This website shares the pilot trial of the Organic Focus Vineyard project, which monitored the first year of organic grape growing at Mission Estate, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand during the 2010-11 growing season.

The focus vineyard project has now expanded to include vineyards converting to organic production in three different New Zealand wine regions. You can read all about their experiences on our new website, organicfocusvineyard.com.

A final report from this pilot trial, comparing the results of organic and conventional growing regimes, will soon be available. Contact organicrebecca@xtra.co.nz if you are interested in receiving the full report. In the meantime, you can scroll down to read the blogs below, telling the story of Mission Estate’s first year in organic conversion.

Thanks to the Sustainable Farming Fund and New Zealand Winegrowers for enabling us to expand the trial.

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A first organic harvest

By Caine Thompson, Mission Estate Viticulturist

Veraison to harvest was a challenging time in Hawkes Bay as a grape grower. During this period all blocks in the trial were well set up, with nice open canopies and good balance in terms of crop load, and progressed evenly through verasion.

So how did the growing regimes stack up?

Firstly, what we observed through the ripening period was how well balanced the organic vines were in terms of vegetative growth. This was pronounced in the Pinot Gris, with the conventional block requiring an extra trim to control the excessive vigour, compared to the organic block which didn’t require any further trimming. This same pattern was also observed in the Sauvignon Blanc, but to a lesser extent in the Chardonnay. During our sampling, which was carried out independently by EIT, we noticed that this vegetative response also correlated with a difference in brix between the organic blocks and conventional blocks. In both the Pinot Gris and the Sauvignon Blanc, we noticed at each of the five maturity tests that the organically grown blocks were significantly riper right through until harvest. Both the organic Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc were approximately 0.5 brix higher than the conventionally grown blocks. However in the Chardonnay the conventional and organic were very similar. We think that this shows a direct correlation with the influence of controlled vigour on advancing fruit ripening.

Organic Sauvignon Blanc pre-harvest

Secondly, we found that berry size and average bunch weights were very similar between both organic and conventional regimes. In this first year of the project, there was no loss in yield growing organically as compared to conventionally across each of the varieties, which we were pleased about.

Organic Pinot Gris, pre-harvest

Thirdly, a big question mark we had going into this project was that of pests and diseases and their control under an organic management regime. Fruition Horticulture assessed powdery mildew in February and found that across all blocks, crop loss due to powdery mildew was under 1% across all varieties and growing regimes, which was very encouraging.

With significant wet weather events continuing through early March, I was concerned how all of the blocks would hold up when exposed to such severe botrytis pressure. Again Fruition assessed botrytis and sour rot, and again both regimes reported good botrytis and sour rot control. There were no significant differences between either growing regime, which really highlighted the importance of canopy management and the role it plays in botrytis control, but equally importantly this showed how well the organic blocks held up under significant disease pressure.

The decision was made to harvest all the blocks when the forecast showed another significant wet weather event forecast for a few days in the later part of March. We decided to harvest all varieties and blocks, which all ended up coming into the winery around the 21 brix mark. Actual harvest analysis was performed separately for organic and conventional varieties, along with harvest yields and juice analysis, all of which will be presented at an upcoming field day in June and again at Bragato in August.

The other big question we had was around the costs of growing organically. All of this information has been collected throughout the season and I’m looking forward to presenting this soon once final analysis has been made.

Overall I’m really pleased with the season and the quality of the fruit grown under an organic growing regime and am looking forward to what the next season brings!
Many thanks to Bart Arnst for his mentorship and guidance through year one, which has helped make this an enjoyable experience, and also to Jonathan Hamlet and Rebecca Reider for their continual support.

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Who will be the next Organic Focus Vineyard?

Exciting news: we have been awarded funding from the MAF Sustainable Farming Fund to extend this project for a further three years, in three regions. We are now looking for focus vineyards in Marlborough and Central Otago to join this project and convert part of their vineyards to organic management, with a solid foundation of support and guidance provided by the project team.

For more information, contact the project manager, Rebecca Reider, on organicrebecca@xtra.co.nz.

A message to prospective focus vineyards, from Caine Thompson, manager of this year’s pilot focus vineyard at Mission Estate:

“How do you know if organics can or can’t work for you if you don’t try it yourself? This project is an opportunity for you to find out a lot about organics very quickly! By trialing an organic growing regime you will find you gain confidence in the products and methods used in organic farming while becoming more connected with the vineyard itself. I was surprised by how simple and effective the changes were and delighted with the quality of the fruit at harvest. It’s an opportunity for your business to compare an organic approach to how you have been farming at a relatively low risk with the wealth of support and mentorship that is given through the project, which is invaluable. Sometimes you need to step forward to learn and grow. This is an opportunity to do just that.”

