To be or not to be…?certified organic

Name: One of Voyager Estate's organic blocks.

How to convert your vineyard using sustainable practices

Many growers are making the move to have their vineyards certified organic, but how hard is the conversion process? Chloe Szentpeteri spoke to Richard Angove, from SA's Angove Family Wines, and Steve James, from Voyager Estate in WA, to find out how to get started and what the benefits are.

Angove Family Winemakers have been operating in South Australia since 1886, with vineyards at McLaren Vale and Renmark. The company began converting its iconic Warboys Vineyard at McLaren Vale to organic and it hasn't looked back since. Richard Angove has been at the forefront of the family business since 2009 with his sister Victoria, and he manages sales, marketing and winemaking, with a passion for organic and sustainable wine.
Organic wine has been a hot topic of late and more winemakers are looking to make the move. Surprisingly, going organic isn't as hard as you might think, although it does take some time.
'It takes three years to be certified organic so you can't just click your fingers and say alright, now we're using management practices and now we have that certification,' Angove said.
'Once you have certification you're audited every year to maintain it. You can do the practices and not get certified but for us it's an important part of being organic - you've got to have proof.'
There's a similar story at Voyager Estates in WA's Margaret River region.
Manager of winemaking and viticulture, Steve James, has been operating several areas of his estate organically for around ten years, but without certification.
While the vineyard has adopted sustainability and natural processes for vine maintenance, James plans to phase the 120ha of vines into certification, in three stages, 40ha at a time.
He is confident that the sustainable practices and organic certification will be a perfect match to the Voyager Estate's - and Margaret River's - gravelly loam soil.

Moving to organic
A conventional grapevine will experience many changes when converting to organic. The removal of artificial nutrients triggers a reaction which can result in a drastic reduction of crop produced in the first couple of years.
But as the vines go deeper, they adapt to the lack of synthetic chemicals and re-balance themselves.
'We see in our vineyards that have gone organic, in the tough years they've performed better because they're that little bit more resilient and the ratio of canopy to fruit is much more in balance,' Angove said.
'Our marketing philosophy behind it, and it's actually the real grapegrowing philosophy, is that if you have healthier soil, you're going to have better flavour and vines that are healthier in general.
'I think the big thing is that you don't have the easy fix as such. Weed control becomes more challenging and you need to be ahead of the game with nutrition,' James added.
At both Angove and Voyager Estate, the management principles are much the same.
By removing the use of herbicides and ultimately all chemicals found in sprays and nutrition additives, both wineries have adapted by using natural products and sustainable measures.
'We're doing more soil testing to try to pre-empt anything earlier rather than later,' Voyager's James explained.
'With organics you don't have the quick, high tech fix where it can be done straight away, so you need to think lower release products that are more natural.
'With weed control, it's the timing of cultivation and doing under vine mowing in combination with management that works really well,' he said.
According to Angove, location may be a key indicator of how well the organic takes.
'Regionality helps you go organic so a place like McLaren Vale, which has a classic Mediterranean climate, there's very low disease pressure,' he said.
'Compare that to a place like the Hunter Valley which is more sub-tropical, with more thunder storms in the growing season and a lot more humidity, there's a higher disease pressure so it's a little bit harder to be organic.'
James agreed that soil type plays a part in being successfully organic, but he said it comes down to how well you know and manage your vineyard.
'Organic seems to work with our soils but I think it comes back to understanding your property and the individual soil,' he said.
'Good growers and good farmers know their soil and how it behaves and for me it's about getting the timing right of cultivation and when you're doing things.'

