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Luvian’s St Andrews' Archie McDiarmid blogs from Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Marlborough

Published:  31 January, 2019

Day two was built around the concept of ‘Purity’, and allowed six speakers to focus on the land and climate that makes New Zealand so special, the challenges it faces in the coming years and how they might overcome them.

The speakers comprised Chris Brandolino (meteorologist with NIWA), Steve Smith MW, Justine Tate (head of Sustainable Winegrowing NZ), Professor Roger Boulton (chair of Enology at UC Davis), Jonathan Hamlet (manager of Villa Maria’s Hawkes Bay operation) and Geoff Thorpe (owner of Riversun Nursery).

For Chris, all three of New Zealand’s main growing regions could expect their own unique challenges, all related to climate chance. Hawkes Bay is becoming increasingly dry and hot, forcing the region to re-examine how they use irrigation. Marlborough needs to adapt to more extreme weather events, overall rainfall might not rise, but it will arrive in bursts, often at terrible times of the year for growers, thanks to increasingly early and powerful tropical storms. He compared it to binge eating – the total calories you take in might not be harmful, but eat them all in one go and you’ll feel seriously unwell as a result. Central Otago, on the other hand, faced almost Burgundian issues with frost, as early spring warm spells were spurring early flowering and leaving the vines wide open during September and October frosts.

Justine was able to boast some hugely impressive figures regarding sustainable winegrowing in New Zealand. With 98% of vineyards being sustainably grown, the challenge is now to monitor, measure, reduce and repeat, always seeking to do better next year as the bar of what is sustainable is raised. Jonathan sported similar impressive numbers for organics, highlighting that 16% of the area under vine in Central Otago is now certified and that, although it can lead to reduced yields, organic fruit commands over £100 per tonne more than conventional fruit on the market. He did appeal though for vigilance and careful planning, pointing out that the early lead New Zealand had enjoyed in organics had been wiped out, primarily by European growers, and that Marlborough in particular could be poised for an organic explosion as it looks towards an extensive 30-40 year replanting period.

The message from those speakers was generally positive, acknowledging the challenges, but generally optimistic for the future. By comparison Steve Smith could imagine an apocalyptic scenario for New Zealand, thanks to climate change (in fairness, he tried to give a spoonful of sugar to wash the medicine down, it was the first time I’ve ever heard of a Funny or Die sketch screened at a wine conference!)

For him, the key to Kiwi success is its utterly unique location creating the perfect conditions to make refreshing, aromatic wines. Sadly, those conditions are under assault and he argued passionately for New Zealand to bring all of its insight, ambition and science to bear on the problem. He urged embracing everything from reassessing clones & rootstocks to eliminating glyphosate use and looking at genetic editing - which he emphasised was very different to genetic modification - your grapes shouldn’t have frog genes in them, but scientists should be able to select the best elements of a vines genes to promote – just as monks did hundreds of years ago, just with microscopes and gene CRISPR’s.

If Steve fired warning shots, you could feel the sense of frustration radiating of professor Boulton as he described the technologies currently available to make wineries carbon neutral and selfsufficient that simply were not being used to short- term thinking about up front cost. I was astounded to learn that wine fermenters are the source of the single largest pure CO2 contribution in the world today making his argument for on site carbon capture especially compelling.

For me though, Geoff Thorpe was the star of the day, succinctly summing up sustainability better than I’ve ever heard “If you can’t do the same thing, in the same place, for 1000 years, then it isn’t sustainable”. While highlighting the damage being done to the natural world by human intervention (it is terrifying to learn that the oceans have been forced to absorb the heat equivalent of four Hiroshima nuclear bombs every second for the past 20 years) he focused on what businesses like his have done to offset their impact, showing that switching to organic growing had often saved more that the transfer cost.

It was a day where it was easy to swing wildly between optimisim and depression. Climate change clearly a major threat to growers the world over, but to New Zealand in particular. Its unique location under attack from the very weather, which made it the perfect location to grow refreshing aromatic Sauvignon, but it is clear that the industry is wise to the issue. If they head the warnings of the day then it is clear that they are poised not only to adapt to climate change, but become world leaders in creating the techniques and technologies used to manage it in vineyards the world over.