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Home » Ep 5: Alentejo Wine Series Herdade do Esporão, João Roquette – Leaders in Sustainability

Ep 5: Alentejo Wine Series Herdade do Esporão, João Roquette – Leaders in Sustainability

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Nick Breeze

Climate journalist and host of the ClimateGenn podcast.

In this episode of Sustainability in Alentejo Wine Series, I am speaking with João Roquette, CEO and Chairman of the Esporão group about the company’s transformation to organic and resilient production.

Esporão is one of the most famous brand names in Portuguese wine and especially in Alentejo. João has played a leading role driving the company’s move towards organic viticulture.

João Roquette – Herdade do Esporão, Alentejo, Portugal

During my visit I saw huge amounts of effort going into researching indigenous varieties for adaptability to the new climate conditions which are extreme today but will rapidly become normal tomorrow.

The extent of this work has made Esporão a phenomenal success. The company owns 623ha of organic vineyards – the biggest ownership in Portugal, representing about 18% of total organic production in the country. 

Here João talks us through how the company reoriented itself as a pioneer toward sustainability goals before the WASP programme was established. 

He also says the Alentejo region as a whole should be proudly waving the flag as leaders in Portugal in taking bold environmental action.

Transcript

Nick Breeze

When did Esporão begin its journey towards sustainability and can you identify a couple of the milestones or challenges that you have encountered? 

João Roquette – Esporão  

Yes, I would say that one of the opportunities I saw when I started working at Esporão was exactly that journey. I thought that if Esporão wanted to be a brand that would be recognised around the world, then we had a couple of challenges to deal with.

The first one was the production model that was showing signs of a negative cycle in terms of quality, and that would be a challenge because we thought that if we wanted to be really an international company then our wines should be up there with the best.

When I was talking with people who had worked at Esporão for a long time, since the beginning of the company in the 80’s, and I was joining in 2005, some of them pointed out that we needed to do something about how our agriculture was organised.

I studied business, I didn’t study agronomy, or engineering, or something like that so I didn’t know much about agronomy and I was asking them all these questions, and I was seeing a lot of advances towards the challenges and also a passion inside, a will to do things a different way. Mostly in the agriculture department.

On the wine side they were quite happy because the wines were being recognised, everything seemed to be well. Sales were growing. The company was one of the fastest growing in Portugal at the time. 

But on the other side, these people were saying about the levels of nutrients and nutrition, everything that is necessary to produce good grapes, we were in a very tight spot, so we needed to do something about this.

On the other side, personally, I had an experience with my wife and my mother in law, and organic food was already in my routine at home. Coming to Esporão, and being a family business, I was a bit worried that there was a dichotomy between what I was spending my money on at home, and taking care of my own and my families health, and then coming to my company and we were using the same chemicals, as everybody was using.

It started there and there is a mix of being truthful in what I believe in my life. I was a bit worried at that time because I was feeling the weight of a company that was thirty years old and was very successful. 

I couldn’t doing anything detrimental to what was built so far and I have a lot of respect for the people there but I was a bit relentless until I really understood what organic farming was. Was it possible or not to integrate into our business model and if it would drive quality in our business and have all these other positive environmental and health aspects, then I thought it would be a good thing.

So, we went a bit around the world. We visited 2 other producers who were doing organic in full-scale for quite a long time. One in Chile which is Emiliana and one in the US, Fetzer and we basically thought it was possible. At the same time, I came across Claud and Lidia Bourguignon who are two pioneers in organic and also biodynamics in Burgundy and have done great work in soil analysis and management.

We started working with them and did a couple of training programmes with them. They visited us in Esporão, and also we started reading and going to conferences and educating ourselves better, especially with the team.

We started that in 2007 with the first vineyard and then it took 12 years to do the whole 600 hectares in Alentejo and 50 hectares in the Douro as well.

Your question is about sustainability and for me sustainability in the wine industry is about producing organic. We could do everything, you know, we could have less water and energy consumption, of course, the relationship and social relationship, community relationship is absolutely important. If we could do all this and our production model continued to be business-as-usual, I don’t think it would really be a change.

I think what is unique about what we did is that we had a successful 600-hectare wine business that we managed to transform to full organic in ten years. By doing that we improved our business and the quality of our products. 

Nick Breeze  

In the Alentejo, you are known as a climate vulnerable region. Is there anything climate-wise that you have picked up or noticed in the vineyards?

João Roquette – Esporão 
I absolutely agree with your comments, we are definitely in a vulnerable spot. I think the last 5 years, except for this year, we could see that very well. We have data that shows that without any doubt.

What we have been doing basically, is from inside we have been looking and testing other grape varieties, we have an infographic field in which we have 188 grape varieties. We are studying them to see 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-90’s when irrigation really arrived and was possible to do in the Alentejo. Production before then was quite good so the incredible change that happened here in mid-90’s with water is something we should worry about because the grape varieties there are not well adapted to heat as the other ones.

So that is one. The second one is that we started right back in 2008, we bought our first vineyards in the mountains in Portalegra. We have been investing in new planting there in recent years. We have already in our own vineyards there, around 30 hectares and we are going to expand that to 50 hectares in the next 2 years. Then we have another 20 hectares, so we are aiming to have around 25% pf our vineyard area over there.

Then you know, organic farming is definitely a way to increase humidity in the soil. Most of the techniques that we use support life and biodiversity in the soil. That supports of course, soils that have the capacity to absorb water, and to increase fertility. 

Then we use cover crops. That is a challenge in Alentejo but we do have an annual plan to use cover crops and to introduce nutrients. They are very good to de-compact the soil and to keep humidity in the soil.

So, yes, we have seen positive results in that cycle.

Nick Breeze  

Okay, so you’re using natural resilience in a way by using the organic processes building up?

João Roquette – Esporão  

Yeah, we think also that, you know, from one side, the problem is a natural problem. Climate is changing, so we need to understand how we as humans can react to such a big thing that we don’t control and I think that the most of the responses are in nature. Of course, we do have a lot of data that supports our decisions. We have a data analyst that works full time integrated in the agronomy team. We have biologists full time in the team also, so that supports what we plan to do.

Nick Breeze  

When I visited in September, there was a great sense of history, the longevity of the estate. As such, the wine business is both traditional, but it’s also very modern. I know you’re accumulating knowledge in real time but do you speak to other producers? Are you sharing knowledge?

João Roquette – Esporão  

In the context of the Alentejo sustainability plan, since the beginning, we’ve been very open to share everything we’ve been doing in Esporão, not only in the sustainability program, but I think most, not to say all of the producers, in Alentejo that now have reasonable organic farming programs, they started with a visit to Esporão and with us sharing and helping them do their work. 

Nick Breeze  

You mentioned the sustainability program, how have your interactions with them been and where do you feel that they add value to your whole operation?

João Roquette – Esporão  

In the context of the Alentejo sustainability plan, since the beginning, we’ve been very open to sharing everything we’ve been doing in Esporão, not only in the sustainability program, but I think most, not to say all of the producers, in Alentejo that now have reasonable organic farming programs, they started with a visit to Esporão and with us sharing and helping them do their work. 

I think we were pioneers in this subject in Portugal. In Alentejo, we also had a very, I think, important role in the start of the Alentejo Sustainability Programme because it started when Darcy Moyes was still the President of the Commission. And I shared with Darcy Moyes the sustainability program for California wines that date back to the 70s, and was very successful in doing a lot of good things for the region. 

She read it and after a while, she thought it was a good idea to try to do something, and eventually, it took a bit more time, when João Barroso finally joined the program, and João was also someone who was introduced to the industry by working in Esporão, the programme then really kicked off. 

In the beginning of the programme people didn’t understand it very well, there’s, is a big cooperative part of Alentejo Wines, who thought this was an esoteric thing and didn’t make much sense and they couldn’t see how to create value with it. They thought that, for example, to do integrated production farming in Alentejo would be impossible, which is, of course, not true. We at Esporão were pushing for the program to be more strict and more ambitious than what it was in the beginning. It started by being something very broad, and to try to bring people together and share knowledge and increase commitment. 

Years went by, and people are starting to see that this is a good thing. I think now it’s a great success but we are at the point where in terms of the certification, we’re thinking about using it in our mainstream wines that are not certified organic. So that may be a good thing. But I also think that Portugal is catching up with the necessity of having a sustainability certification and in the medium run, I think the certification should be for Portuguese wines. 

Alentejo then has the challenge to step to the next level. And what would be the next level? I mean, I think organic farming would be the next level, I think Alentejo has absolutely the best conditions in Portugal, if not in Europe to do organic farming, we don’t have absolutely any pressure from the typical diseases that come with humidity. We have a perfect vineyard system for mechanisation. So when people ask me about organic farming, I say, I mean, if we can’t do in Alentejo, it’s not possible to do it anywhere else. So I hope that this is a way forward.

Nick Breeze

You just mentioned the need to go to a more national level for Portugal for this kind of program, as you’re now one and a half decades into a lot of these processes, you’ve been a leader and a feeder in of knowledge into getting this whole thing going. Do you think there’s a sort of a step process like a leadership role that Alentejo, as has its own vision, can now think about being an entirely sustainable region and can share that knowledge and help Portugal overall?

João Roquette – Esporão  

Absolutely. Absolutely. 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 because there is the Sustainability Program, which is something that was formalised, and there was a lot of work being done and it was recognised. And I think that the fact that Esporão is now one of the five top organic wine producers in the world, I mean, also has, 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 saying, you know, put the flag and say we were pioneers and we did this first and we’re going to help lead this movement in Portugal.

Nick Breeze  

This kind of leads into my last bit, but talking about going to the national level, but there’s also the sort of market signals and the wine buyers from around the world, emerging markets, or the important markets. How do you see this aligning with that and going beyond Portugal, from the consumers perspective? Even having national sustainability boards, how do we go towards something that’s more unified? Everywhere for consumers to understand?

João Roquette – Esporão  

Well, I think there’s a risk which is the vulgarization of certain sustainability programs and certification. So everybody from you know, the mainstream pharmaceutical companies, to chemical companies, everybody has a sustainability claim to do and the consumer is getting to the point where it’s kind of looking at it and saying, you know, hold on, so if everybody is sustainable, maybe no one is sustainable, right? So We need to be absolutely careful with what exactly we’re claiming to be. We have to stop speaking about sustainability and start speaking about actually what we are doing. And this is something that in Esporão was very important. I still have comments by people that when they look around, they say, but why don’t you communicate your your sustainability achievements. And I say, we do communicate, but we don’t talk about sustainability. And I remember around 2008, I sent an email to the team and said, ‘Please, we have to stop talking about sustainability. Let’s not use the word. Instead, let’s explain to everyone, every time we do something, which we think it’s good. Let’s expand what we’re doing. And let’s build our reputation from there. And I think building this reputation, and being credible is absolutely important for a limitation for Portugal in what we’re going to do next. And this means that the threshold needs to be you know, tighter, and the program has to be ambitious. Because if it’s something very broad sense, and we’re not going to stand apart from from the crowd.

Nick Breeze  

Well, that’s great. I think you’ve answered all my questions. So thank you very much indeed.

João Roquette – Esporão  

Thank you, Nick.

Nick Breeze  

Thanks for listening to this episode in the sustainability in Allen touches series produced by me, Nick breeze. In the next episode, I’m speaking with Sonoma born climate and mind scientist, Professor Kimberly Nicholas. Kimberly is also the author of under the sky we make an informed book about climate change, and why we must take action now. In our interview, Kimberly makes the connection between the choices we make, as wine producers, as consumers, as global citizens, at this unique moment in time that will impact life on Earth for 1000s of years.

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