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At Babich’s Selmes Road vineyard in Marlborough, 25 hectares of organically-grown grapes lie, half of which were replanted last year to replace 30-year-old conventionally-grown vines.
The conversion of vines from conventional to organic is part of a push from Babich to increase its supply of organic wine, with demand for their organic products up 240% over the past five years and a 50% growth in the last year alone.
David Babich, the grandson of founder Josip Babich, says in quantitative terms, the level of interest in the UK was “about threefold what it is in New Zealand”, with other key export markets including Australia, Canada, the US and the EU.
While the US has “lagged behind” Britain in demand, Babich believes the market’s appetite for organic is growing.
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“New Zealand and Australia also have year-on-year growth of interest, but that’s not at the same rate as the UK,” he adds. “Everyone is interested in this, they’ve just got different start points and the dynamics of getting the markets going, is different.”
The total value of the New Zealand wine industry exports for 2022 was $2.26 billion, up 15% ($299 million) on 2021, according to figures from New Zealand Winegrowers.
A spokesperson says 10% of wineries now hold BioGro organic certification, meaning their production processes don’t involve chemical fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides, nor chemical additives.
Chair of producers association Organic Winegrowers NZ, Clive Dougall, says there has been a “substantial upswing” in demand for organic wine across all the main markets over the past 18 months.
“Consumer awareness is increasing as more and more people want to know where the product they are choosing comes from, how it’s grown and the impact it has on the environment,” he adds.
About 15% of the land over Babich’s 14 Marlborough vineyards is dedicated to growing organic grapes. Babich, New Zealand’s oldest family-owned winemaking company, was ahead of the game in this space, having produced its first vintage of organic sauvignon blanc more than 15 years ago.
A 30 hectare paddock with horses on it was transformed into the company’s flagship organic vineyard Headwaters, which secured BioGro certification the same year their Organic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was released to domestic and export markets, in 2009.
As part of the replanting at Selmes Road, the team at Babich had laid a unique underground irrigation system called sub-surface irrigation, which involves pipes buried 30cm underground that release water and feed the vines’ roots below the weeds.
This gives the plants advantage over the weeds and improves water efficiency, vine health and ultimately the quality of the wine.
The competition between grape vines and weeds is one of the key challenges of organic wine growing. In lieu of chemical weed killers, growers face a relentless war against weeds under the vine canopy which can lead to a “lower crop” of grapes.
A lower quantity of grapes per hectare harvested drives up the production cost, which is then passed on to the consumer.
“If we were running a conventional vineyard, it might crop 14 or 15 tonnes per hectare of grapes. On the organic, it’s more like 10 to 12,” Babich says. “If we say a tonne of grapes is $2200, you just multiply that out and see what this is costing in undelivered crops.”
However, Babich says with the higher price tag typically comes a tastier wine. The lower crop of vine means more concentrated flavours, as does the thicker grape skin grown when chemical sprays are omitted.
UK supermarket giant Waitrose is stocking 90 varieties of organic wine. Four are New Zealand-made.
Kiwi Melanie Brown, founder of London-based New Zealand wine shop Specialist Cellars and Brixton restaurant The Laundry, says due to the cost-of-living crisis she isn’t selling “nearly as much” wine as she was several years ago, but those who are spending gravitate towards organic wines.
In the hills overlooking Marlborough’s Awatere Valley is Erica and Kim Crawford’s certified organic Loveblock Farm, home to another of New Zealand’s biggest export wine brands.
The couple created and sold Kim Crawford wines prior to setting up Loveblock Vintners around 2012. Loveblock is now a prominent name across markets in Australia, Canada, the UK and Japan.
Erica Crawford says demand for organic wine is being driven by the conscious consumer, who is more aware of not only what is in the wine and traceability, but also how it is grown and how the company conducts itself.
One of the most difficult issues that cropped up with wine exports was the varied organic standards demanded by different regions, and at different levels: vineyard, winery and company, she says.
“New Zealand and Australia are in line with Europe to a large extent, but for instance the Canadian and US standards are very different. To gain USDA certification, no SO 2 [sulphur dioxide] addition is permitted, the wine is therefore at risk of oxidation or spoilage.”
As a result, New Zealand-made organic wine, when sold in the US and Canada, is not able to be marketed as “organic” but instead “wine produced from organically-grown grapes”.
Crawford believes another issue that has hampered demand for organic wine is a “view that wine is natural anyway”.
“We need to do a better job at communicating what organic wine actually is. People seem prepared to pay more for a gnarly apple if it is organic, but they struggle to part with $2 or $3 more for a bottle of organic wine,” she says.
Babich also acknowledges price point may act as a barrier for younger consumers, the demographic who were largely leading the market in their demand for sustainable products.
“[Sustainability] has always been at the heart of the operation… and the consumers that are looking for it most are young consumers who have a lot of life ahead of them and are aware the planet needs to be looked after for the entirety of their lives and their kids’ lives.
“So we’re growing our supply side while simultaneously trying to resolve the cost differential between conventional and organic. Whatever we do, if it closes the gap any amount, that’s really positive.”