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Alentejo Wineries Sustainability Programme

How the Alentejo has elevated its wines

Villas&Golfe Adv. PUB HOMES IN HEAVEN Adv.
Vidago Villa Adv.
PMmedia Adv Adv.
Herdade do Grous
Undeniable climate change has had an equally undeniable impact on winegrowing regions all over the world. However, in the Alentejo, production has long evolved to meet the needs of the present without compromising the lives and work of future generations. This thinking, which fortunately translates today into multiple actions, is called sustainability. Portugal, the fourth largest country in world grape production and ninth in wine production, has had to face catastrophic forest fires in the past and is already experiencing months of extreme drought. It is therefore becoming urgent to minimise the impacts that the future will certainly bring. Also, with this in mind, the Alentejo Regional Wine Commission, the body that controls, protects and certifies the wines of the region, one of the largest wine producers in Portugal, created the (pioneering) Alentejo Wineries Sustainability Programme (PSVA) in 2015. Today, almost half of the wineries are already operating to these good practices, the great challenge of which is to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage by ensuring a balance between an economically viable sector and an environmental performance that has a positive impact on society. And this programme is already an example for the whole country.
Villas&Golfe went to meet three producers who have long been treading a path towards sustainable practices. Among the criteria required to obtain the distinction, the commission highlights the implementation of farming practices that enhance soil protection, the promotion of biodiversity, the efficient use of energy and water, the use of renewable energy, as well as more sustainable materials in the packaging used in shipping the oldest (and most famous) wine in the world. Strict practices that do not allow the use of pesticides, respect natural resources, biodiversity and the rhythm of nature. These initiatives also require social responsibility, involving not only employees, but also the local community. Certification is optional, as it involves costs. But there’s a palpable return of such investment, with foreign countries noticing an increase of between 5 and 10% in sales. The new Sustainable Production certification seal of the Alentejo Regional Winegrowing Commission (CVRA) has also helped to improve the practices used in the vineyards and wineries.
Our visit begins at Herdade do Grous, in Albernoa, very close to Beja, precisely because this was the first producer to obtain the CVRA’s sustainable production guarantee. With us, around the table, and on a tour of the winery and vineyard, we were joined by engineer Luís Duarte, an unmistakable name in oenology in Portugal, elected the best oenologist in Portugal three times, manager and oenologist of Herdade dos Grous. In a relaxed tone Luís began by saying that it has long been clear to the region’s producers «that climate change would have a devastating effect if nothing was done». And he, a strong proponent of sustainable practice, took up the cudgels. «Our mission involves prioritising the environment and the well-being of our employees, because all of this will be reflected in the present and future of the local community.»

Today, almost half of the wineries are already operating to these good practices

At Grous, joining the programme was almost immediate. They started in 2015 and for five years worked towards being able to meet all the parameters. «It’s a very demanding programme,» confesses Luís Duarte. On this estate, owned by the German Pohl family since 1996 (owners of the famous Vila Vita Parc Resort & Spa, in the Algarve), organic farming involves some very curious integrated actions. In the winery, for example, the winemaker tells us that the essential concern was to do something pragmatic. «We don’t need to flirt with the winery.The winery is for making wine. It doesn’t need to be pretty; it needs to be efficient, functional. For example, there’s no water wastage here, with less water you wash more and better.» In the vineyard, the concerns turn out to be the same.
The maintenance and reforestation of the montado, the sowing of biodiverse permanent pastures and the promotion of habitat banks for pollinators all serve to increase the carbon sequestration. So, anyone thinking that the grass between the vines means we’re neglecting them, is mistaken. Everything has been studied here. If they’re there, it’s because they help protect the vines, retaining more water in the soil, for example. Nor are the shelters for bats and bees there by chance.The so-called «aerial support» serves to fight pests. The use of solar panels and reservoirs generates savings in energy and resources. At the end of the visit, we are left with fond memories of the 1,100 hectares, 133 of which are full of vines, 140 of olive groves, mixed with pasture, a fascinating dam, beautiful fruit trees and marshes. There are plenty of goats, black pigs, horses, and sheep, too. All integrated with a hotel business, designed to contribute to this sustainable ecosystem.
Since it was created in 2015, the Alentejo Wine Sustainability Programme (PSVA) has made great strides towards making the Alentejo the country’s first sustainable region. The programme supervises and advises the producer members throughout the entire wine production cycle. Following a system of continuous improvement that is aimed at three distinct sectors– Viticulture; Winery; Viticulture & Winery – and develops sustainability along three axes, environmental, social and economic, as it aims to produce quality grapes and wine in an economically viable manner, while at the same time seeking to protect the environment and improve relations with employees and neighbours. In all, the Sustainability Programme has 171 requirements that the members must adhere to. Using sheep grazing to fertilise the soil and control weed growth, proper water management, energy efficiency, reducing pesticide use, reducing waste production and protecting biodiversity are some of these measures.
Reto Frank Jörg (a Dutch-Swiss who, because he’s been in Portugal for 35 years, is also Portuguese) manages the beautiful Quinta do Quetzal, on the slopes near Vidigueira, close to the oldest Roman winery on record in the Iberian Peninsula. It is the region’s climate and the unique characteristics of the soil, rich in schist, that result in the distinctive grapes, always in limited quantities. «Almost all the land is an ecological reserve,» the manager tells us. But changes in climate have meant that, over time, the grape varieties planted have changed. It began with Aragonês and Tinta Beira. Today, there are far fewer of these, and more of others that adapt better to this current moment, and to the next 15 to 20 years. The orientation of the vines is also different, depending on the grape varieties. «Why do we adapt to the sustainability plan? Because it’s important, not just because the word is fashionable,» says Reto, «sustainable winegrowing is not just a trend, it’s the survival of a region where water is scarce,» adds Reto, who long ago realised that this is the only way to protect the rich soil and good wine.

