“Often, in my experience,” says Bart, “a lot of mass produced wines that are made from high yielding conventional vineyards can be a little one dimensional. Whereas, wines that are made well from organic fruit can have better structure, texture and more complexity about them.”
Bart Arnst is pushing the progression for New Zealand wine’s pursuit for 20% of all New Zealand vineyards to be certified organic by the year 2020. He thinks that the sustainability program is important in getting growers to understand what goes on out in their vineyards so that they will want to move towards an inevitable organic winegrowing regime.
“What I want to see with the sustainable guys is that it should be a progression that encourages sustainable winegrowers to get closer and closer to becoming organic in their vineyards,” says Bart.
D// – The Wine Idealist
Links and Further Reading
- The Darling Wines
- Bart Arnst Viticultural Consultancy
- Organic Winegrowers New Zealand
- Seresin (Wine Idealist article)
- Rock Ferry Wine Idealist article)
The first Organic Winegrowers New Zealand organic/biodynamic conference, organised by Bart, is being held over two and a half days in Marlborough, July 8th-10th, and will feature a number of technical seminars, panel sessions, an international and New Zealand organic wine tasting, and keynote speeches from various proponents of organic and biodynamic winegrowing.