Buckwheat cover crops at Huia
“I think a lot of people find a lot of things about biodynamics to be strange,” said Mike Allan of Huia Vineyards, “but working around the moon and the natural cycles is incredibly normal in human activity. We work with the tides. Conventional farming understands that you work around the seasons. To me it makes perfect sense. The more we do it, the more you feel it. For us,” he continued, “we’ve got a completely balanced ecosystem and there is a constant improvement to the soils. You recognize that your vineyard is not an isolated bit of ground. It’s an integral part of everything.”
Certified organic and Demeter biodynamic, Huia must satisfy not just New Zealand’s standards but also the standards of the 20+ different countries to which they export. With over 1,000 rules to abide by, some of which frequently change, they simply farm according to the strictest criteria. “It’s challenging, accommodating all these new things,” said Mike. “We’re trying to make our systems very simple, and yet must adhere to all of the requirements.” However, he added, “We think it’s the right way to farm. The organic certification process provides an absolute guarantee to consumers everywhere.”
Conventionally farmed before they planted vines, the soils at Huia were compact, much like those in trodden Central Park. “One site is on the Wairau River,” said Mike. “It’s very stony and with not a lot of organic matter in a lot of areas. Our other block was a cattle farm, on very heavy clay. We knew that by applying organic and biodynamic principles, we’d likely increase the health of soils, create drainage, and free up nutrients while increasing the organic matter in the soils. Now that we’re on the path, the difference between eight years ago and today is unbelievable.”
By planting deep rooting cover crops, Mike and his wife Claire create air channels, encouraging worms and better drainage, which yields a natural bounce to the soil. “One of the things I’ve really noticed, is when you’re walking through the vineyard tasting the berries, and taking samples prior to harvest, I’m convinced there’s a lot more flavor in the grapes,” said Mike. “The skins are thicker. The leaves feel firmer. There seems to be more skin, where the flavors are concentrated.” It’s an interactive life for the vines. They don’t wait passively on the couch for chemicals to cure their every ailment. The roots and vines are alive in an environment that allows them to be responsible for their own wellbeing.
To aid aeration, the Allans also till the soils to help build organic matter. “The vines need oxygen,” he said. “We were tilling every tenth row, but in some different parts of the vineyard, we’re going to do every row, and then take it back to maybe every sixth row in other areas. It’s not a hard and fast recipe, it’s just applying what we think works best.”
And while phylloxera wiped out most all of Marlborough in 1991, Mike views it as somewhat of a blessing. “There were a lot of rubbish varietals,” he said. “Muller Thurgau and things like that. So rather than replant with vines for yields, it forced a premium.
Harvest at Huia
“It’s easy to think of Marlborough as being one mass of a Sauvignon Blanc factory,” he continued, “but in fact there are differences. You have the Wairau River that made the Wairau Valley. Then you have the Awatere Valley, which is very different. Awatere is much cooler, particularly at the end of the growing season. And we’ve also got a lot of finger tributary rivers coming to the Wairau, and each of those valleys has its own expression. So the soils range from quite heavy clays on the hillside, which are highly favored for Pinot Noir, to the very stony alluvial soils near the river. “
At Huia, half of their vineyards are on the stony banks of the river, which undulates, providing a range of expressions to a single row of grapes. When planted to clay, Sauvignon Blanc yields “more herbaceousness and firmer acidity, with the classic Marlborough gooseberry coming through. On the stones,” said Mike, “you get tropical passion fruit.” Working with the two vineyards allows for consistency from year to year. “In a warm year, you have the fresher clay to balance out the tropical fruit.” And now that Huia no longer filters their wines, Mike finds that the texture has changed. “We leave things to settle,” he said. “We’re not taking anything out. It stands to reason that you’ll end up with more body, with these thicker skins.”
As another way to differentiate themselves from the larger producers, some of who have also started farming organically, Huia and a host of other small familial producers formed Mana, to represent Marlborough’s natural wine growers. To belong, all members must own their own winery and organically farmed vineyards. “The industry is massive in Marlborough,” said Mike. “As small producers, we felt very alone. Some of the larger wineries are changing over to organic principles for some blocks, but those of us in the Mana group, we’re totally convinced that by having your own winery, you get much more individual expression than you do from having your grapes go through contractors.”