THE PROGRAMME SUPERVISES AND ADVISES THE PRODUCER MEMBERS THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE WINE PRODUCTION CYCLE

Here, vineyard swarding is also a practice, which causes less erosion, «protecting the quality of the land», which is no more than the guarantee of the future of this estate, which today produces 200,000 bottles in its splendid 50 hectares of vineyards, where there is even music. Everything here has to do with art. That is why the grapes listen to music from the land to the ageing process. Once in the winery we can see that, although modern, it has been built in order to avoid waste, namely of water, but preserving the old Roman and Alentejo traditions and production techniques.
Finally, we visit Herdade da Malhadinha, where 80 hectares of vineyards emerge between gentle slopes of schistous and drained soil, in a terroir that respects and integrates the existing ecosystem and biodiversity. On our visit to this magnificent estate, we learn that the five dams dotted around the property are used to accumulate rainwater, that the meteorological stations allow them to monitor the correct growth of the plants and that the humidity probes help to manage the level of water stress in order to maximise the quality of the vines. The biological corridors, strategically planted, allow the attraction of a greater diversity of fauna, helping in the fight against the vines’ enemies, avoiding the use of artificial treatments, such as pesticides.
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, which keeps alive Alentejo traditions of olive oil, honey and vegetable production in its organic vegetable gardens and greenhouses, breeding native breeds in perfect harmony with the natural surroundings, is also part of the Alentejo Wine Sustainability Programme and is one of the first producers in the country to receive this seal. In fact, here, respect for the environment has been the guiding principle from the outset. Something that extends to the social and economic domain, it is at the heart of all the planting and is top dog in the agricultural project’s priorities. With human action reduced to a minimum, the estate practices organic, healthy and extensive agriculture.
Let’s look at some concrete examples. In these lands, among the vines and olive groves, we find plant covering, lower, more creeping, spontaneous, native, which retain the soil’s humidity.But there are also flowering species, to attract nature - and production-friendly insects. Another trend is hedges, strawberry trees, rosemary, lavender, broom, which, when in flower, attract helpers; the hedges also help limit pests, preserve and protect the nests of birds and bats, which during the night can eat half their weight in insects (they eat the good ones, but they also eat the bad ones, which in this case matters more), they manage to attract birds of prey that scare away starlings (a terrible plague, they eat all the grapes); etc.

In addition to the quality of the wines, significant savings have already been noted in water and electricity costs

For the rest, the rule of thumb is always to treat the indispensable minimum and the necessary maximum. Rita Soares, one of the owners of Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, stresses the importance of the Sustainability Programme, which helps document the important steps being taken at the moment. «Without organisation, nothing gets done.» Next to her, engineer José Luís Marmelo speaks passionately about the project that this team develops with every diligence and affection.«It has been challenging for us and for the plants. Here we treat grape variety by grape variety, area by area. We adjust everything with precision, with sensitivity. Continuous improvement is determinant, each year is a new challenge.» Herdade da Malhadinha Nova has been in fully organic farming mode since 2017. The best thing is that, in addition to the quality of the wines, significant savings can already be seen in water and electricity costs. All the wastewater treatment plants at Malhadinha Nova are reused for irrigation after organic treatment, through specific aquatic plants, the hydrophytes.
Currently, 40% of the energy used at Malhadinha Nova is generated on the estate, in good part by the use of solar energy in all the accommodation units on the property, by the wood-fired back boilers coming from the pruning of the age-old holm oaks existing on the property, by the renovation and construction of all the buildings, using traditional techniques and high energy efficiency materials.
The PSVA already has 510 members and 11036 hectares of area covered and represents more than 48% of the vineyard area of the Alentejo. They are responsible for the production of almost 80 million litres of Denomination of Origin and Geographical Indication wines. Of these members, only ten are certified by the Sustainability Programme. But this certification is not watertight. That is to say, the producers are certified for a period of five years, with annual internal audits, so it is in the CVRA’s interest to ensure that the producers keep to the standard. And it is in the producers’ interest to keep that certification because they have made a major investment.
Herdade do Grous
Herdade do Grous
Herdade do Grous
Herdade do Grous
Herdade do Grous
Herdade do Grous
Quinta do Quetzal
Quinta do Quetzal
Quinta do Quetzal
Quinta do Quetzal
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
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