Skip to content
Home » Ep 1: Sustainability & Wine in Alentejo – introduction

Ep 1: Sustainability & Wine in Alentejo – introduction

nv-author-image

Nick Breeze

Climate journalist and host of the ClimateGenn podcast.

SPEAKERS

João Barroso – WASP, João Roquette – Esporão, Iain Richardson – Mouchão, Nick Breeze, Dr Greg V Jones, Professor Kimberly Nicholas, Luis Patrão – Coelheiros, Mafalda Vasquez – Grous, Helena Ferreira – Adega de Borba

Listen on all major podcast channels:

Watch series on Youtube:

Episode 1. Introduction – Transcript

Nick Breeze  

This podcast media series focuses specifically on sustainability in Alentejo, a wine producing area covering nearly all of southern Portugal. The project includes interviews with a number of winemakers including Iain Richardson from Mouchão, the team Herdade dos Grous, Luis Patrão from Coelheiros, and João Roquette from Esporão.

I also speak with Helena Ferreira, Director of Production at Adega de Borba, where a thousand families are dependent on the sustainability of the cooperative, as well as the American climate scientist and wine producer, Dr. Gregory V. Jones. And of course, I speak at length to João Barroso, who has been a key force in developing the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program, or Wasp, and who has been my guide on the road trip across the region in September 2021. 

The aim of this work is to identify the characteristics of the challenges wine makers and estate owners are facing and their responses to those challenges. Additionally, I’m looking at the role WASP has played in transforming the response to the climate emergency and really paving the road to a more resilient future. Dr. Gregory V. Jones drew attention to Alentejo in his study dating back to 2005. And it’s striking how wine producers have internalized what this research means in terms of risk and how they are responding to it. This is where WASP has emerged, learning from other regions but also taking time to develop a thorough and robust framework for producers to operate whilst transforming to a range of practices including organic and regenerative that together constitute a true pathway to creating a fully sustainable region. This introductory episode begins with producers talking about how they experience and perceive the threats. Starting with Dr. Greg Jones, recapping on the vulnerability of Alentejo to a heating climate.

Dr Greg V Jones  

The region of Alentejo is in the southern part of Portugal, it’s just far enough inland that it has less of a coastal influence. So it’s a fairly summer dry, winter wet, but again, not quite so wet as it is in the north of Portugal, or in Galicia.

Coelheiros – Luis Patrão  

Yeah, so Alentejo is, in my opinion, and I think all the studies are showing this, is going to be one of the most affected areas in terms of viticulture in the world.

Mafalda Vasquez – Grous  

I think we have wines that fit the natural profile of each grape, of course, with the signature of the winemaker, Luis Duarte, very well balanced with concentration and freshness. Because this is the thing that we are always looking for, especially in a region which is very hot and dry. You didn’t have the chance maybe to fill the hotness in the summertime here, but it’s terrible and it’s very challenging for us to produce wines like that. And I think we are going in this way.

Heat events during the middle of the summer are, of course, problematic. Not having enough water, or during drought periods where water becomes even more scarce, being able to hydrate the vines in any way, shape, or form is definitely a challenge.

Nick Breeze  

In Alentejo, you are known as a climate vulnerable region.

João Roquette – Esporão  

Yeah, I absolutely agree with your comments. I mean, we’re definitely in a vulnerable spot. I think the last five years, except for this year, we could see that very well. We have data that shows that without any doubt.

Helena Ferreira – Adega de Borba  

Yesterday I went to the fields and I see that they are very dry, and now it’s a rainy season, so there should be more water in the fields. One of the most important things that we have noticed with this climate change is water scarcity.

Iain Richardson – Mouchão  

I think a lot of it is fear. You know, if you’re a farmer, and you are seeing your crop, just all the leaves falling off your your vines for, example, you always wonder… I mean, you can’t let it happen, you just can’t. I mean, you just spent the whole agricultural year and many seasons, let’s say, just looking after your vineyards as though they are a son or a daughter.

Nick Breeze  

With so much at stake in Alentejo. From the accelerating rate of climate heating. It has been amazing to see the transition towards sustainable winemaking with a heavy emphasis on regenerative farming. Regenerative farming focuses on healthy soils, which when teeming with life, ensure a healthy ecosystem. Not all of the estates I saw were fully focused on viticulture, some are growing olive trees and cork oak trees among other crops, while letting sheep roam and leaving large areas of land to flourish uninterrupted. One instance that impressed me was on the estate of Casa Clara, around 20 kilometers from the border with Spain, where vines ran down a steep slope to the edge of the reservoir. Rain patterns are becoming more erratic. With long, hot and dry periods followed by heavy downpours. The day before we arrived there had been 18 millimeters of rain in a single downpour. By placing a carpet like cover of grasses and other cover crops between the rows of vines mean that the inflow of water is transported via the root systems and drained more easily by the soils. There was no visible erosion and minimal runoff so that the water is stored as a supply to the vines during the drier periods to come.

