New Zealand husband and wife pioneers in biodynamic winemaking

There's been a push for eco-friendly wine production in recent years, but one family-run winery in New Zealand has been doing it for three decades

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 August, 2015, 12:10am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 August, 2015, 12:10am

Around the globe, New Zealand wine lovers might be hoarding bottles with the news that the country's 2015 grape harvest is 27 per cent lower than last year's. One of the worst hit is sauvignon blanc from the famed southern region of Marlborough, according to the industry's national organisation, New Zealand Wine.

Wine is big business - it's New Zealand's sixth-largest export. The shortage is prompting some wineries to advertise for tonnes of grapes to meet quotas.

But not all winemakers are in panic. On the North Island, by the farthest stretch to the east, Millton Vineyards & Winery often struggles with meeting global demand. But that's to be expected from a family-run winery.

"An estate where you grow, make and bottle, they're getting very few and far between," says Annie Millton of the Gisborne winery that she launched with her husband James more than 30 years ago.

The Milltons have always set their own pace. From the beginning, the pair rejected the standard way of growing grapes with chemicals and other artificial practices that boost crops.

"People thought we were mad," says Annie.

Rather, the Milltons have embraced the biodynamic way. In simple terms, this is organic agricultural practices underpinned with a holistic spiritual, ethical and ecological approach. Spearheaded by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (of the alternative Steiner schools) in the 1920s, biodynamics recognises that every activity affects the land as a whole. The aim is for a diversified and ecologically balanced property. Preparations are made from natural ingredients like fermented manure to nurture soil and crops. The cycles of the moon are taken into account when planting and harvesting.

With lush landscapes and a reputation for clean "green" produce, New Zealand's wine industry has been behind sustainable practices for years. Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, an initiative launched in the mid-1990s, is moving towards creating an environmentally friendly framework for winemakers as well as external auditing. Producers like Peter Yealands, one of the country's highest-profile winemakers, have taken it a step further by attempting to go carbon neutral. Yealands is part of the CarboNZero, an externally certified programme for businesses pledging to manage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Milltons are pioneers in organic and biodynamic practices, says Simon Gardiner, Millton's sales and marketing director. In 1989, the winery was the first in New Zealand to be given the BioGro certification for organic wine production.

In 2009, it was the first in the southern hemisphere to receive global biodynamic certification.

"James helped write the rules for the certification of organic and biodynamic for New Zealand," says Gardiner.

In the cavernous wine-tasting room, a biodynamic calendar for the month has been painstakingly drawn in chalk on a large door, with symbols noting the position of the moon and astrological cycles., Taking on the biodynamic way is labour-intensive, with natural as well as cosmic cycles to consider when planting and harvesting.

"It's 12 months, full on," says Annie. "There's a huge amount of hand work. You're doing things through the season to make the plants stronger and the fruit healthier. The crops are not as big, but the fruit is more intense."

Adds Gardiner: "I think the organic and biodynamic approach tends to see the fruit in better condition compared to a lot of other producers."

Organic and biodynamic techniques weren't adopted for marketing purposes, says Annie. The Milltons had spent valuable early years in Europe watching grape growers work with nature, rather than against it. It was a natural progression for the couple to bring those techniques home with them when they launched their winery in 1984. The wine has had to stand on its own as a quality product, regardless of how the grapes are grown, she adds.

In the past decade, however, a substantial part of the world has come to recognise the attraction of clean, sustainable farming and its results. "Consumers the world over, across every product line, are becoming increasing conscious of what they're buying," says Gardiner. "Whether it's a vehicle or a safety rating to food or a beverage that they're putting into their body. Gone are the days where marketers could put a message out and people just swallow it."

It doesn't hurt that New Zealand is increasingly renowned for its green reputation. At the large expanse of green, hilly Millton land close to the coast, all of the waste goes into compost and then back out into the vineyard to ensure sustainability.

"We're growing more for quality," says Annie. "Which you see comes through in the final product. And the last three years have been really good."

There are three main Millton brands: the small-volume premium Clos de Ste. Anne; the Millton Vineyard selection; and the table-wine label, Crazy by Nature. They're all grown biodynamically, hand-harvested and bottled on-site.

What you won't see is the ubiquitous sauvignon blanc. Rather, the Millton's produce their more refined chenin blanc, which Gardiner calls "sauvignon blanc's much sexier cousin".

Annie says the Gisborne region - the country's third-largest wine producer - is well known for its aromatic wines.

"The gewürztraminer, the riesling, the viognier, [they] really complement Asian foods," says Annie. "These particular wines have very varietal characteristics. That gewürztraminer has got that lovely spiciness but it's not overly spicy. "

Millton wines are exported to 16 international markets, including Hong Kong, where it is distributed by Northeast Wines. This year, expect to see the 2013 Clos de Ste. Anne chardonnay, chenin blanc and viognier.

"The way we farm biodynamically, it's about life energy," says James, as he inspects large vats of aromatic viognier grapes with skins still intact. "And that's where the yin and yang comes into it. You drink wine that is good for you, that suits the food."

Four of the key wines that Millton produces are particularly suited to Asian palates. "Chardonnay, chenin blanc, riesling and viognier - they suit sweet, sour, salt and astringent," says James. "It's all about deliciousness."


Three of the best organic wineries

New Zealand's push for sustainability is especially strong in the winemaking industry. About 6 per cent of wine producers are certified as organic, according to New Zealand Wine, with more expanding into organic practices.

In a nod to the growing interest in all-natural production, the New Zealand Organic Wine Awards were launched last year. Among the highlights of the 2015 Organic Wine Awards were the following three wineries:

The Darling

Awarded Vineyard of the Year, this small Marlborough producer specialises in whites such as pinot gris and sauvignon blanc.

Kaimira Estate

This fully organic winegrower in Nelson, on the South Island, has received several accolades for sustainable, organic and carbon-neutral practices, including this year's Organic Wine Awards Sustainable Vineyard of the Year. On the top of New Zealand's South Island, its output includes riesling, gewürztraminer and pinot blanc.

Muddy Water

All of Muddy Water's wine is made and bottled on site at this cool-climate vineyard in the Waipara Valley, just north of the South Island's capital Christchurch. The Hare's Breath Pinot Noir 2012 took out Wine of the Show at the Organic Wine Awards.