“It’s just common sense”: Sustainable agriculture at The Wrekin Vineyard

As climate change takes hold and weather patterns become increasingly hard to predict, the entire agricultural industry is looking to how it can operate more sustainably. Within viticulture, turning to more sustainable options is not only about safeguarding the whenua for future generations, but also about making a better, higher quality product. No-one knows this more than Andrew Johns, co-founder of The Wrekin Vineyard in Marlborough’s Brancott Valley.

Andrew and his wife Jan moved to the Wrekin property, originally a sheep and cattle farm, in 1998, and began planting pinot noir in 2002 on the farm’s north-facing slopes. Today, they produce Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Chenin blanc, all via organic, sustainable methods.

Going organic to improve grape quality

“It was around 20 years ago that we first started planting grapes,” reminisces Andrew, “and from the outset we aimed for high quality. We came to realise that the best quality grapes would come from going organic, and in 2012 we cancelled all chemicals, converted to organics before becoming officially organic certified in 2018.”

Since their organic certification, The Wrekin has looked to continuously improve its quality of grapes, and is now going biodynamic.

“Biodynamics are great because it allows you to focus on the whole ecosystem,” explains Andrew. “At a microscopic level, there are so many microorganisms and fungi and they all work together with the soil and with the fruit that you grow. It’s remarkable how much those microorganisms spread through the area when you give them a chance.”

The Wrekin’s earthworm count is now among the highest of the organic vineyards in the country, but Andrew and Jan have not stopped there – they’ve also turned their attention to water usage and irrigation.

Grapes at The Wrekin are only watered with rainwater runoff from a relatively small catchment within the property. A dam built on-site stores sufficient water to enable irrigation over two growing seasons if necessary.

“Grapevines, if they’re allowed, will grow amazing root systems, but the more you stand over them and water them, the more the roots will automatically stay close to that source,” explains Andrew. “We’ve been replicating the nature of rain also, so instead of watering daily, we might water for a 12-18 hour block and then may not water for another 10 days. After a wet winter and spring irrigation may not be required at all.”

Creating a closed loop through waste management

The Wrekin is working toward a closed loop system by making its own wine in a gravity flow winery which has been constructed adjacent to the vineyard. Any wastewater goes back into the vineyard, and any solids and other biproducts, including grape skins, go into the compost.

For Andrew, following these sustainable practices is just common sense: “We do what we do because it’s more sustainable in our view. The use of synthetic and chemical fertilisers comes under the broad description of “conventional farming” which seems to be counterintuitive. What should be conventional is the least input. If you can minimise your inputs and focus on getting things into balance, and keeping the closed loop system, you will get the best wine and you will be more efficient.”

Sustainable agriculture demands financial stability … but where do you start?

“The banks don’t often see operations such as ours in the same way but there is progress on that front,” continues Andrew. “We’re a small farm with low yields, which is a function of achieving better quality. We don’t always have a huge amount of capital at our disposal. One way to get the most value out of our premium grapes has been to go into the wine making game, which requires capital for things like our on-site gravity flow winery and stocks of finished wine which are aged for 4-5 years.”

BDO has been working alongside Andrew and Jan on this journey. The Wrekin’s goal is to earn a reputation as a top-producing vineyard.

“It’s through Alex (Barton) and the team’s help at BDO Marlborough that we have been able to focus on our cash flow,” says Andrew. “We are competing in a small market compared to the sauvignon blanc drinkers, and so we have to take a long-game approach.

Alex understands our business and is able to get us back to principles and push us to get our cash flow working – she has enabled us to build that bridge between the perfect world of doing everything genuinely and sustainably and still turning a profit.”

If you would like help with sustainable viticulture, as well as repivoting your business and cash flow to enable sustainable practices, contact your local BDO agribusiness team today. We have viticulture specialists across Aotearoa’s key wine-growing regions, with offices in Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and Central Otago.