The flagship organic winery of Babich Wines Headwaters in Marlborough. Photo / Provided
The late, respected New Zealand winemaker Joe Babich used to say that grapes from a vineyard earned the winemaker 100 points a year, and every time a mistake was made on the way to the glass, points
The point of the lesson was that a winemaker should aim to get as close to those 100 points as possible by the time the wine reached the glass, recalls his nephew, Babich Wines general manager David Babich.
“He said you have to look at winemaking as if the vineyard is giving you 100 points every year. The grapes are what they are. Every time you make a mistake, you take points away – and there are a lot of opportunities to make mistakes You must sail to not lose points.
“This is how he designed his vinification.”
Babich offers the brief to reinforce a point he makes about growing quality organic wine. That is to say, good winemaking is as essential on the journey as growing quality grapes from “happy” vines in an environment free of chemical pesticides and herbicides.
After 106 years in viticulture, family-owned Babich Wines knows a bit about the business of winemaking – and after 15 years of producing organic wine, she will be one of the cheerleaders for New Zealand Organic Wine Week, from September 19 to 25.
This is the fifth year that organic winemakers have celebrated the event, and for Babich Wines it marks a 242% growth in organic sales over the past five years – 50% in the last year alone.
Of Babich’s 450 hectares of vineyards, approximately 80ha are dedicated to organic production – all in Marlborough, the heart of New Zealand’s famous Sauvignon Blanc producing country.
While the company’s organic flagship, Headwaters Vineyard, achieved BioGro certification more than a decade ago, Babich says it’s only been in the last three to four years that sales have grown locally. and internationally to achieve the growth rates the company is currently experiencing.
“We are now achieving a balance between production volume and sales. Our number of organic hectares is expected to increase by 50% by 2024, when Babich Wines will have three vineyards producing certified organic grapes.
These vineyards will produce 50,000 to 60,000 cases of organic wine, which will make their way to restaurants and retail shelves in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
America’s appetite for organic wine is lagging behind other markets, but Babich thinks that will change over the next five years. (The company exports 90% of its overall wine production to 60 markets.) Having three “spread” vineyards will provide a diversity of grapes, giving the company a blending option, Babich says.
While the company has been producing “very good” organic wine since a 2009 vintage, and in Babich’s opinion New Zealand organic wines have generally been of a high standard for some years, he says the wine n only had a “very niche” consumer market. .
“It hasn’t taken the world by storm. Historically, you’ve spent a lot of money producing organic products, but there’s no organic market ready and waiting. People look at organic offerings like fruits and vegetables and wine with a bit of suspicion be as good as a non-organic product.
“Organic has endured a bit of tampering from products like orange wine. Ten years ago, a consumer opting for organic wine may have had a negative experience. Large wine buyers (retail ) say their organic shelves got off to a really bad start because the organic wines weren’t up to snuff.”
But Babich says things are looking up for the sector, which according to the latest figures available, is worth $600 million. Ten percent of NZ Winegrowers’ 731 member wineries hold organic certification.
“We’re really excited about what’s happening in the organic area and now is the time to be a good organic wine supplier. We’ve been in the business for a long time and we’re seeing sustained demand. It’s not even everywhere our markets, but it is definitely gaining momentum.Organic is the main driver of our growth.
Organic viticulture is not for the faint-hearted. It requires a bigger investment in the vineyard to start with – Babich says the company can grow a hectare of non-organic grapes for $12,000, while an organic hectare costs $16,000 – then there’s the uphill battle against weeds under the vine canopy, and the unresolved enigma of how best to build a fertilizing “bank” of soil nutrition as all treatments used must be organic.
Primarily, organic vineyards are more expensive because the harvest volume is lower, says Babich.
Meanwhile, the hunt continues for the most beneficial non-chemical soil nutrient system and a “cover crop” to control weeds that don’t compete with the vines.
“Anything else green in the vineyard takes energy and capacity away from the vine. You get less harvest.
“It’s very intensive. There’s a lot more effort involved and you have to understand that. We wouldn’t be able to declare all of our vineyards organic – that would be very expensive.”
Then there are the marketing and branding costs. Babich won’t discuss this aspect of the investment for business reasons, but says that for overall production, this aspect of wine sales is in the millions of dollars.
Higher investment in the vineyard means higher yields are needed.
Because of this, a bottle of “regular” Babich sauvignon blanc could cost the buyer $14, while its organic offering “could turn into $20,” says Babich. Buyers of organic produce tend to make a better living in the 30-60 age bracket, already buying organic fruits, vegetables and meat. Much of Babich’s organic wine is sold in restaurants, he says.
So, does an organic wine taste different from a conventionally grown wine?
“The basic answer is that you would have a hard time telling the difference by tasting,” says Babich.
“They will look alike if they are side by side and it is the same winemaking. The use of herbicides, for example, has no effect on the taste.
“However, in a very practical way, organic wines are often better because they are grown lower. If you want more flavor in your wine, you cut the harvest per hectare to a lower level and harvest lower than normal vineyards, about 25-30 per cent lower.
“It’s not really the direct line to applying organic practices (that affects it), it’s more that you run to an inferior crop because you want to get it right. You want to pick it when you want to pick it, without being forced to by the weather.”
As a result, organic wines will often be better because the fruit is more concentrated, Babich.
“Another element is that often organic wine comes from a single vineyard, so it can be much more interesting because it speaks to a specific plot of land which is a quality in itself.
“If I take Sauvignon Blanc from 25 Marlborough vineyards and blend them all together, I end up with a Marlborough style with no real expression of terroir (characteristic taste), just the general Marlborough region.
“But if I choose a vineyard like Headwaters, which is full of river stones and produces a very strong mineral character, you can actually taste the stones. It’s the flavor profile of a very specific piece of land and it comes across. see in the glass. .
“Because organic wines normally come from one or two vineyards, they offer quality at this level. An interested wine drinker will see true expression of terroir.”
So what makes a good organic wine?
Babich says that at the end of the day, it all comes down to growing quality grapes and having vines “in balance.”
“If you want good grapes, you have to have happy vines. This means providing what they need to optimize them and ensure the grapes come out in the best possible condition, but also understanding when you are harvesting those grapes.
“If you harvest early, there is a lot of ‘green’. People like it, it’s more energetic. If you leave it, you switch to the more tropical spectrum with flavors of mango and passion fruit.
“So you have to decide what (flavor) you’re looking for and then decide the harvest window…you’re trying to deliver the style and be realistic about whether it’s a style that you can consistently deliver.”
And just as important, as Uncle Joe Babich told him, “You have to have good winemaking.”
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