Green among the vines

Waipara Valley winemakers are reclaiming some of the diverse native vegetation once lost to the thousands of hectares of grapes. By Amanda Cropp. Plus: battling the bugs at Mud House.

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Illustrations by Merdo El-Noor

Waipara Valley winemakers are reclaiming some of the diverse native vegetation once lost to the thousands of hectares of grapes.

In the Waipara Valley there’s little sign of the totara, lacebark and matai that used to cover this part of North Canterbury. Over the past 30 years, the once-familiar farming landscape of paddocks hedged with pine shelter belts and dotted with gums trees has been completely transformed by the planting of 1,500 hectares of grapes.

But observant motorists blasting down Glasnevin Road through our burgeoning winegrowing region might notice outcrops of native plantings around wineries and at the ends of vineyard rows. Beside the imposing Mud House winery, a patch of bush shelters lizard lounges and weta motels and a biodiversity trail takes visitors past vines underplanted with native groundcovers designed to suppress weeds as an alternative to spraying herbicides.

Over summer, buckwheat blossoms among the ripening grapes; nature’s little helper in the battle against voracious leafroller caterpillars.

This is Greening Waipara in action, a biodiversity initiative that has attracted support from more than 50 local vineyards and has spread to winegrowing regions around New Zealand and overseas.

The aim is to boost biodiversity, improve vineyard sustainability, benefit conservation, develop ecotourism and promote the region’s wine.

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Ecology professor Steve Wratten of Lincoln University’s Bio-Protection Research Centre is the driving force behind the project, which grew out of a conversation with a Hurunui District Council staff member about the need to mitigate the ecological impact of Waipara’s 80 or so vineyards.

Wratten’s team, including Lincoln University PhD students and Dr Colin Meurk of Landcare, has produced 40 scientific research papers based on Greening Waipara, and last year won the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science’s Significant Achievement Award.

The project is also receiving international recognition, with Wratten invited to speak in Australian and Californian winegrowing regions and at organics conferences in Italy, Holland, Thailand and the US.

New Zealand wine makes up only two percent of the world’s wine supply, but in the price band that’s not cheap rubbish New Zealand takes between 19 and 20 percent of the market. That market is a very discriminating one. They know their wines, but they care about the environment, where their wine comes from.

Wratten says much of the overseas interest centres on Greening Waipara’s so-called Buckwheat protocol, which reduces the need to spray for pests and is readily transferred to other crops. “The whole principle of biological control can be applied to anything from cabbages to pineapples. Buckwheat seems to be a generic plant that works almost everywhere,” he says. Leafroller caterpillars are a major vineyard pest because the damage they do to the grapes increases the risk of botrytis, a fungal disease that can render the fruit unusable. Buckwheat, a prolifically flowering member of the rhubarb family, attracts parasitic wasps that lay microscopic eggs inside leafroller caterpillars—they die when the wasp larvae devour them from the inside out.

Studies showed parasitic wasps that are fed on buckwheat nectar live considerably longer and lay more eggs, greatly increasing their caterpillar-killing capacity and reducing or eliminating the need to spray insecticides.

Wratten’s researchers also found that mulching under the vines with shredded office paper, marc (skins and pips left after pressing) and grass clippings prevented the spread of botrytis from vine prunings left on the ground over winter, and he says botrytis levels were so low, fungicide applications were no longer necessary.

With New Zealand vineyards typically spending $1,000 per hectare per year on fungicides and insecticides, the reduction in spraying represents a considerable saving when spread over the nation’s 29,000 hectares of vines.

Added to that there is strong industry pressure for vineyards to operate more sustainably, and more than 400 winegrowers in seven winegrowing regions have attended sustainability seminars promoting Greening Waipara practices.

The New Zealand Winegrowers Organisation aims to have all New Zealand wine produced under an independently audited sustainability programme by 2012, and only those wineries that meet the standard will be eligible to participate in its marketing programme and at industry events such as the Air New Zealand wine awards.

The sustainability message seems to be getting through. Buckwheat plantings became so popular last season that seed supplies ran out and Wratten says a larger seed crop has been commissioned to meet future demand.

Native plantings are another key aspect of Greening Waipara with vineyard owners encouraged to restore remnants of native bush on their properties and initiate new plantings to increase biodiversity. Meurk has been heavily involved in identifying native plants that grow well in the area. Maori jasmine has proved to be a good nectar source, and groundcovers such as Acaena (biddy-biddy) and Leptinella have potential as under-vine weed suppressors.

Meurk says large areas of vines with bare dirt or mown grass between the vine rows create a monoculture, which upsets the balance of previously complex ecosystems. Reducing the natural range of plants and insects opens the way for new pests and diseases to take hold with sometimes devastating results.

