Organic winemaking is no longer the sole domain of hippy environmentalists. And neither is it merely a marketing gimmick. As David Robertson reports, financial necessity is increasingly the driving force behind greener practices in the vineyard.

Wine is regarded by many consumers as the wholesome product of mother nature but given the vast quantities of pesticides and herbicides pumped onto grapes, some growers are adopting more environmentally-aware production processes.

According to Friends of the Earth's Organic Wine Guide nearly every single wine contains at least one pesticide residue. And of course none of this information appears on the labels.

Friends of the Earth also found that there are up to 240 chemical compounds from spray residues detectable in some wines and over a tonne of synthetic chemicals are used to make 8,000 bottles of Burgundy. This reliance on chemical farming has left some viticulture areas of France with less microbial life than in the sand in the Sahara Desert. But despite these alarming statistics only 1% of French vineyards are classified as organic.

But the trend may be about to change, not out of determined environmental concerns but because it makes commercial sense. As usual the innovation is coming from the New World and in particular New Zealand - a country noted for its green attitudes and nuclear-free policies.

Earlier this year the Wine Institute of New Zealand and the Grape Growers Council created a group called Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand. This was a system that had been set up in 1995 based on the Wadenswil environmental program in Switzerland and called Integrated Winegrape Production. The new, more consumer friendly name has been chosen as another marketing tool for NZ winemakers looking for a sales advantage in European and North American markets.

The essence of Sustainable Winegrowing is a code of practice that provides a framework for environmentally and economically sustainable viticulture. This involves monitoring pesticide and herbicide use as well as water use and ground cover. Winemakers monitor each other's performance and adherance to the code but what really seems to make the scheme work is that it forces vineyards to seriously think through their consumption of resources - in the past there was routine fortnightly spraying regardless of whether it was needed and blanket use of pre-weed herbicides.

Montana, NZ's largest winemaker, has put all 12,000 hectares of its land under Sustainable Winegrowing and has achieved some staggering results. At its Fairhall estate in Marlborough, the system has cut costs by 67% and at the Brancott estate costs are down 45%.

Nuetron probe technology is used to regulate irrigation and there has been a reduction in water usage of 50%. Montana says that while this translates into a financial saving it is also creating better grapes.

The company is also now using chicory, fescues and rye grasses to control non-vine areas with red grapes responding very well to this means of reducing weeds. Montana says the grapes have an improved colour, tannin and acid balance.

Oats, mustard, lupins and red clover have also been planted to improve the organic content of the soils - which is already 10% up in four years. And the 40% reduction in herbicides means that long-term the soil will have less agro-chemical resistance.

"Not only was there the possibility that customers would respond positively to the independently audited, internationally credible program, and thus give New Zealand's wine industry another point of difference," said national vineyard manager Tony Hoksbergen, "but it was simply the right thing to do for any responsible producer."

Church Road, based in New Zealand's Hawke's Bay, has also found huge benefits from Sustainable Winegrowing reducing its agro-chemical usage by 70% and water usage by 50%.

Expert Analysis

The Outlook for Organic Food & Drinks

This report provides unique comparative 1995-2000 and 2005 forecasted data on the organic market, with a comprehensive analysis of over 400 new product launches.

 

So far wine makers across the Tasman Sea in Australia have done less to go green but there are signs that they too are changing practices. Part of the reason for doing so is that the use of chemicals to destroy weeds has created super-species immune to the herbicides. Research has shown that up to 35 resistant weeds can now be found in Australian vineyards. There is no system as comprehensive as NZ's Sustainable Winegrowing but environmentalists believe it is only a matter of time.

Once the southern hemisphere moves towards greener production methods it is likely that the Old World will be forced to follow their lead. Already supermarkets are lobbying for reduced chemical use and, as usual, commercial necessity will drive environmental good sense.