Marlborough is the largest wine region in New Zealand. With over 140 world-class wineries in the area, Hill Labs’ Blenheim team plays its part in helping to ensure that Marlborough’s wine producers maintain their high-quality standards.
Hill Labs opened the current site in the epicentre of New Zealand’s winemaking country around 10 years ago. Today, the Blenheim team of five is led by site manager Vanessa Burrows.
A large part of the team’s work involves export wine testing. Working with wine producers that export to the EU and countries such as Japan and Brazil, Hill Labs offers an extensive array of wine export testing options.
“Wine that is exported to the EU and Brazil markets is managed through the Ministry of Primary Industries,” explains Vanessa. “There are limits that are set by the EU and all wine exported from New Zealand to that market has to comply, so we work with many clients to provide the testing to help them meet those requirements.”
Hill Labs’ wine export testing is covered by IANZ accreditation. The Blenheim team works closely with the Ministry for Primary Industries and NZ Winegrowers to stay abreast of any changes in regulations and labelling requirements for customers exporting overseas.
But it’s not just wine testing that the Blenheim team does. Individual testing can also be carried out on gins, spirits, whiskey and grape juice to make sure that they’re safe to consume and meet labelling requirements.
“If you bottle your gin or whiskey for example,” says Vanessa, “the alcohol percentage has to be within 0.5 of what the label indicates.”
Safeguarding vineyards and nurseries
A significant challenge for wine producers in Marlborough comes from the grapevine leaf roll-associated virus 2 and 3. You can’t see the symptoms of the virus until 12 months after vines have been infected and if left unchecked, these destructive viruses can spread rapidly through vineyards via mealy bugs. The virus shortens the commercial lifespan of infected vines by causing deterioration in fruit quality and vine performance, particularly in red wine grapes.
However, the good news is that you can get in early and test for it to minimise and monitor the spread if the virus is detected. A vineyard is replanted roughly every 30 years. If multiple blocks are due, it can be a useful decision making tool.
Hill Labs started providing grape leaf roll virus testing three years ago. The Blenheim team provides testing for both vineyards and to nurseries who must prove that their young grape plants aren’t infected. Both viruses are detected using an Enzyme Linked Immuno-Sorbent Assay (ELISA) method.
The New Zealand Winegrowers Grafted Grapevine Standard requires participating nurseries to test their source material for Grapevine Leafroll-associated virus 3 (GLRaV-3) and only material that is free of the virus may be grafted and certified under the scheme.
“There’s a short window for being able to test for the virus in vineyards,” states Vanessa. “The virus is phloem restricted so we need the main veins on main grape leaves preferably before harvest has occurred. We can test from February through to April, but if you miss this window, dormant cane samples can be tested in July.
“If you have infected vines, it reduces the crop yield and the sugar levels in the fruit, reducing the overall quality of the wine. The challenge is that you can’t see the symptoms just by looking at the leaves until after 12 months of infection, so testing is a must. If you want to manage your spread, check how far it’s going, we can do the testing to deliver that data.”
And during that grapevine leaf testing window, the Blenheim team is testing over 40,000 grapevine leaves. That’s a huge amount of green waste to dispose of. To mitigate that waste and save it from going to the landfill, the team has introduced a composting initiative to dispose of the grapevine leaves in a sustainable way on site. The finished compost is then spread over the site’s gardens.
Family-owned, local knowledge
Beyond viticulture, the Blenheim team oversees comprehensive water testing for the Marlborough region, upholding IANZ accreditation as a Drinking Water laboratory and adhering to government-issued standards.
And while Hill Labs may operate nationwide, there’s a huge benefit for clients in the Marlborough region to work with Hill Labs’ local Blenheim team.
Clients working with the Blenheim team gain not only a competitive edge with fast, same-day turnaround on export alcohol testing, they’re also offered a collection service if they’re based in Marlborough. A member of the Hill Labs team will come and pick up samples, so the client doesn’t have to deliver them.
The team takes pride in their ability to offer same-day turnaround for export samples, achieved through ongoing investments in cutting-edge testing instruments, ensuring continued efficiency and excellence.
Locals also benefit from access to Hill Labs' extensive nationwide testing capabilities, which provide testing services beyond what the Blenheim site currently offers, such as allergen, residues, metal and methanol testing.
Hill Labs is a family-owned business, employing local individuals with in-depth knowledge of the region. This unique combination of local focus and broader expertise is what makes Hill Labs a trusted partner for businesses in Marlborough and beyond.
“We’re a local team, with local knowledge,” confirms Vanessa.
Pictured from left to right - Vanessa Burrows, Hannah Ansley, Laura Bradbury, Laura Croad