Sustainability at Riversun Nursery

July 2017

Committing to sustainability at Riversun Nursery

Owner and Managing Director of Riversun Nursery (and Linnaeus Laboratory), Geoff Thorpe, has spent more than 35 years building Riversun to be the premium supplier of grafted grape vines in the country. Geoff’s philosophy is that “the secret is in the soil” and we need to go to great lengths to respect it has always driven his passion for sustainability. “Sustainable” to Geoff is summed up with one question, “Can we keep doing this on the same land, in the same community and on the same planet for the next 100 and next 1000 years?” Riversun is committed to total sustainability by 2020, in all facets of its operations. 

Riversun was founded by Geoff in 1982 and he sold his first grafted grape vines to Marlborough growers in 1989. Subsequent expansion meant production peaked at 5m a year in the mid 2000s, employing over 60 people. 

The severe downturn in the wine industry associated with the Global Financial Crisis knocked Riversun substantially. The number of vine nurseries nationwide was reduced from 30 to just 4, and demand dropped by 90%. Riversun had then been re-focused on the highest possible quality vines, laboratory tested, and independently certified. 

Riversun has a 25 year exclusive licence with the French government clonal selection agency (ENTAV) providing access to the biggest, best selection of grape vines in the world. For a period from 2003 Riversun operated the first privately owned, MPI certified, grapevine quarantine facility, allowing the importation of 120 different clones and varieties from around the world. 

Geoff is looking to life beyond sauvignon blanc for the New Zealand wine industry, and Riversun has a wide selection of promising varieties for the future. At the Waihuka source block, Riversun now has about 250 selections, consisting of 50 varieties, half of them new to NZ, and 200 clones. 

Riversun and its associated Linnaeus laboratory now employ 70 full-time people and up to at least 200 during production season, from June to December. 


Riversun’s key drivers are vine and plant recoveries, sustainability, quality and efficiencies. Why sustainability? “Because it’s the right thing to do and takes the vines to a whole new level of quality,” Geoff says. 

The New Zealand industry has a Sustainability Winegrowing programme, launched in 1994 and now covering 98% of the productive vineyard area, over 35,000ha in 2016. The policy requires all wine to be made from 100% certified grapes in fully certified winemaking facilities. Certification must be awarded through an independently audited programme - either Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand or a recognised organic or biodynamic certifications. 

In 2013, Riversun Nurseries set a goal; “To strive to become truly sustainable by 2020 - Carbon Negative, Zero Waste and Truly Sustainable”. This ambition is called Toitū 2020 (Maori for being preserved forever). 

At Riversun, re-defining sustainability encompasses the business environment, soil and plant health management, water and air quality, bio-diversity, machinery and energy. Science and plantsmanship are brought together by simply observing and thinking like a plant – soil, elements, inputs, nutrients, sustenance, biodiversity and beneficials. 

“If we can’t keep doing this on the same land, in the same community and on the same planet for the next 100 years and the next 1,000 years, then it’s not sustainable, says Geoff. He firmly believes ‘the secret is in the soil’. Site selection is critical and in Gisborne Riversun is fortunate to have some of the best deep alluvial soils and virgin pastures (that haven’t been cropped for over 100 years). Understanding soil health and taking steps to respect (the land) rather than abuse it has translated to 10% organic matter in the soils which equals the best quality vines.

Sustainability encompasses “earth, water, air and fire”. Plantsmanship in relation to “earth” refers to soil organic matter, organic fertilisers and composts, the use of mixed swards, and three-year fallowing with green crops. Regarding “water”, it means re-vegetation projects, flow forms and compost teas and liquid seaweed. For “air”, sustainability aspects include companion plantings, bee hives, and native tree planting. For “fire”, the aspects are woodlots, silica and canopy management. 

On the science side of sustainability, Riversun’s Linnaeus Laboratory uses micro biology and molecular biology for grapevine testing (for disease prevention) and to measure soil microbial health status (Microbelabs). Riversun is currently researching GPS and tram track technology for minimising pressure on the soil profile; and looking at beneficial organisms like mycorrhizae and Trichoderma for soil health. 

As a result of changes in climate patterns experienced in the Gisborne region, Riversun has recently installed overhead sprinklers for frost protection and hail netting. Under investigation are; sustainable water access moisture monitoring and pressure bombs, as well as integrated pest management and pheromone traps, solar energy and wind turbines, biodiesel, wood burners, electric vehicles, flame weeding and energy efficiency programmes.