BioGro No. 5089

The wine industry has emerged as one of the most enthusiastic bastions of organics in New Zealand. Mahana, nestled in the rolling Moutere Hills outside Nelson, is one of many BioGro converts. The vineyards were established in 2001 and became fully certified organic in 2011. Under viticulturist Julian Coakley’s guidance, the company has certified both of its vineyards, a total of 55 hectares. He says that he and the vineyard staff couldn’t be happier with the change.

Prior to converting our vineyards, I [Julian] had been dabbling in the corner of one vineyard with some organic trial blocks. It didn’t seem to be any harder to manage, and delivered fruit of a similar quality and volume compared to the areas where we were growing conventionally.

It was a natural transition to move to producing organically. We had been moving further and further away from what would be considered the standard management system, to the point where the actual final step to organics wasn't that frightening. Over the years, we had grown more relaxed and more confident in the vines’ ability to cope with seasonal influences, without strong chemical controls.

I'd seen organics and biodynamics working well when I worked in Gisborne, with vineyards producing good looking fruit. However, there was certainly a steep learning curve for us in taking our entire vineyard area organic at once. The main thing about organic growing is that we have to be so much more proactive about vineyard management and more involved with the land and vines.

With a conventional system, there is always a silver bullet for adverse climatic or disease events. With organics, we have to know what's here, know what's coming, and deal with it immediately. You can't just wait till it arrives and then deal with it.

We have quite a large staff, and they all feel really proud and good when they're out there. Everyone just loves it; it’s a lovely environment to be in. I feel incredibly proud of what we do and what we make.

Since we became organic, our wine is just better. It’s so much more of who we are and where we are, not homogenised – and much more reflective of seasonality. Being organic, you are more susceptible to the season, and the weather conditions. So when we put a wine out there, it’s very much that year’s wine.

We now have a complete organic process, from pruning through to putting it in the bottle. Everything is connected; there’s nothing done in isolation. So what we put out is really Mahana. Our winemaker Michael Glover uses minimal additions and manipulation.

I chose BioGro because I felt they provided much better support and seemed much more involved in the process rather than being an auditing body. BioGro was much more encouraging about the process and about being organic, rather than ticking boxes.

We didn’t see any increase in the cost of production by moving to organics – more that we swapped one set of costs for another. Although we do many of the same things, with organics we have to time them better. We have to be much more on top of timing our jobs, because there's no real leeway for backing it up with a chemical if you're a bit behind for this or that.

Our yields haven’t changed much under an organic system. For our Pinot Noir, which is a premium Pinot Noir, our yields haven’t changed at all; we still do some thinning to get the fruit quality we want. After six fully certified organic vintages, our Sauvignon Blanc yield is similar to what it was before we went organic – though we never cropped highly anyway.

We chose to convert to organics primarily because we think it’s the right thing to do, rather than being completely market-led. Our organic status does open more doors, particularly in trade and en premise. The whole world is looking for more organic produce and less use of synthetic products.

However, as an organic grower you do have to be aware that your risks are greater, because you're still more open to climatic events than a conventional grower is.

The main thing we've noticed since we've stopped using herbicides is that things are growing again under our vines; the soil looks better, and there is much more life there. A lot of people think the plant life under the vines looks messy, but I think it looks good. It makes everything look healthier, and I can only assume it looks healthier because it is.