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Assessing the trial as harvest approaches

By Caine Thompson, Viticulturist, Mission Estate

In Hawkes Bay during the early summer period we often battle with powdery mildew as the conditions are favorable for this disease. This season has been no different, with high pressure conditions being persistent.

With only sulphur for powdery mildew control under an organic management program I was very concerned about the control we would get.

What has been surprising to me is the level of control we have received under an organic approach, which I’m really pleased about. We also didn’t spray any more frequently than what we did when compared with a conventional program, which I thought we would have to do. From the monitoring that Fruition Horticulture completed for powdery mildew, they reported that the organic program had slightly better control of powdery mildew. This difference was small but was the same trend across all three varieties in the trial.

We have had another cultivation pass which is three for the season for the Pinot Gris and  two for the season for the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The conventional blocks have recently been weed sprayed. With the conventional Pinot Gris block we have noticed a significant vegetative growth response when compared to the organic which has been interesting to see. The response has been so significant that we have had to trim the conventional block again with the nets on to control the growth.

All blocks are through veraison. There were no noticeable differences between timing and duration of veraison that I noticed between the conventional and organic regimes.

All blocks have been netted and maturity sampling has begun. We have a student from EIT that has been trained in maturity sampling who is collecting brix, Ta and pH and berry weights for each variety and each growing regime as we approach harvest.

Before harvest Fruition will do the final pest and disease analysis. Mission will do the final yield analysis from the blocks and maturity analysis from the harvest samples.

As we approach harvest all blocks are clean and looking in good condition leading into the last month before harvest. Once we have all of the pest/disease, economic, fruit quality and yield data we will present the information in a report form which will then be presented at an industry field day. We wait in anticipation for the harvest ahead and I’m looking forward to seeing how the blocks perform in the last month of the season.

Conventional Sauvignon Blanc, March 4th

Organic Sauvignon Blanc, March 4th

Conventional Sauvignon Blanc, March 4th

Organic Sauvignon Blanc, March 4th

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Summer field visit

By Bart Arnst, Viticultural Consultant

Mission Estate  Vineyard, 14th February 2011

A scorcher of a day which had field day participants looking for shade. The latest of the series of field days planned to show interested parties the progress of the Organic Focus Vineyard project.

Caine Thompson (Mission) and Jonathan Hamlet (Villa Maria) began by giving an overview of the project to date. Caine discussed the comparison blocks and the differences he was seeing plus the cost differential to date (organic slightly cheaper).

The vineyards recently have been monitored for pest and disease by an independent body. Terry Fraser from Fruition reported a lower incidence in powdery mildew in the organic sections. No downy mildew was observed.

All regions have had a high level of powdery mildew pressure this vintage, so it was pleasing to see these results.

All varieties were well into verasion, all canopies looked good and the bird pressure had begun. Jonathan was quick enough to capture an errant blackbird; the method of dispatch was not witnessed.

Points risen pre the vineyard walk and discussion were:

1. The use of sulphur and copper in an organic system.

Firstly, it is important to note that both these elements are allowed in organic systems; they are acceptable up to certain levels by the organic certifying bodies throughout the world.

There is no doubt that excessive use will create long term problems with soil health. Copper is measurable in soil tests and will be monitored. Sulphur is often added to fertiliser in the form of prills.

We aim to reduce all inputs over time, however we must remember that this is the first year of conversion and there will be a degree of nervousness by vineyard management and the wine company’s management so we have no problems “playing it safe” with our spray program and using these inputs.

As growers move forward through organic conversion we tend to gain more confidence in the process, the products available and the site’s ability to cope with the change in farming techniques. I would expect to see a reduction in sulphur and copper use over time, and/or alternative product inputs.

2. Vigour differences.

The Pinot Gris showed a stark difference between the conventional and organic in vigour.

The conventional appeared to have gone into a vegetative phase and will require another trim. This fresh growth can also lead to more powdery mildew pressure; not necessarily to affect fruit but certainly to add to increased disease inoculum for the following season.

3. Crop levels.

Visually all comparison blocks appeared to be cropping at similar levels. This has also been Caine’s assessment.

The vineyard walk was followed by undervine mowing and cultivating demonstrations. Five separate units were available to view and we thank those who took time out to provide this operating display: DearTech (undervine mower), Braun (undervine cultivator), Stortford Machinery (Tournesol and Ecology), and Moteo Ridge (Ridgeback).

And finally thanks to HortiCentre who provided the hot and hungry with the appropriate nourishments with a BBQ and drinks at the end of the day.