Maintaining the vines
As many organic grapegrowers might agree, sustainable practices can be tough to navigate.
One of the biggest challenges Angove and James face on a regular basis has been the proliferation of weeds.
'You can't just go through the vineyard and spray a broad acre to kill weeds, you've either got to mechanically remove them or be comfortable that they're there,' Angove explained.
'So a lot of the time organic vineyards in winter look really messy because they have lots of different types of weeds, so lots of really nice biodiversity, but sometimes they can look really scrappy and that's something we've had to get used to.'
James said Voyager Estate manages weeds during the winter by using sheep on a grazing management plan, which has shown positive results.
'We use that multi-prong attack of the sheep in combination with cultivation techniques.
Dedicate the timing to make sure you do it.
'To me it's the two W's: weeds and weevils. We get a garden weevil that's quite a pest here but we actually find that some of our cultivation practices with organics upset the garden weevil,' he said.
While not common in all areas of Australia, James said Western Australia does have a problem with the pest, which is not too dissimilar in colour and size to a brown marmorated stink bug.
Apart from weeds and weevils, both Angove and James agreed that snail control is paramount for organic vines.
For Angove, he gets a laugh out of his very enthusiastic 'snail hoover' assistants, Indian runner ducks.
'They're crazy ducks with personality and we have 20 of them and they just hoover the snails in the vines,' he exclaimed.
'It's more expensive but we think it's better for the soil and it's kind of like biosecurity. At the end of the day if we look after the soil we get better grapes.'
A simple and effective control method, James said Voyager Estate is also looking at purchasing Indian runner ducks for snail maintenance in the near future.
But it's vine maintenance that is the essential component of going organic, and combined with the right nutrition to feed roots and soil, it is the foundation of its success.
Notably, both Angove Family Winemakers and Voyager Estate use seaweed based fertilisers.
It provides a range of nutrients to the vines which you would otherwise source from a synthetic fertiliser.
Additionally, James said compost is very useful.
'We produce a bit ourselves but we also purchase organically certified compost which makes up the basis of our nutrition program.
'You spend a lot more on nutrition going organic but then you also don't have the chemical costs of fungicides,' he explained.
'It might be a bit more work in the vineyard and a slight increase in the cost of running but I think it's going to come back in the first few years.'

Soil and climate
The team at Voyager Estate were recently visited by Laboratoire Analyses Microbiologiques Sols (LAMS) analyst, Claude Bourguignon, who tested the winery's soil.
The French laboratory specialises in analysing vineyard soils to understand its physical, chemical and biological properties and how this relates to wine quality and style.
James said Bourguignon was impressed with the soil, particularly in vine blocks with roots penetrating vertically through the top soil and down into the clay.
'We had run that block organically as a trial, although non-certified for probably ten to 12 years before we'd even gone on this journey in the last few years.
'He attributed that to the roots being deep and under-vine cultivation, lack of herbicide use over the years and just constantly building on the health of the soil through use of compost and mulching,' he added.
'That's the beauty of the best soils in Margaret River, free draining and the clay acts as a reservoir during winter rainfall for slow release back to the vines during the growing and ripening season.'
Once analysed in the lab, the soil sample results will benefit Voyager Estate's internal structure.
In terms of climate variables, Angove said organic vines cope well.
The warmer and drier it is the less disease pressure that we have. You still want cool nights, just no heatwaves.
'Having said that when the heatwaves do come through, our organic vines stand up better than inorganic vines. Now I can't explain why, they just seem to be more resilient,' he explained.
'Perhaps deeper roots, more shade on the berries and for irrigation we have soil moisture probes that we use to monitor sub-soil moisture and when it gets to certain points the irrigation kicks in.'

Tasting the difference
When asked if a difference in taste can be detected between organic and inorganic, Angove and James had different ideas.
'I think it would be very hard to determine what's what. I think you can taste the difference between some organic foods versus others but with wine I'm not sure… I think it tastes better,' Angove said.
He also added that the team at Angove Family Winemakers is thinking about doing a blind tasting to try and distinguish which wines are organic and which ones aren't.
James said the difference between the two is noted not only on the palate, but also in the character of the wine produced.
'After a few years our organic trial block began to produce fruit that seemed less overtly fruity and it began to give the wine more character, complexity and texture.
'I think it gave the wine more layers,' he said.
Both wineries' goal is to succeed with fully certified organic wines, and James said his entire vineyard will be in the conversion process by this time next year.
His advice for going organic?
'If you're interested, try a patch, get comfortable with it and see if it works for you. With organics, you're working with nature, not trying to resist and control it.'
'The thing I love about it is that you feel like you're more in tune with nature in a funny sort of way,' he added.
Angove said the family owned winery aspires to be one of the best producers of organics in the world.
'We have the largest selling organic wine in Australia at the moment and we want to grow that and defend it.'
'We have plans for a couple of new wines to come out as well and we've converted all our company owned vineyards to organic and we're working with a number of growers to get them to move into the organic space as well.'
Keep an eye out for some new vintages that are certified organic. You might just find you want to make the move yourself!

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