Maria-Clara also showed us their development of new terraces under construction. The terraces are being orientated to face the North in anticipation of the eating climate. There are terraces across Europe that predate the Romans. And yet here we are today, seeing a contemporary shaping of the environment to meet the climatic needs of a fast approaching future that will last long beyond our own lifetimes. Their multigenerational outlook is one the world of wine has long understood.

As a nod to the past Maria Clara is making a wine in talha, Portuguese amphora that have been used in Alentejo for millennia. I enjoy their Ermo wine made from Arinto groups with guests when I returned back home. The fresh edge of the Talha contrasts with the rich flavours from the skin contact and lees aging, garnering much approval and pleasure from our table of tasters.

The Sonoma born author and climate scientist Professor Kimberly Nicholas has carried out extensive research into wine and climate change. When I asked Kimberly about regenerative farming, she immediately put the benefits into the broader context of responding to the climate emergency,

Professor Kimberly Nicholas  

A lot of focus on regenerative agriculture is on rebuilding soil and rebuilding and maintaining soil health, including organic matter and carbon in the soil, which also affects climate change. Soil globally contains about twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. And the more carbon we can keep in the soil or help the soil take out of the atmosphere is directly fighting climate change. So I think there’s a lot of promise there.

I mean, basically, to stop climate change, humanity has to do two things. We have to stop burning fossil fuels, leave them in the ground, so no more coal, oil and gas. And we have to make a change with our food and land systems so that we’re actually working with rather than against nature, and that is where regenerative ag comes in.

Nick Breeze  

one estates, where the integrated regenerative approach is really evident, Was Herdade do Coelheiros, just north of Evora, the main historic city of Alentejo.

Coelheiros – Luis Patrão  

In 2016, we stopped hunting because the state was very famous for hunting. And when we stopped hunting birds like eagles and falcons, they start to come back again, because they had rabbits, they had animals that they could catch. And when those big birds came, the small birds, which was a big, big problem for us, and why we use the nets this strange, they start to run away from the state because they were afraid of the Eagles and the Falcons that we had here.

Nick Breeze  

The thriving biodiversity that I witnessed at Coelheiros was a testament to how regenerative integrated farming can invigorate the landscape. But they’re not alone. João Barroso, manager of the WASP program gave this first hand account of what he saw at another estate in a climate vulnerable part of Alentejo.

João Barroso – WASP  

Obviously, the scenarios and the projection is not very hopeful but what I see and even yesterday, this happened I went to a producer it and they’re in Vidigueira, which is a fairly hot region, in a very, fairly dry, part of Alentejo. When I had last been there maybe four years ago, it was a desert, really, it was bare lands, bare soil, some vineyards there, of course, but you know, surely dry and fairly bare and yesterday it was a bloody Garden of Eden. You know, they had planted lots of ecological corridors, they had lots of functional biodiversity.

They had cover crops everywhere, they had pastures, everything green, these guys have been doing a massive investment in terms of regeneration, and adaptive agro ecology in terms of creating the conditions for a more adaptive strategy towards on one hand, climate change and obviously on the other the survival of their investments. This example really made me very hopeful because, as I said, it was a desert. It was a literal desert four years ago.

Nick Breeze  

This transformation is happening across the region. Here is Iain Mouchão Richardson from Mouchão, who himself completed a master’s in climate change in order to better understand the challenges his family’s historic estate is facing.

Iain Richardson – Mouchão  

When I first arrived here back in 2014, early 2015, the mortality rate was enormous. We had roughly 600-800 trees every year, which would die. And these are lovely old oaks. It was absolutely tragic for us. I’d sit here on a Saturday afternoon watching these huge trucks of woods struggling to climb a hill here and it was, it’s pretty heartbreaking. So what we’ve done since then is we planted 30,000 trees in the last three years, cork trees, and obviously, we are not expecting them all to take, we’ve got all sorts of other issues here as well, which you could argue are climate related because it impacts the fauna.

So we’ve got a predominance now of things like wild boar, which do a lot of damage and chew new our new trees. Anyway, it’s an issue for us, it’s a real issue with cork, and we’re gonna plant another 15,000 cork trees in the next two years and so we’re sort of reaching where we want to be but now we’ve got to manage the property in a way that sustainable looking forward,

Nick Breeze  

Indigenous and better adapted grape varieties are being rediscovered in Alentejo, where producers are investigating what works best from both a climate and taste quality perspective. And Esporão rows of testing vines are being monitored in order to identify characteristics that are better adapted to less water, more heat, and slower ripening.

