Organic wine industry matures nicely

The organic wine industry, once a cottage industry run by and targeting a handful of mavericks, is now big business. Organic wine grape production in Australia increased 120 per cent between 2011 and 2014 alone, with those grapes reaching a value of $117m. Three South Australian organic winemakers – Temple Bruer Wines, Mount Horrocks Wine and Grosset Wines – share their journey.

By 2012, four per cent of the world’s vineyards were organic. Organic wine grape production in Australia increased 120 per cent between 2011 and 2014 alone, with those grapes reaching a value of $117m. And consumer demand is strong enough to have encouraged even big players such as Yalumba to launch organic lines. Below, three South Australian organic winemakers share their journey.

David Bruer, Temple Bruer Wines

“Organic used to be seen as a negative. We converted to organic in 1995. Around 2000 being organic became neutral and from 2005 it was seen as a positive,” notes David Bruer, a chemist turned winemaker, and owner of Temple Bruer winery in Langhorne Creek, as well as three vineyards in Langhorne Creek, Eden Valley and Loxton. “My wife and I converted to organic in 1995 for altruistic reasons. We felt that the use of agricultural chemicals wasn’t good for either our customers or us.”

Finding the existing organic auditing systems inadequate, the Bruers implemented a bespoke ISO 9001 system. It morphed into a continuous improvement program, which saw Temple Bruer go carbon-neutral. After the organic movement took off and increased competition, Bruer also began producing preservative-free and vegan-friendly wines. (Organic wines are not necessarily preservative-free and fining agents derived from animal products are often used to remove solids from both conventional and organic wines.)

Bruer nominates disease control and weeds are the two biggest challenges in running an organic winery. “It’s not for a lack of trying but we still don’t have weed control properly sorted,” he says.

Bruer has had mixed experiences with exporting. At various points, anywhere from 10-35 per cent of his cabernets, shirazes, merlots, rieslings and verdelhos have headed offshore. Europe remains a strong market.

“The Europeans pioneered organic wine, but the vintners over there charged top dollar for a product of variable quality. That allowed Australian organic wine to establish a good reputation for being value for money,” he says.

Bruer, 70, doesn’t expect organic wine to supplant the conventionally grown variety “in my lifetime”. But he’s confident increasing numbers of both wine producers and consumers will come to embrace the chemical-free option.

Stephanie Toole, Mount Horrocks Wines

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Stephanie Toole is no newcomer to organic winemaking. She had practiced organic farming for five years before her nomination for Australian Winemaker of the Year in 2007. Her Clare Valley winery was converted in 2006 and officially certified in 2014.

“I was already herbicide and pesticide free but getting certified meant I had to rethink certain practices,” explains Toole. “For example, I had to remove the straw and cow manure I had been using because they weren’t certified organic.”

Toole says going organic felt like the right thing to do. “I suppose it was about preserving the land for future generations. The vineyards look healthier and are in better balance since I made the switch,” she says.

A lack of public awareness is the biggest challenge Toole has encountered. “Australians mistakenly believe all wine is produced in a natural way. That’s presumably the reason organic wine hasn’t taken off the way organic food has,” she says. “Apart from putting the ACO [Australian Certified Organic] logo on the back label we don’t make a big deal about it. The selling point is that they’re elegant, refined, award-winning wines.”

Toole, who exports a quarter of the rieslings, semillons, cab savs and shirazs she produces, notes foreign buyers have a different mindset. “It’s in places where pollution is more of a concern that organic certification is more important,” she says. “There’s a strong demand for Mount Horrocks Wines in the UK and Europe. Even though it’s not a market I’ve pursued, China has taken off in recent years. If I can get around to having my wines certified as organic by the relevant Chinese authority that’s a big business opportunity going forward.”

Jeff Grosset, Grosset Winery

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“I was heavily influenced by Gaia theory; the idea environments are self-regulating, complex systems. So I took a no chemical input approach from when I planted my first vineyard in 1986,” says Jeffrey Grosset, owner of Grosset Wines in Clare Valley and one of the world’s 50 most influential winemakers.

“Going organic has the downside of a smaller crop. The two upsides are that crops are less variable, and the grapes seem to better flavor at lower levels of ripeness,” he says.

While he concedes it’s hard to quantify scientifically, Grosset believes organic wines taste better.

“I aim for an upfront, generous flavor without a finish that is hot, gritty or tannic. Organic grapes allow me to get flavours that are exquisite and subtle at lower alcohol levels.”

Grosset moves 11,000 cases of his rieslings, semillon/sauvignon blancs, chardonnays and cabernet blends a year. Three of his wines are in the top 50 most collected Australian wines. So it appears consumers, domestic and foreign, are impressed by what they’re tasting.

And Grosset believes there’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian organic winemaker.

“You’ve got the exchange rate coming down and the signing of the Free Trade Agreements,” he says. “We’ve long exported 25 per cent of what we produce, mainly to the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and the US. We use screw caps, which they haven’t been too keen on in China, but presumably with education that mindset will change.”

Compared to places such as the UK, Australian consumers don’t place a lot of value on organics but Grosset predicts that mindset will also change.

“Off what’s still a small base, I’m expecting the Australian organic wine industry will experience strong growth in the coming years as consumer demand, both locally and from overseas, ramps up,” he says.

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