“By increasing diversity you provide a greater range of options for the ecosystem to fall back on and using nature’s services is obviously more desirable than trying to control things artificially. Putting pesticides on can kill a lot of beneficial organisms at the same time, so you further decrease the resilience of the natural system.”

Since Greening Waipara kicked off in 2005 about 30,000 native plants have been planted, with participating landowners receiving a personal visit from Meurk to work out which plants were most suitable for their intended site.

The first 250 plants came free of charge and minivan-loads of students and volunteers assisted with the hard yakka of getting them in the ground. Much of the funding came from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and over the years $100,000 has been donated by Four Leaf, a Japanese nutraceuticals company that buys sprayfree blackcurrants from Mark and Louise Eder, local growers who are part of Greening Waipara.

The company rewards its top staff and distributors with trips to New Zealand, bringing up to 80 people at a time to visit the Eder’s property and winery biodiversity trails and take part in tree-planting ceremonies. Four Leaf and the Hurunui District Council jointly fund a part-time Greening Waipara ‘ambassador’ who keeps an eye on plantings and chivvies along backsliding property owners.

Guy Porter of the Waipara Valley Winegrowers Association says lack of water, rabbit damage and weed control can make it quite difficult to re-establish native species, and several vineyards lost hundreds of plants in an unusually bad flood. But the Greening Waipara planting scheme is a popular one and receiving technical help from Lincoln University made a huge difference.

“If you did it by yourself you might go to a nursery and pick up what you think are suitable native plants and they have no relevance to the local environment, so that specialist advice was really valuable,” says Porter. He says Greening Waipara undoubtedly changed attitudes about biological control too. “It promotes a more open-minded approach to farming, viticulture and care of the land.” Torlesse is a small 40-hectare vineyard producing about 8,000 cases of wine a year and winemaker Kym Rayner says Greening Waipara forced a rethink about the way he runs his business.

On his biodiversity trail, the paths are crushed glass from the Hurunui recycling centre and winery filter pads act as weed matting under native plantings. He’s also considering using crushed glass as mulch under the vines and is trialling native groundcover Leptinella to keep weeds at bay, but unfortunately the rabbits appear to have a taste for it. “It’s a member of the carrot family.”

Nevertheless, Rayner is a convert to planting natives. “It’s good when people can visit and see a whole heap of plants that would have been here without the European farming influence that cleared [native vegetation] and planted shelter belts. Around our house we started with gum trees because they’re fast growing, but we’ve cut them down and we’re planting natives.”

Muddy Water winemaker Belinda Gould is another enthusiastic supporter of Greening Waipara. “What we have learnt from Steve Wratten and his team has been great and a lot of that has given us the confidence to go fully organic and get certified.”

It is not just quality in the bottle that matters, but it is quality of the vineyard. Supermarkets are also picking up pesticide residues in wine when they analyse it and they don’t like it.

Muddy Water is one of a number of vineyards making reference to Greening Waipara on their wine labels, and Wratten firmly believes it has marketing value as consumers become more environmentally savvy. “New Zealand wine makes up only two percent of the world’s wine supply, but in the price band that’s not cheap rubbish New Zealand takes between 19 and 20 percent of the market. That market is a very discriminating one. They know their wines, but they care about the environment, where their wine comes from."

“It is not just quality in the bottle that matters, but it is quality of the vineyard. Supermarkets are also picking up pesticide residues in wine when they analyse it and they don’t like it.”

Wratten says surveys of supermarket shoppers showed 33 percent had heard about Greening Waipara and he believes it will add to the region’s tourism potential with day-trippers from Christchurch making Waipara their destination instead of racing past en route to places like Hanmer Springs. Biodiversity trails established at four vineyards (Mud House, Waipara Springs, Torlesse Wines and Pegasus Bay) are world-firsts, with information boards about the plants and wildlife and a quiz to keep the kids occupied while mum and dad kick back and enjoy a glass of wine.

In Australia’s Clare Valley winegrowing region, a cycle trail along a disused railway line is a major attraction and Waipara is establishing its own cycle trail through about six vineyards.

Although most of those that signed up to Greening Waipara are winegrowers, Wratten is chuffed by wider community support resulting in native plantings around the local fire station, school and railway station. So he is disappointed that efforts to secure ongoing funding for the scheme have been unsuccessful, especially as Greening Waipara was ranked as a top performer in a review of 15 FORST programmes. There was a further blow late last year when an application for $150,000 towards a greening programme for Marlborough vineyards was turned down. “It’s the largest winegrowing area in the country but the biodiversity level is very low.”

But Wratten believes the level of community buy-in has created sufficient momentum to keep Greening Waipara going, and he certainly won’t be walking away from the project.

“When you see winemakers and their families coming out and helping with the planting on a sunny day, it warms the cockles of your heart. On the lowlands of New Zealand from Cape Reinga to Bluff, less than one percent of our native plants is left, so it’s intellectually and spiritually very satisfying.”

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