A variety that travelled from France and was first planted at Mouchão but it’s now more Portuguese than French, is Alicante Bouschet. This red variety is widely acknowledged to have found his true home in Alentejo. In this next clip, Professor Kimberly Nicholas shares some insight into why indigenous varieties are trendy for a good reason. They actually boost climate resilience.

Professor Kimberly Nicholas  

We have a paper a couple of years ago that showed that over 80% of the global wine market is made up of just 12 varieties. So those are the most common that you see on the supermarket shelf or on the wine list at a restaurant, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay. Nothing against those, I enjoy drinking them myself but there are literally 1000s of other varieties out there. People have been cultivating wine grapes for 1000s of years and developing and taking advantage of the natural diversity and exacerbating it and developing it towards varieties that are suited for all kinds of conditions.

What we are doing by having this kind of monocultural system, this very narrow system of wine growing where we only take a handful of grapes is we’re really limiting our options for adaptation. Because there are varieties out there that, for example, are much better adapted to warmer temperatures, that are more efficient at using water, which is a scarce and limiting resource in many wine growing regions, potentially more so with ongoing climate change.

So there are real options for adaptation and switching varieties. And that’s something that we advocated for in this study, because it’s much more sustainable to keep vineyards where they are now and make adaptations in the vineyard potentially including turning over or changing varieties, rather than actually moving the vineyards northward to, for example, or uphill to higher elevation. And that’s because the planet is already pretty full. There are people all over the place, we’re already using most of the land on Earth, in one way or another. We need to leave some of the natural land for nature. We can’t be moving our agriculture around and destroying more habitat of what limited habitat remains.

So we suggest that it’s a real under appreciated option and from our study, we found that about half you know, back to this idea that it’s possible to adapt, but there are also limits to adaptation. You can basically double your adaptive capacity by using a broader range of varieties and turning over varieties. That doesn’t mean that there will be no impacts on the wine industry, there still are places that will really struggle and might not make it under a lot of warming. But it gives a real lifeline for a lot of regions.

João Roquette – Esporão  

What we’ve been doing basically is from one side we’ve been looking and testing other grape varieties. We have an ampelographic field in which we have 188 grape varieties, so we are studying if some of them would respond better to climate change than the ones that we use. We know that Alentejo was a dry farming region until the mid 90s Where irrigation really arrived and was possible to do in militares and productions before there are quite good. So the incredible change that happened in Alentejo in the 90s with water, now it’s something that we should worry about because the grape varieties there, are not as well adapted to heat as the other ones were.

Coelheiros – Luis Patrão  

All these little changes that we are doing, recovering the ecosystem. Adapting The varieties that we have in the estate. The estate was famous for international varieties like Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, which are great varieties, but probably not very well adapted to our climate and for the future climate that we’re going to have. I think, though, Alicant Bouschet and Antão Vaz, are very well adapted to this kind of climate. They don’t suffer so much with the heat waves that are very common now in Alentejo, because the berry has more volume. So the heatwaves don’t hit so much the grapes.

Mafalda Vasquez – Grous  

So I think it’s better to start with the market point of view. So maybe in the beginning of the project of Herdade Dos Grous, consumers were very focused on international or well known grape varieties, a worldwide known grape varieties. And of course, we follow this and I would say that the the profile of our wines was extremely close to wines, for example, from Australia or from California but then we start to realise that the grapes themselves in our field, they don’t have the same the same behavior and the same profile that the traditional ones have here.

So we start to figure out that maybe it’s better to keep on high the traditional ones or the indigenous one and and see what they can give us. And we figure out that actually, this profile, the traditional grapes profile are much better. It was actually what then we started looking for, because also the market started looking for this. I think it’s more or less a relationship between market producer and grapes are filled are vineyards.

Nick Breeze  

The journey towards sustainability is daunting. And the wine producers I spoke to were all at various stages along the route. What is fascinating to me is the role that the Wines of Alentejo Sustinability Programme has played in opening up the region to become a hive of knowledge exchange. A lot of credit goes to João Barrasso for his leadership, and ability to inspire people to share their discoveries and expand the pool of knowledge. Part of the future climate resilient landscape is about community and in this case, rethinking how we work so that competitors are also our collaborators. This concept is vital and I heard it here again, and again,

Dr Greg V Jones  

Sharing knowledge across the wine sector is really important. You know, if I figured out something I can do here in my vineyard, then why not share it with people inAlentejo, I mean, we all need to be better stewards and if somebody can figure out how to do any one little component of our farming practices, our management practices, then we need to share that information as best we can.

