Millton Vineyards: organic trailblazers

20 Sep 2019

In celebration of Organic Wine Week, we’re sharing stories from those people are champions for organic winegrowing in New Zealand. Millton Vineyards & Winery was established 1984 and was New Zealand’s first organic & biodynamic winegrower.

In 1984 James and Annie Millton established The Millton Vineyards on the banks of the Te Arai River near Manutuke, where the early settlers first planted grapevines in 1871 in Gisborne.

James and Annie Millton with wine

Annie’s father was one of the earliest grape growers in the Gisborne regions, so she spent her school holidays working in the vines. Meanwhile, James’ early love of plants and fermentation was getting him into trouble. “When I was 14, I enjoyed fermenting fruits so much that my fascination with the process of fermentation got me caught making wine at boarding school and was suspended from school for a time. The headmaster years later became a good customer.”

Annie attended Lincoln University to study horticulture and later became a florist. James began a cadetship at Montana Wines in Marlborough. He later transferred to Gisborne and it was here he met Annie.

The couple travelled to Australia, France and Germany, ‘chasing vintages’ and learning from the old-world masters. James wanted to study in Germany, “however the excitement of the New Zealand wine industry in the early 80s had us returning to Gisborne.”

James explains how they became the first organic vineyard in New Zealand, “When we returned from the classic continental world and began working in Annie’s fathers’ vineyards at Opou we witnessed the spray programmes dictated by the chemical companies. They recommended sprays of herbicide insecticide and systemic fungicide every 14 days.”

Their time in Europe and youthful intuition made them realise there were alternative approaches to viticulture. “It was also around this time that we began to read and understand the lectures of Rudolf Steiner and his Biodynamic approach to working the land.”

It is important to note that we grow our wines and do not produce them.

James Millton
James and Annie Millton

“Our concentration is on the vineyard and following the rhythms of nature, working with what mother nature gifts us rather than against it. We use sprays and tonics from plants, animals and minerals and are applied at specific times of the lunar month.

This philosophy is then continued into the winery, where we choose not to modify our wines with cultured yeast, chaptalization or acidification. Instead, we choose to let the wines become what they are meant to be with only a helping hand from the cellar master.”

When they first began selling wine, they chose not to market it as organic, as it was likely to put consumers off. “For a number of years, we walked a lonely path.” Today, they are much more open in sharing their practises as consumer demand soars, but the quality of their wine will always come first. “Our philosophy from the beginning has been that quality wine is our most important goal.”

The closed-loop of biodynamic viticulture is inherently linked to sustainability. Among their practices, they “return as much to the soil as we can in the form of compost and other essential biological organisms.” Their vineyards are not irrigated, they are Dry Farmed, protecting the rivers bordering their properties and the groundwater. “We also practise companion planting, to give nectar to the beneficial flora and fauna and to avoid producing a monoculture and doing damage to our local wildlife by depriving them of their habitat and food.”

The land on which we work must be looked after if we intend for it to be productive for those who come after us. After all, it is not only dirt, we are walking on but the rooftop of another kingdom.

James Millton

They see the future of organic and biodynamic wines as very exciting and continuing to grow. But they are wary of those jumping on the trend and think transparency and certification are of utmost importance. “One should always be sceptical of any wine that flies the organic flag too high as organics and biodynamics should be an honest working practice not simply a tool for marketing.”

Quick questions:

James and Annie Millton

What is the vintage that stands out most to you?

There are a number of vintages that stand out in our minds. 1998 for Riesling 2013 for Chenin Blanc and 2014 For Chardonnay. And watch out for the ‘19’s

Who has been your greatest mentor?

Peter Proctor, the godfather of biodynamic activity in New Zealand and Nicolas Joly from the Coulee de Serrant in Savennières. Both were instrumental in shaping the way we work in the sphere of biodynamics.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Nicolas Joly “Before a wine can be great it must first be true”

What is your favourite thing about the wine industry?

The people and the food. This industry gives us the opportunity to show our work in all four corners of the world. We sell our wines to those countries whose language we understand, whose culture we embrace and whose food we find delicious. This allows us to dine with people who we would not otherwise meet. Alongside that is the team of enthusiastic people we are blessed to work with and it is with them, at the end of day, glass in hand,  that we enjoy the most favoured time.

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