Wine Talk


‘From The Bottom Up’ :: Sustainable Winegrowing in New Zealand by The Wine Idealist

Daniel Honan, The Wine Idealist, recently visited New Zealand to find out more about the wine industry's commitment to sustainability. Here's his take on things...

"Flying into Auckland, New Zealand’s most populous urban area, is nowhere near as dramatic a journey as it is, say, flying into Blenheim in Marlborough, or, indeed, Queenstown in Central Otago… especially at midnight, on a Sunday. But, what this city lacks in terms of steep, textured mountain ranges, which seem to scrape the sky with snowy white peaks, or endless green rows of vines and rolling hills, it makes up for in startling, early morning fire alarms sounding just before you sit down to eat your breakfast on day one of a two week journey, from north to south, to discover and explore New Zealand’s winegrowers and their commitment to sustainability.

Sustainability can be a confusing word, and one must be very careful how and when it is used. Most of the time, sustainability gets inextricably linked to clean, green notions of environmental custodianship, which, to be fair, is most often true. However, when spoken from the mouths of the unscrupulous, sustainability can easily be greenwashed to disguise some undesirable intentions. It’s easy to confuse sustainability with organics (or biodynamics), and the average wine purchasing punter will almost always connect the word, sustainability, to its environmental connotations and forget the equally important elements of economic and social sustainability. Organic wine is not the same as sustainable wine, and so, therefore, sustainability needs to be defined, before we can go any further…

Sustainability is, “the continuous pursuit of equilibrium between economic, social, and environmental variables, and their trade-offs over time,” (Santiago-Brown, Jerram, Metcalfe, Collins, May, 2014).

Just to be clear… Organic means non-(synthetic) chemical, or chemical free. Biodynamic is also the absence of synthetic chemicals. Sustainability, on the other hand, means, to keep up, carry on, keep in existence, maintain, preserve, perpetuate, protract, and well, you get the idea. What it doesn’t mean is non-chemical, or chemical free.

New Zealand has one of the best sustainable winegrowing programs in the world, and while it does allow for the use of some synthetic chemicals to grow grapes, it encourages their use only as a last resort and provides its members with a “best practice” model that allows for continuous improvement over time, as new research is uncovered and technological improvements are made.

Globally, New Zealand accounts for less than 1% of the world’s total wine production, but over 94% of its producers, their vineyards and wineries, are accredited by some form of third-party sustainable, organic, or biodynamic accreditation program. Currently, New Zealand Wine, the country’s unified representative body, recognises four third-party accreditation programs; Sustainable Winegrowers New Zealand (SWNZ), Assure Quality, BioGro, both of which are organic certifiers, and Demeter, the world wide biodynamic certification system, which is trademarked and enforced by the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association of New Zealand.

For a small country of around 4 million people, which producers less than 1% of the world’s wine, to have 94% of its wine produced under an independently audited system of sustainability, including organic and biodynamic certification, is quite a remarkable achievement. Further, organic producers among this 94% are aiming to achieve 20% of NZ vineyards to be certified organic by 2020.

SWNZ, by far the most popular accreditation system amongst New Zealand winegrowers, was started as a pilot project by a group of Hawke’s Bay winegrowers in 1995. Their original intentions were to look at and assess vineyard chemical usage. By 1997, the group had close to 120 vineyards self-assessing their operations, and by 2002 the program included both vineyard and winery standards. The SWNZ program defines sustainability as, “delivering excellent wine to consumers in a way that enables the natural environment and the businesses and communities involved, to thrive,” (New Zealand Wine). To do this, the SWNZ program focuses on monitoring and measuring water, energy and agrochemical use. With the data collected from these indicators, an industry benchmark is set where each member can self-assess their operations annually, against the industry standard, and compare themselves to their peers in their region and further out, across the country.

Like organic and biodynamic certification, the SWNZ program is voluntary, but since 2010, to be eligible for export and to be involved in New Zealand Wine’s various marketing and promotional campaigns around the world, a NZ wine producer must be fully certified by at least one of the four recognised certification programs..."

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