Natalie Christensen

Natalie Christensen, chief winemaker at Yealands, has some ideas. She recently spoke with Sustainable Wine’s Agatha Pereira about what Yealands has learned about putting sustainability ideas into action. An edited transcript of their conversation is below.

AP: How did you end up in the wine business, given you trained as a musician early in your career?

NC: Well I actually had a quarter life crisis. I was twenty-five, and eight months out of University. I had finished studying for a degree in music and a BA in psychology and education, followed by a Master of Science degree. I was working in HR but really not enjoying it. It was time for a change so I decided I would go travelling and see some of the world. My brother was living in Marlborough at the time and suggested that I come and work a harvest to make some money for travelling.

So I did; I worked for Saint Clair Family Estate and I loved it! I slept so well and loved going to work at the winery each day. During university I worked in a wine bar, which got me excited about wine, and was also a volunteer firefighter, so I was used to steel capped gumboots, pumps and hoses! I took a permanent job with Saint Clair and studied part-time, whilst working full-time in the winery, towards a wine making degree. That was back in 2006 and I haven’t looked back since!

AP: Tell us a little about Yealands and about the wines you make.

NC: We are a fairly young company. We opened on 08.08.08 and celebrated our ten year anniversary last year. We are the first winery in the world to be certified by Toitū Envirocare since inception and are currently the only winery in New Zealand to hold this certification. Yealands Estate is based in the Awatere Valley, Marlborough, and our main vineyard, known as the Seaview Vineyard, is the largest single vineyard in New Zealand. We are incredibly coastal which really influences the styles of wines that we make.

The Awatere Valley is a little bit cooler and a little bit drier than the Wairau Valley, the other main valley in Marlborough. It’s very, very windy in the Awatere so our berries tend to be quite small with thick skins and really intense fruit flavours. There’s also a really high mineral content in the soils so we get wonderful minerality or saltiness through the palate. We distribute globally and I always get a buzz when I spot Yealands on a wine list or in liquor retail when I’m travelling outside of New Zealand.

AP: What are your views on how sustainability thinking seems to be accelerating in the wine industry?

NC: It’s an incredibly hot topic. We’re in a great position because sustainability has been part of our company and our culture since day one and it honestly touches on everything that we do. In New Zealand we have Sustainable Winegrowers New Zealand, an annual accreditation which most New Zealand wineries, including us, are part of.

At Yealands, we monitor our water and energy use. We work out how many litres of water it takes to make a litre of wine and we benchmark against other wineries in New Zealand and other wineries in the world. I’ve certainly noticed that sustainability has become very prominent, not just in New Zealand, but globally.

Everyone in the industry is starting to recognise that we need to be innovative and incredibly careful about what we are doing and ensure that everything we do takes into consideration the potential environmental impact.

Yealands Vineyard

AP: There seem to be ambitious plans afoot nationally but then some winemakers say tracking progress is not as rigourous as it should be.

NC: There’s definitely a movement to track progress more rigorously and make sure everyone’s got a solid focus. When it comes to sustainability we, as an industry, are learning all the time.

AP: Moving to Yealands specifically, you talk about innovation a lot on your website. What does that mean in practice?

NC: We have a great culture where we encourage everyone at Yealands to think innovatively. We have a staff Sustainability and Innovation program with a dedicated fund that’s open to anyone to submit an idea where they see a chance to innovate or make something more sustainable. The ideas are put forward to a committee who decide if an idea is feasible. The committee members act as mentors, working with the employee who came up with the idea to get the project up and running.

AP: How are you using technology to measure track and drive sustainability progress?

NC: We have quite rigorous tracking. We’ve set up a dashboard that we feed a lot of information into which allows us to automatically generate data for resource use. Our philosophy is, if we’re not measuring it, we can’t benchmark where we are or improve what we are doing.

AP: How has climate change affected winemaking in New Zealand so far? Many winemakers we talk to say weather and temperature volatility is the biggest impact they have so far. Would you agree? What can winemakers do at the vineyard or how are you coping at the vineyard?

NC: Over the last few years we have been seeing more extreme variations in our weather patterns. We’re getting tropical cyclones coming down from the islands more frequently. In 2017 we had an incredibly cold and wet harvest on the tail end of two cyclones. Then in 2018, we had a very warm year but also a decent amount of rain. Our most recent vintage was a drought growing season with high temperatures and barely a drop of rain post-Christmas.

