In this episode, I am speaking with Luis Patrão, director of enology and viticulture at Coelheiros, a stunning 800 hectare, historic estate, north of Evora, in the centre of Alentejo.
When I visited the estate, Luis gave me a guided tour to demonstrate how the 600+ hectare cork oak forest, 50 hectares of vines, and the 40 hectare walnut orchard are being transformed into a regenerated resilient, and balanced ecosystem that is simply glorious.
It wasn’t always like this. The estate had more of a focus on hunting, running all the way back to 1467. It was only at the end of the last century, that Coelheiros started to be transformed into what is now a buzz of biodiversity.
Luis explains how their biggest challenge has been small birds and bugs, that eat everything from the plants themselves to the fruit they produce.
Wetland restoration and ending centuries of hunting have seen the return of birds of prey such as eagles and falcons. These in return have driven away the small birds that eat the fruit, and the introduction of bats is proving effective at balancing the bug population.
Luis also talks about the increased use of grapes more suited to the climate. Alicant Bouschet is again a favourite for this purpose, where the berries have proven to be more resilient to heatwaves, as well as having a later ripening period.
A feature of this conversation is that Luis talks about the positive impact this process of ‘working with nature’ has had on the wine quality, which he describes as being “ more pure and with greater richness on the palate”.
This kind of readiness for the new cycles of hotter and intense climatic conditions mean that Coelheiros is one of the leaders in Alentejo in starting out on the pilgrimage towards a truly sustainable viticulture.
NB: can you start by giving us an overview of the history of the estate and how the decision to work in a much more sustainable and regenerative way came into being?
LP: The estate was started in 1467 so it is very old estate. It is one of the oldest estates in the Alentejo wine region. We have about 800 hectares of land. We are more or less based in the centre part of the Alentejo.
Of the 800 hectares of land we have about 50 hectares of vines completely surrounded by cork forest. In 2015 the estate changed its administration and we decided we should rethink the way we were doing our viticulture and agriculture.
We decided to go a little bit more sustainable. We changed the viticulture completely. That was what happened.
NB: When I visited, I noticed a very extensive regenerative effort underway and that it is very holistic. Can you talk about that strategy, how it has developed and how you are working it now?
LP: So, in 2016 we adopted the sustainability programme of Wines of Alentejo plan. So we started to do some changes. The major one was probably adapting to organic farming in 2017. Of course we did a lot of things, we are not just an organic thing.
One of the biggest challenges that we have in Alentejo is the pests that we have here. It is not the disease because Alentejo is quite a dry area so we don’t have much problems with fungus disease which is usually the major problem in viticulture.
What we have in Alentejo is pests like birds and little bugs. So what we did was rethink how we are managing our ecosystem. We started to recover the waterlines which we have inside the estate which are the major ecological corridors to support the animals that could help us to balance the ecosystem.
So we are recovering every year more area of this kind of wetland to support these animals. One of the biggest changes we saw, when we started working in 2016 here, most of the vineyards were covered by bird nets to protect the grapes against the birds.
In 2016 we stopped hunting. The estate was very famous for hunting. When we stopped the bird like eagles and falcons started to come back again because they had rabbits or animals that they could catch.
When those big birds came, the small birds that were a big big problem for us, which was why we used the nets, the small birds ran away from the estate because they were afraid of the eagles and falcons that we have here.
Other stuff that was very important was that we started to install other nests for bats. They are a very important help to balance some insects that we have in the estate as well.
These insects drink the tree sap so the bats are very important to balance these insects.
NB: It seems that the way that the whole thing is working is that there is a great interaction now between viticulture and the wider wild life and biodiversity on the estate. Can you talk about how that is building up your resilience within the estate in the context of climate change?
Are there challenges that you have already experienced from climate change or are there challenges that you are anticipating and where this healthy ecosystem may play a role?
LP: Yes, 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. So we are very concerned.
I said in my introduction that we are from 1467. At that time we were not growing grapes but we have records in our estate that show that we have been growing grapes for over 150 years. What we expect is to keep going growing grapes.
So we are very concerned about the future. 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 for our climate and especially for the future climate that we are going to have.
So what we are doing is little adaptations to try and be more resilient for the future we are going to have.
NB: We know the climate impacts are going to worsen, can you talk about what gives you the confidence that the sustainable practices you are implementing are building this resilience?
Do you think that the resilience is emerging from having almost an ideally balanced ecosystem?
You understand the vulnerability of Alentejo as you enter a warmer climate – what gives you the confidence that working this way is going to give you the resilience you need?
LP: What gives us the confidence is that the little adaptations and changes we are doing, we are seeing some results. Like I said before, we had the problem with birds. Now with the eagles and falcons that we have here, we don’t have that kind of problem any more.
The varieties that we are working now, usually we start the harvest at the beginning of August. Now, with the varieties that we are introducing, like Alicante Bouschet, we are not starting so fast. I think Alicante Bouschet and Antão Vaz are very well adapted to this kind of climate and they don’t suffer so much with the heatwaves that are very common now in Alentejo because the berry has a bit more volume so the heatwaves don’t heat so much the grapes.
NB: On the wine production side, have you noticed any improvements or observations just about the wine that is coming out of this new way of working?
LP: Yes, I feel that the wine is a bit more pure, and at the same time, I feel the wine has bit more richness on the palate. I think when we started the organic farming, the vines needed to adapt to the new reality. The way that they do that is that the vines start to develop more defences.
The defences on grapes are basically phenolics. Those little compounds, they help the grape to fight disease and that kind of stuff. Phenolics are very important in terms of flavour, colour, aromas, and for sure, the wines are a bit more rich.
We have more depth in the palate. I feel the whites are a little bit more expressive in the nose, so I am really very happy with the result.
NB: That is very interesting. So maybe even, that sense of resilience is coming right down into the physiology of the grapes themselves.
How important is all this, this process, this sustainability, etc , when you express your brand values when you express yourself to your drinkers and to the marketplace?
LP: Alentejo has just approved a certification which allowed us to have that certification on our label. We have a stamp, so we are trying to communicate that certification in markets like the Nordic markets, Sweden and Finland, even in Canada, this type of certification is important.
In markets like Sweden they have started to ask us for sustainable wines from Alentejo.
NB: So that is a direct signal from the marketplace. What you are doing is in direct line with the consumer demand.
LP: Yes. Usually what happens in the Nordic markets, in a few years it will have that effect in Portugal and in other markets, so I am very confident about the future.
NB: That is interesting and you mentioned that the certification programme, which is a way of helping you express those values and demonstrate that you are rigorous in your approach.
Can you talk about your interactions with the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Programme, and are there ways perhaps that these kinds of organisations can help going forward?
LP: The Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Programme have been a key player for us because they have helped us so much because they gave us key performance indicators for us in terms of sustainability.
How much water are we using? Are we using too much or are we okay in terms of other players? About the way we manage our energy, are we using best practice or not? In terms of viticulture, usually they do workshops where all the growers can share their experience in terms of sustainability. What are they doing? What are the challenges that they are facing?
I think the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Programme is very important because it is an excellent platform for us to share ideas and to help us to advance in terms of sustainability.
NB: Finally, I think it is fair to say that you are one of the leaders in this particular area of sustainability. I know there is a lot of work going on in sustainability across the region. What is your view when you look out across thew region, how are the wineries as a whole responding to climate change and sustainability?
LP: I think all the wineries in Alentejo are very aware about the future and about what we are going to have in terms of climate change. I think the numbers we have today in terms of associated with the sustainability programme show very well that everyone is concerned about it.
NB: And of course, the clue is in the word itself. This really is true sustainability that we are talking about here!
Thank you very much for your time.