Field day demo: DearTech undervine mower

Field day demo: Results from the Tournesol weeder

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January vineyard update: organic & conventional blocks all in good health

By Caine Thompson, Viticulturist, Mission Estate

The January period has bought about some fairly extreme weather events. We have experienced dry, settled conditions with warm temperatures thanks to predominantly north west weather patterns. These conditions have accelerated shoot growth and berry development to the point where Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are now well into veraison.

Organic Pinot Gris at the start of veraison

Over the last few days (20th, 21st and 22nd) we have experienced 190mm of rain. This has brought about concerns about downy mildew and also botrytis which we are monitoring closely.

At this stage, after this event we haven’t seen any of these diseases show up in any of the blocks in the trial. However there is some splitting of skins starting to occur in the Pinot Gris blocks.

Our spray program organically has been predominantly sulphur, copper, protector and seaweed. Our conventional program has been a combination of DMIs, copper and sulphur over this period. We have used Serenade Max at bunch closure on the organic blocks and Switch on the conventionally grown blocks.

Sheep have been used for leaf plucking across Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Fruit exposure across all three varieties is about 90% at this stage. Given the characteristics of this site, this exposure is usually at about 50% at harvest with the regrowth that occurs.

Fruition is the company that has been contracted to access powdery mildew and downy mildew at this time in the growing season. Monitoring was conducted on the 19th of January. In summary the monitoring has shown that there is a small amount of powdery mildew present in each variety across both organic and conventional treatments. The differences between these progammes are very small, showing that both spray programmes have been successful in a very challenging year for powdery mildew.

We have recently completed our third cultivation pass on the Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, whereas the Sauvignon Blanc has just had two passes.

Netting has commenced in the Pinot Gris and will continue into the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc over the next few weeks.

We are monitoring the weather conditions closely, especially given that ripening is underway in Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, so we will be ready for applying late season botryticides as and when is required, which will be based on forecasted weather events.

In terms of financial costs per hectare, at this stage in the season both regimes are fairly similar as we enter into the tail end of the growing season.

The next monitoring round by Fruition will be preharvest, monitoring botrytis, sour rot and mealy bug numbers.

The next field day will be held on the 14th of February from 1.30pm until 4pm, which will provide people a chance to look through these blocks to make their own comparisons between the growing regimes.

I am very pleased with how both growing regimes are looking at this stage in the season and am looking forward to the vintage ahead.

Conventional Chardonnay, 25th January

Organic Chardonnay, 25th January


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Advisor’s update – December

By Bart Arnst, organic project advisor

Mission Estate Vineyard, Tuesday 7th Dec. This was my second visit to Mission Estate as part of the focus vineyard comparison between an “in organic conversion” vineyard and a “conventional or agrichemically run vineyard.”

Thankfully one of Hawkes Bay’s cooler days.

Bart explains to growers at the December field day

Points risen in our discussions before the vineyard walk were:

1. Vineyard aesthetics.

The driveway leading into the Mission Estate Winery, cellar door and restaurant caters for 150,000 visitors per year. It bisects two of this program’s organic conversion blocks.

Although at this point the weed control in the organic blocks was sufficient not to impact on vine vigour, it could by some be considered an untidy look.

This brought up the need to educate visitors by perhaps having information available at the cellar door explaining the different approaches (the how’s and why’s) at this highly visible location.

Caine will now make sure these blocks are in keeping with the need for a tidy perceived vineyard “look.” He will also be able to isolate the costing on any increased weed control and provide a useful cost per hectare comparison with the less visible blocks.

2. Crop reduction?

There had been comments made by one grower to the Mission CEO that by going to organics you would suffer dramatic crop loss.

This has not been my experience in operating numerous organic vineyards. In fact it seems every vintage we are removing crop to achieve desired quality levels.

Obviously if your organic practices revolve around doing nothing, then problems will be experienced. However, if we focus upon understory competition, soil nutrition, soil biology and pest and disease control then (as with any farming), there is no reason cropping levels should decline.

In the afternoon Caine hosted along with Jonathan Hamlet (Villa Maria Joseph Soler Vineyard) the vineyard walk and discussion. Approximately 35 growers and horticultural reps attended.

Caine provided the costings per ha to date which showed that at this stage the organic blocks were the cheaper to operate.

We drove around the vineyard, stopping at each of the blocks to discuss the inputs for each block and a general discussion of how they were looking and progressing. All comparison blocks looked similar in growth and cropping levels. Flowering was all but completed.

The undervine weeder (which was demonstrated at the conclusion of the walk) had broken many of the slabs of turf which had remained after the first pass.

Those that I spoke to were very positive about the project and looking forward to the next visit.

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