We have dams on site to manage a drought situation, meaning we can still irrigate our vines for a further 42 days after water has been cut off. To manage really wet seasons we have installed some new presses in our winery with an accelerated press cycle so that we can process fruit really quickly if we need to.

As a team we know that being prepared is key to managing whatever the seasons decide to throw at us, because it’s certainly a bit less predictable than it used to be.

One other thing to note is that in really hot years alcohol levels start to creep up. I’m currently on a committee within New Zealand that conducts research into lower alcohol wines. Some of the really interesting research has been around the management of vines and vineyards, such as cropping the canopy more aggressively removing some of the ripening power from the vine. This results in a naturally lighter style wine.

Yealands Vineyard

AP: We saw you have an ISO carbon certification mentioned on your website. Every winemaker seems to have strong opinions about sustainability certification. What are yours?

NC: Sustainability is very much a focus for us and we have a couple of ISO standards that we are accredited to. One is ISO 14001, which ensures we have a robust environmental management system in place. It is designed to continually improve our environmental performance and we are in the process of extending this certification to cover our entire vineyard area, in addition to the winery.

We also have our Toitū carbonzero certification which requires the measurement of greenhouse gas emissions to be prepared in accordance with ISO 14064-1:2006.

Certification is certainly important because it gives validity to what we’re doing. It also gives confidence to our suppliers that we are at a certain level. They can recognise these certifications and feel confident that we’re not just saying we do these things, there’s an external auditor coming in to validate that we are truly doing what we say we are.

AP: Whose responsibility is, in the wine industry to reduce bottle weight, given the climate impacts of distribution? Whose responsibility do you think it is?

NC: I’d say it’s our responsibility. I think historically there’s been a feeling that big heavy bottles signify quality wine. As producers, we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to indicate quality based on bottle weight, because it’s not adding genuine value.

Primarily producers need to be confident in the branding and the product and try to move away from wanting to dress the wine up in a big heavy bottle to give the impression of importance.

AP: How do use nature to help drive sustainability performance in your operations? Your website mentions burning vine prunings as biomass, developing wetlands, wildflowers, and using sheep and chicken.

NC: We have specially designed bale burners on site. As far as we know we are the only winery in the world to bale and burn our vine prunings to produce energy. At the end of each season we prune our vines and bale up the cuttings. These bales are then dried out and put into the specially designed burners producing energy to heat our water in the winery, which reduces our reliance on LPG.

We also have some Babydoll sheep, a smaller breed of sheep that were originally introduced to the vineyard with the intention of grazing them year-round. They are currently in a Pinot Noir block right next to the winery. When we don’t have growth on the vines we also graze large flocks of Merino sheep to keep the grass and weeds down and reduce carbon emissions from not having to mow so frequently.

There are also around a hundred chickens that roam freely around the property, and nine chicken coops to give them a comfortable place at night. They were introduced to provide a little extra help with controlling the grass grub population which can be very damaging to the vine roots and vine leaves when they reach maturity. Although the chickens don’t have a huge impact on the grass grub population (we’d need thousands to make a noticeable dent!), we love having them around and the eggs they lay are made available to the local community kitchens and charity groups, or to our staff.

Many of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed to make way for agriculture and urban development. To promote biodiversity we are continually planting native vegetation in areas unsuitable for vines and around our numerous wetlands. We have planted over 200,000 native shrubs and flaxes.

The vegetation encourages native wildlife to come into the property and helps maintain water quality in the waterways. Wildflowers and cover crops are also planted in between the vine rows, to attract beneficial insects that keep the pests away, increase diversity, increase soil carbon and reduce mowing passes and therefore our carbon footprint.

And finally there’s Butterfly Gully where we have planted over 200 swan plants to encourage native butterflies. The presence of butterflies can indicate a healthy ecosystem which we want to encourage at Seaview. We are New Zealand’s first Butterfly friendly organisation, certified by the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust.

AP: You’ve invested a lot in wind and solar. Tell us a little bit about that and the impact that it has had on your sustainability performance. Is it cost neutral yet?

NC: We have the largest solar panel array in New Zealand on our winery roof. The solar panels are capable of generating up to 411,000 kW hours (approximately 70 average NZ homes) and offset 82 tonnes of CO2 a year. Our region has some of the highest sunshine hours in NZ and we generate around 25% of our annual energy needs from a combination of the solar panels, wind turbines and vine pruning burners.

Click here to read more on Yealands’ commitment to sustainability.