Dog Point Vineyard
A visit to the largest certified organic vineyard in the country
Dog Point vineyards and winery demonstrates conservation with a commercial edge. In a region when many wine companies have bulldozed and burned trees to plant vines, Dog Point is planting natives and exotic species. This is the biggest certified organic vineyard in New Zealand.
At 110 hectares, Dog Point Vineyards west of Blenheim is the biggest organic vineyard in New Zealand. Combined with other vineyard blocks, the company has a total 250ha under organics. It was supreme winner in the 2017 Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards, impressing judges with its combination of wine production and conservation.
Ivan and Margaret Sutherland are Marlborough wine industry pioneers, planting their home vineyard block in 1979. In 1991 they bought the adjoining Dog Point Fairhall property, later adding more vineyard land. Eleven years later they joined forces with James Healy who had worked with Ivan at Cloudy Bay Vineyards, and his wife Wendy to launch the Dog Point label.
In 2009 Dog Point applied for BioGro organic certification for the entire vineyard area, despite advice that it could be easier to convert in stages. Ivan was keen to establish the 100% organic culture with staff from the beginning and to avoid any risk of transition areas being neglected.
The decision to go organic was a rejection of broad-scale cropping which depends on regular applications of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertiliser. Ivan wanted to grow grapes and make wine in a more natural way, providing a healthier and safer working environment for family and staff. As consumers increasingly question products’ origin, composition and production methods, he anticipates the day when the entire industry must adopt socially and environmentally responsible practices.
Vineyard manager Nigel Sowman says it costs about the same to produce a tonne of organic grapes as non-organic with similar margins, although there is more work.
Seven to eight years after the vineyard gained BioGro certification, dramatic changes are being seen as fungal diversity in soil increases and its structure improves, says Nigel. Despite slightly more tractor passes than in a conventionally-managed vineyard due to frequent mechanical weeding, susceptibility to compaction has reduced and water holding capacity increased. Vines are becoming increasingly resilient in drought.
A smaller vine canopy with balanced leaf to fruit ratios and managed yields – achieved by shoot removal and crop reduction – reduces irrigation requirements and minimises disease pressure through air and sunlight exposure. This also enhances ripening.
Contrary to popular belief, nitrogen management, not weeds, has been the biggest issue during organic conversion. Pre-planning is required to gradually turn off artificial nutrition. Inter-row cover crops fix nitrogen and greatly improve soil structure.
Every tenth vineyard row is planted in buckwheat to attract hoverflies and parasitic wasps to control leaf-roller caterpillars and mites.
Powdery mildew is becoming an issue in all Marlborough vineyards. Sulphur is applied every 7-14 days, depending on infection levels. Last vintage when infections were especially severe, spraying frequency but not rate was increased.
Plastic-coated Wood Shield pine posts are used as to replace broken treated timber posts, to avoid leaching of copper chromium arsenic.
A 10-metre buffer zone – conveniently the width of headlands – separates the vineyard from non-organic neighbours.
Compost is made from a combination of vineyard prunings, grape marc, green waste and biological additives on a lined, bunded pad. This is used as mulch around the vineyard, native plantings and garden. The pile is regularly turned and the temperature checked. Leachate collected in a 5000 litre tank is applied at a low rate to vineyards as fertiliser, building biological life in soil. Any runoff flows back onto the pad in a rainstorm.
Waste water from the winery is spray irrigated onto vineyard headlands and under olive trees.
Cattle and sometimes sheep graze about 50ha of paddocks. About 3000 sheep also graze the vineyard from after harvest until early spring, eating back weeds and adding fertility. A change in BioGro rules allowing non-certified stock to be introduced without quarantine has been helpful.
The 2016 Dog Point vintage was the first when all grapes processed were fully certified so wines could be labelled organic. About 40% of the total crop is sold to other wine companies, including fruit from 20ha in more recently purchased vineyards yet to complete certification.
Fruit is hand-picked to produce four regionally distinctive wines with aging potential. The main variety, Marlborough’s flagship Sauvignon Blanc, is cropped at an average of 8.5 tonnes/hectare, well below the district average. Fruit is whole bunch pressed and cold settled before fermentation using 80% inoculated yeasts and 20% “wild” yeasts, naturally occurring in the vineyard and winery environment. The juice spends 2-3 months in stainless steel tanks then the finished wine is bottled without “fining” (not using products such as egg white or isinglass – gelatin).
The Section 94 block (named after the earliest survey title for the parcel of land) produces an alternative expression of Sauvignon Blanc. Fermented and aged with natural yeast in old French barrels for 18 months, the wine remains in bottles for another 9 months before being released.
Chardonnay production is relatively small. Vines are cropped at 5t/ha. Fruit is gently pressed into French barrels (15% new), fermented using wild yeasts, and then undergoes 100% malolactic (secondary fermentation), converting tart malic acid to softer, creamier lactic acid. After 18 months in the barrel, the finished wine is bottled and released to the market nine months later.
Red variety Pinot Noir is cropped at 4 -5t/ha, hand-harvested and sorted before mechanical destemming (apart from a small percentage left as whole bunches). Wild yeasts ferment the fruit in small stainless steel open top fermenters, without pumping for the gentlest possible treatment. The wine is bottled after 18 months in French oak barrels (35% new) with no fining or filtering, to balance fruit tannin depth and structure in the finished wine.
While premium winegrowing earns Dog Point its income, the company prioritises creating a diverse and attractive landscape for the enjoyment of staff and visitors.
A fulltime gardener develops and maintains native and feature tree plantings, wetlands, orchards, olive groves, vegetable gardens and pine nut trees.
A walkway follows Mill Stream which flows through the property, then meanders through the grounds. Planting began along the stream in 2005, connecting with other riparian plantings by a community stream enhancement group. Ten years later, plants are self-seeding to fill any gaps. A key to success has been planting en masse.
Native areas are not organic-certified, meaning herbicide can be used to control weeds, especially invasive old man’s beard and willow regrowth. Exotic plantings include a small radiata pine woodlots for timber, Pinus pinea for pine nuts, eucalypts, flowering gums, Tasmanian blackwoods, black walnuts, black poplar, blue spruce and tree lucerne.
Early ripening grape varieties are covered with nets to provide bird protection, as well as rows near the extensive native and exotic tree plantings. Nigel’s noticed as populations of tui, bellbirds, kereru and other native birds (which don’t damage grapes) increase, introduced pest species such as wax eyes appear to reduce.
Six families live on-site, and 20 staff are employed, rising to 60 during vintage including contractors. Staff all have access to produce from the large garden where hothouse tomatoes, potatoes, broad beans, mandarins, feijoas, and asparagus are grown as well as 1200 olive trees for oil also used as company gifts. What was a commercial apricot orchard is now certified organic, supplying fruit to staff, family and friends.
Beehives in the orchard area pollinate fruit trees and wildflowers, producing a small amount of honey.
The Bell Tower luxury accommodation is part of the business, with guests free to wander the property. Meal ingredients are sourced from the guest house or vineyard gardens.
For 10 years, Dog Point Vineyard and Logan Brown have hosted an R18 Classic Kiwi Picnic in the vineyard. Seasonal and local produce is matched with Dog Point Wines, enjoyed in the shade of an adjoining olive grove.