Organic Wines in New Zealand

Despite New Zealand’s clean, green image, surprisingly few of our wineries produce organic wines.

Yet organic wines are gaining popularity here and overseas – mainly driven by public concern about chemical residues in foods, and also the fact that some people - in extreme cases, have allergies to minimal levels of chemicals and additives in wine

Sulphites have been used to preserve wines since Roman times, and are used extensively in the industry worldwide.  They are added to sterilise, maintain colour and act as a preservative.  If sulphur dioxide is used, the label will state: Preservative (220) added.  However, sulphite residues are thought to be associated with asthma attacks in some people.  Red wines generally have the lowest levels of sulphites, where white wines contain more. Sweet dessert wines contain the highest levels of sulphites because they are added to prevent further fermentation of grape sugars in the bottle.  And cask wines have very high sulphites in order to give them longer shelf life ‘in the bag’.

Milk, egg and fish products are often used in ‘fining’ the wine – i.e. removing tiny protein particles, prior to bottling.  Skim milk, egg white and isinglass (cod fish bladder extract) are commonly used. There is a possibility that people could be allergic to these agents, - although residual levels of fining agents are microscopically small if at all present after filtering.

Aside from sulphite and fining agents, there is the issue of use of antifungal sprays.  In some parts of New Zealand, especially the humid north Auckland region, climate makes it impossible not to use some spraying.  Fungus and moulds will invariably follow extended moist humid summer weather. 

But now, many of our wineries subscribe voluntarily to Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ), which aims to provide a ‘best practice’ model of environmental practices in both the vineyard and winery.  This means using very low levels of spraying, low sulphite levels and more environmental friendly vineyard management.  Many of our top vineyards are SWNZ accredited: including Pernod Ricard (Montana), Nobilo, Villa Maria, Delegats, Oyster Bay, Hunters, Mudbrick, Matua, West Brook, Goldwater, Cable Bay, Te Motu, CJ Pask, Sileni, Palliser, Herzog, Hunters, Seresin, Neudorf, Seifried, Pegasus Bay and Chard Farm and Tiritiri.

Few NZ wineries subscribe to the very strict, totally organic systems prescribed by organisations such as Bio-Gro NZ, and the international Demeter organisation.  Millton Vineyards of Gisborne were Bio-Gro pioneers.  James and Annie Millton run their vineyards using companion planting, and use no artificial herbicides, fungicides, insecticides or fertilisers.  Millton was the first certified organic vineyard in NZ and the 5th oldest in the world. 

Biodynamics is a theory of agriculture developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner.  He saw the farm a holistic being, where soil health is in balance with nature and also in harmony with phases of the moon.  It does sound a tad New Age and wacky, but many sceptics have converted to Biodynamics after seeing a vast improvement in their grape, and wine quality.

Some other Bio-Gro members are: Felton Road, Richmond Plains and Sunset Valley of Nelson, Seresin Estate of Marlborough, Kingsley Estate of Hawkes Bay, and Kawarau Estate of Central Otago.

Other wineries use organic methods but haven’t gone through the full accreditation process – notably Rippon Valley, Stonyridge, and Vynfields.

Finally, do organic wines taste better than the average non-organic wines?
To my mind, yes they do. But I think that has a lot to do with the passion and commitment of the winemakers and grape growers involved in their production.  These are hand-crafted wines, where the grapes have been nurtured and each stage of winemaking has been meticulous.

So you could say our wines are getting cleaner and greener, but slowly.  In the longer term, it can only mean good news for our overseas export market image.

By Phil Parker
Wine Writer and sole owner
Fine Wine & Food Tours Auckland

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