Reds, Whites & Green

The wine industry is catching up with the need to practise sustainability in all areas of production; New Zealand is no exception. Words by Yvonne Lorkin

When the first European settlers arrived in New Zealand, there was nothing else for it. Build a house, burn the bush, grow grass, sort yourself out a farm or at least die trying. This ‘growth at all costs’ mentality meant we began stretching our little piece of the Pacific to unsustainable levels. Our fisheries, forestry and farming were all as bad as each other and grapegrowers were no exception. Increase production by killing the weeds and bugs with chemical sprays? All good. Electricity’s cheap, use as much water as you want, chuck out all your waste. Where’s the harm?

Thankfully an environmental paradigm shift is taking place within our wine industry and now consumers can choose from a smorgasbord of sustainability champions. Today 98 per cent of our national vineyard area is sustainably accredited which represents a 23 per cent increase over the last nine years. Clearly our winegrowers are overwhelmingly embracing the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga, where guardianship, protection and preservation of the sky, the sea, and the land is paramount. In fact, strike up any conversation with a winegrower about sustainability, and you’re bound to hear the phrase “leaving the land in better shape for future generations”. And that says it all. For many that meant changing decades of reliance on synthetic chemicals and adopting more environmentally responsible ways of strengthening the soils and controlling pests and disease in the vineyard. It meant minimising water use and overhauling wastewater systems. It meant careful management of waste products generated in winemaking, reducing carbon emissions at every stage in the process to counter climate disruption, and focusing on helping their people understand these practices and feel valued for embracing them.  

Are you ‘Certified’?

Under NZ Winegrowers’ Sustainability Policy, a wine must be made from 100 per cent certified grapes in fully certified winemaking facilities and certification must come through an independently audited programme — either Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) or one of the recognised organic or biodynamic certifications.

Carbon zero hero

You’d be forgiven for thinking the blood flowing through the veins of Yealands Estate founder Peter Yealands was more green than red. “Just tell me what we’re not doing,” he said when asked back in 2012 to list their sustainability initiatives. Even then, the list was exhaustive: wetlands restoration and native reforestation, the use of Babydoll-breed sheep to manicure the vineyards, native falcons to scare off hungry birds during the ripening season, planting beans, peas, oats, buckwheat and phacelia between rows, vine-pruning bales used for heat generation alongside energy harvested from solar panels and wind turbines. Solar power even helps play classical music to the vines. Studies have shown that plants respond positively to music and so do the 100 free-range vineyard chickens! Brought in as natural pest-control, their eggs (given to the staff and the local community kitchen) happen to be bigger the closer the chickens are to the music.

Yealands’ advanced ‘green technologies’ led to it becoming ‘Green Company of the Year’ at the International Green Awards 2014. “What sets the Yealands’ story apart” says CEO Tiffani Graydon, “is the opportunity we have to take a genuine leadership role in sustainable winemaking. It’s a value held strongly by our people but is also something driving consumers’ decision-making in their brand choices.” Sustainability efforts at Yealands are centred around the idea of ‘treading lightly’. “Yealands is the first winery in the world to achieve carboNZeroCertTM certification from inception and we are currently the only winery in New Zealand that holds this accreditation,” she adds. “We’re very proud of this achievement but we certainly don’t rest on our laurels and are committed to continually finding new sustainable practices.”

Don’t panic! It’s organic and biodynamic…

Taking sustainability a step further brings us into the realms of organics, (where the philosophy is simple: no insecticides, no herbicides, no pesticides, no systemic chemicals and no non-organic chemical interference) and biodynamics, (which takes a wider, holistic approach where the land is viewed as a living ecosystem influenced by the earth’s natural rhythms that are governed by the moon and the sun). Te Whare Ra uses a combination of both. First planted in 1979, and taken over by multi-generational trans-Tasman winemaking couple Anna and Jason Flowerday in 2003, the next 11 years was spent working hard to achieve organic certification for the winery (converted from an old tractor shed) and their vineyard, which now contains the oldest vines in Marlborough. “Our approach is always to look for a natural or biological solution or control rather than relying on an artificial or synthetic one,” adds Anna. “The philosophy we share with other organic and biodynamic producers around the world and with the other members of MANA (a local, organic winegrower group), is that the use of artificial chemicals in the vineyard or winery is not natural.” Vines are a lot like people according to Anna, “If you’re run down, stressed and surviving on vitamin pills and energy drinks, you tend to pick up every bug that’s going around and you can’t perform at your best. On the other hand when you’re in the prime of life, eating a balanced diet, well-rested and surrounded by people who love and appreciate you – you can achieve anything!”