João Barroso – WASP  

Keeping the knowledge is power, is gone. Sharing the knowledge is power. That’s the new paradigm and so when I go into this project, this sharing the knowledge is power was one of my key drives because we had companies with a lot of knowledge and we had companies with lack of knowledge and with hunger for knowledge. So what we managed to do, and this was something quite satisfactory also, was to create this knowledge sharing network. 

Mafalda – Grous  

As Alentejo is a very big wine region and it looks like everybody is doing things apart from each other but with this programme, I think we started to get more close to each other. I’m talking about different producers. I think the most interesting aspects of the program was that we could be in touch and see what the others were doing and we could more or less copy and paste to our project and see how this could be good for us. For me, this is the most interesting thing about the programme.

Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Programme were a key player for us. They help us so much because they gave us indicators, KPIs, for us in terms of sustainability. How much water are we using? About the way that we manage energy? Are we doing the best practices or not in terms of viticulture? Usually they do workshops where all the growers can share their experience in terms of sustainability. What they are doing, what are the challenges that they are facing. So I think the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability programme is very important because it’s an excellent platform to share ideas and to help us to advance in terms of sustainability.

Helena Ferreira – Adega de Borba  

One of the most important things about the program and about the organisation of the programme were to make us  talk to each other, the different wine producers.

Iain Richardson – Mouchão  

I think they’ve done an absolutely wonderful job. They’re the leaders in Portugal in terms of wine regions, they’re leaders in terms of sustainability and they’re keeping us all, you know, thinking all the time about what we’re doing.

Nick Breeze  

The last program is a clear sign of leadership in sustainability, that is growing in momentum, and enhancing the reputation of Alentejo as a contemporary wine producing area. Regional and national programmes are emerging around the world, and maintaining the clarity of the messages we project is critical. The whole story fits into a larger jigsaw that makes up the global environment in which we are all stakeholders. Somehow we are all on the same journey to learn how to live within planetary boundaries, without diminishing our horizons of ambition, and aspiration. Every one of these stories of traditions, of building resilience, and preparing for the future also become our own story.

João Roquette – Esporão  

I think we are the only region in Portugal that has an authority around sustainability and I think that’s for two reasons. I think that’s that’s because there is the Sustainability Programme, which is something that was formalised, and there was a lot of work being done and was recognized. And I think that the fact that Esporão is now one of the five top organic wine producers in the world, also has something to say about about the region’s sustainability. So when we started in Esporão with sustainability, and even when the sustainability plan in Alentejo started, it was not a given that sustainability would have the importance that we’re showing, it has today. So everybody’s jumping on board and I think we have to take advantage of that and say, you know, put up the flag and say we were pioneers and we did this first and we’re going to help lead this movement in Portugal,

Dr Greg V Jones  

I think the best thing we can do is develop regional schemes that really work for those regions, but tie them into a broader understanding and framework at the global level.

João Barroso – WASP  

Alentejo needs to also obviously affirm itself as a region that it is where the biggest changes in the country. We are so far that sustainable region of the country and so obviously, if the country is lagging in terms of initiative, that’s not our problem. We will carry on doing what we do best and obviously uphold and raise high the flag of Alentejo. If then the country will come and join us they’re more than welcome but again, California is not the US. Champagne is not France, and so obviously, there needs to be an alignment, a crossing, but at the same time, a parallel road that should be taken by both national and regional initiatives, in this regard.

Coelheiros – Luis Patrão  

I think all the growers in Alentejo are very aware about the future and about what we are going to have in terms of climate change. So I think the numbers that we have today in terms of associates on the sustainability programme, I think it shows very well, that everyone is very concerned about it. So sustainability is the only way to keep doing wines in Alentejo. This is the only way to for us to survive and to keep going with the business. It is the only way. If we don’t adapt, if we don’t take measures we are out of business.

Professor Kimberly Nicholas  

So I think it’s really important that people do understand it’s not too late, there is still time for us to make a big difference to make this transition happen and we’re the only ones who can do it because no one has done it until now. And we’re really the last chance that the climate and the planet and a lot of human civilization and some of the most beautiful wines have. So I think it is really important that people understand just how critical we are and if you happen to be alive in hearing this podcast then you happen to have been born at really the most critical time in human history and you have a critical role to play.

Nick Breeze  

Thanks for listening to this introductory episode of Sustainability in Alentejo produced by me Nick breeze. In the next episode, I speak with climate and viticulture researcher, Dr. Gregory V. Jones more comprehensively about the impacts of a warmer planet on viticulture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: