Babich Wines’ organic wine flagship vineyard Headwaters in Marlborough. Photo / Supplied
The late respected New Zealand winemaker Joe Babich used to say a vineyard’s grapes delivered the winemaker 100 points a year, and every time a mistake was made on the journey to the glass, points
The point of the lesson was that a winemaker should aim to end up as close as possible to those 100 points by the time the wine reached the glass, recalls his nephew, Babich Wines chief executive David Babich.
“He said you have to look at winemaking as though the vineyard delivers to you 100 points every year. The grapes are what they are. Every time you make a mistake you take points off – and there are plenty of opportunities to make mistakes. You have to navigate so you don’t lose points.
“That’s how he styled his winemaking.”
Babich offers the memory to reinforce a point he’s making about growing quality organic wine. That is that good winemaking is as essential in the journey as growing quality grapes from “happy” vines in a chemical-pesticide-herbicide-free environment.
After 106 years in viticulture, family-owned Babich Wines knows a bit about the business of winemaking – and after 15 years producing organic wine, it’ll be a cheerleader at New Zealand Organic Wine Week, September 19-25.
It’s the fifth year organic winegrowers will celebrate the event, and for Babich Wines it marks a 242 per cent growth in organic sales in the past five years – 50 per cent in the last year alone.
Of Babich’s 450 hectares of vineyards, around 80ha are devoted to organic production – all in Marlborough, heart of New Zealand’s famed sauvignon blanc growing country.
While the company’s organic flagship the Headwaters vineyard secured BioGro certification more than a decade ago, Babich says it’s only been in the past three to four years that sales have ramped up locally and internationally to deliver the growth rates the company is seeing now.
“We’re now hitting a balance between production volume and sales. Our number of organic hectares is set to expand by 50 per cent by 2024, at which point Babich Wines will have three vineyards producing certified organic grapes.”
Those vineyards will produce 50,000-60,000 cases of organic wine, which will head for restaurants and retail shelves in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
The US appetite for organic wine lags other markets but Babich believes that will change in the next five years. (The company exports 90 per cent of its overall wine production to 60 markets.) Having three “spread out” vineyards will deliver diversity of grapes, which gives the company a blending option, says Babich.
While the company’s been producing a “very good” organic wine since a 2009 vintage, and in Babich’s opinion New Zealand organic wines generally have been of a high standard for some years, he says the wine has had only a “very niche” consumer market.
“It didn’t take the world by storm. Historically you spent a lot of money producing organic products but there’s not a ready and waiting organic market. People look at organic offerings like fruit and veg and wine with a bit of suspicion it might not be as good as a non-organic product.
“Organics have put up with a little tainting from products like orange wine. Ten years ago a consumer who went for an organic wine maybe had a negative experience. Big (retail) wine buyers say their organic sections really suffered a bad start because organic wines weren’t up to scratch.”
But Babich says things are looking up for the sector, which according to latest available figures has a value of $600m. Ten per cent of the 731 winery members of NZ Winegrowers hold organic certification.
“We’re really excited about what’s happening in the organic zone and the time is right to be a good supplier of organic wine. We’ve been in the sector a long time and we’re seeing sustainable demand. It’s not even across all our markets but it’s definitely gathering momentum. Organic is the key driver of our growth.”
Organic winegrowing is not for the fainthearted. It calls for a bigger vineyard investment for starters – 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 relentless battle against weeds under the vine canopy, and the still-unresolved riddle of how to best build a fertilising “bank” of nutrition for the soils because all treatments used must be organic.
Mainly, organic vineyards are more costly because the crop volume is lower, says Babich.
Meanwhile the hunt goes on for the most beneficial non-chemical soil nutrient system and a “cover crop” to control weeds that doesn’t compete with the vines.
“Every other green thing in the vineyard is taking energy and capability away from the vine. You get less crop.
“It’s all very intensive. There’s a lot more effort involved and you have to go into it understanding that. We would not be in a position of declaring all our vineyards organic – it would be very expensive to do that.”
Then there’s the marketing and branding costs. Babich won’t discuss this side of the investment for commercial reasons, but says for overall production, this aspect of selling wine runs into millions of dollars.
Higher vineyard investment means higher returns are needed.
For this reason, a bottle of “regular” Babich sauvignon blanc might cost the shopper $14, while its organic offering “might turn into $20”, Babich says. Organic buyers tend to be better earners aged 30-60, already buying organic fruit, vegetables and meats. A lot of Babich’s organic wine is sold through restaurants, he says.
So, does an organic wine taste different to a conventionally grown offering?
“The base answer is that you would struggle to tell the difference by tasting,” says Babich.
“They will look the same if beside each other and the same winemaking is involved. The use of herbicides for example is not having an effect on flavour.
“However in a really practical way, organic wines are often better because they are cropped lower. If you want more flavour in your wine you cut off the per hectare crop at a lower level and crop lower than normal vineyards, about 25-30 per cent lower.
“It’s not actually the direct line to application of organic practices (that affects it), it’s more you run to a lower crop because you want to get it right. You want to pick it when you want to pick it, not being forced to by weather.”
Because of this, organic wines will often be better because the fruit is more concentrated, Babich.
“Another element is that often organic wine is coming off a single vineyard so it can be much more interesting because it speaks to a specific parcel of land that’s a quality on its own.
“If I take sauvignon blanc off 25 vineyards in Marlborough and mix them all together I end up with a Marlborough style with no real terroir (characteristic taste) expression, just general Marlborough region.
“But if I pick one vineyard such as Headwaters, which is full of river stones and produces a very strong mineral character, you can actually taste the stones. It’s the flavour profile of a very specific piece of dirt and it comes through in the glass.
“Because organic wines normally come off one or two vineyards they deliver quality on that level. An interested wine drinker will see a real expression of terroir.”
So what makes a good organic wine?
Babich says ultimately it all comes back to growing quality grapes and having vines “in balance”.
“If you want good grapes you have to have happy vines. It means delivering what they need to optimise them and making sure grapes come off in the best possible condition, but understanding as well when you harvest those grapes.
“If you harvest early it has a lot of ‘green’ to it. People like that, it’s more zippy. If you leave it on you go to the more tropical spectrum with mango and passionfruit flavours.
“So you’ve got to decide what (flavour) you’re pursuing and then decide the harvest window … you’re trying to deliver the style and being realistic about whether that is a style you can consistently deliver.”
And just as importantly, as Uncle Joe Babich told him: “You have to have good winemaking.”