In the early 1990s, the wine industry was undergoing rapid vineyard expansion and this growth was projected to continue for some time. Along with this expansion there was new pressure on land and water resources, accompanied with issues related to changing use of land. Leaders in the wine industry recognized that the natural resources of the country and the industry were of significant value and needed to be protected and, where possible, enhanced. It was felt that developing guidelines for sustainable viticulture would help establish and retain good practice, and would also provide a valuable education tool by which results from industry research could be transferred to producers.

Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand was established in 1995 as an industry initiative     emanating from New Zealand Winegrowers. It was commercially introduced in 1997 and adopted by growers from the entire grape growing regions. Growers pursued support from their customers – wineries – and introduction of winery standards followed in 2002, a significant development, which further substantiated the industry commitment to sustainable production.

The growth of the industry – as well as its adoption of a more sustainable approach – was primarily driven by significant increases in exports particularly to the United Kingdom, which was showing a developing interest in purchase of goods with well-established environmental credentials. Industry leaders felt that taking a proactive approach toward sustainable production would meet this growing demand and assist individual companies enhance their marketing opportunities.

SWNZ defines sustainability as “delivering excellent wine to consumers in a way that enables the natural environment, the businesses and the communities involved, to thrive.” The policy states that wine must be made from 100% certified grapes in fully certified winemaking facilities and certification must be through an independently audited third-party program (SWNZ or one of the recognized organic or biodynamic certifications). The program aims to provide quality assurance, and also serves as a “best practice” model.

To become certified, prospects must first self-assess their operations and provide supporting documentation for their responses. Additionally, there is a requirement to supply data for water and input use (electricity, fuel, pesticide/fungicide spray).

The program is based on three pillars: monitor, measure, and manage. Currently, the measures that SWNZ focuses on are water, energy and agrochemical use. In fact several prominent wineries have made energy and reduction of GHG emissions a major priority, understandable given the distance they are from their most significant markets in the UK and the US.

The self-assessment consists of three sets of questions: major, minor and best practices: Majors are mandatory, minors are generally relevant practices and best practices are the next step up. Compliance with all major questions and 80% of minor questions are required to achieve certification. If 100% of major questions are not achieved, corrective actions are required to pass. A second on-site inspection may or may not be requested, depending on each situation.

Third-party auditors work closely with the program managers from the initial inspection in order to be certified and then again every three years to maintain certification. The independent auditors often serve as mentors to growers to help them meet the program’s requirements. Certification is issued by SWNZ based on inspection results. Certification is still voluntary, however since 2010, the New Zealand Winegrowers, the body responsible for promoting the brand New Zealand Wines, made vineyard and wine accreditation to the SWNZ (or one of the recognized organic or biodynamic certifications) a pre-requisite to participation in promotional events.

Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) is an integral part of the future of New Zealand wine production. As such, the program aims to deliver the following benefits to its members:

  • A framework for viticulture and winemaking practices that protect the environment while efficiently and economically producing premium wine grapes and wine.
  • A program of continual improvement to ensure companies operate with a goal of improving their operational practices.
  • A platform for technology transfers so that companies are kept up to date regarding any new technology and its application.
  • An external audit structure that has integrity and rigor to comply with market expectations, leading to certification as fully sustainable.
  • Opportunity to be a part of New Zealand Wine (NZW) industry goal of 100% of grape growers and winemakers operating under approved independently audited sustainability programs.

To meet the NZW policies on Sustainability and Vineyard Registration and to enter NZW events, promotions and awards, wines from 2010 vintage onward had to be recognized as produced by wineries and vineyards operating in accordance with a recognized independently audited sustainability program (or a combination of), the criteria for which are:

  • 100% of grapes (vineyards) that go into the wine are certified.
  • 100% of wine processing plant(s) where the wine is produced and bottled is certified.
  • If the brand owner does not own ALL the vineyards or the plant in which the wine is processed and bottled, e.g. virtual wineries, it requires a separate membership in the form of a brand certification.

New Zealand succeeded in accomplishing over 95% certification by 2015 through SWNZ, organic or biodynamic certifications, a distinction among its peers from around the world.