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‘Ultimately, sustainability simply means not wasting anything’

Daniela Wiebogen spoke with João Barroso, the Sustainability Manager of the Alentejo Regional Winegrowing Commission about drought and winegrowing, what a hedge can do for a vineyard, and how sustainable practices help the winemakers of the Alentejo in securing the future.

Photo by Annette Sandner

First a simple question: what is sustainability?

The term sustainability first appears in the field of forestry. The German privy counsellor and counsellor of mines Hans Carl von Carlowitz is regarded as the founder of sustainability. In the 17th century he defined it as “only felling as much timber in a forest as will be replaces through growth within the foreseeable future”. Today that sounds logical, but back then it was a remarkable step. The principle of sustainability seeks to preserve a natural system as long as possible, and to secure a position for future generation where they are not less well off than the generation that’s in charge now. Logically, in times when natural resources are becoming ever more limited this is the only path.

And what does sustainability mean for winemaking in the Alentejo?

In agriculture natural resources play the most important role. And winegrowing is a form of agriculture that puts natural resources under great stress. You have to think about everything that is needed to produce a bottle of wine. The vineyards often require many types of sprays and fertilizers that also influence the ecosystem of the vineyard. Then there is the high demand for water and energy in the vineyard and cellar. And finally there is the transport of the finished product over long distances.

What is your strategy? How can the winemakers in the Alentejo protect those resources?

Particularly in a dry region like Alentejo water is a crucial matter. Today we have to think out very carefully how we produce wine, because perhaps in the near future there will be little or no water available for irrigating vineyards. The question today is how we can use as little water as possible. There are projections that say in roughly 40 years there won’t be enough water in Alentejo for animal husbandry. Who, then, will think about ensuring supplies of water for winemaking? Almost no one, because then the question will be how to keep producing vegetables and other essential basic foodstuffs, not luxury products like wine. In that situation it would lack the necessary priority.

How are you preparing for that time, for that “Day X“?

We are already examining ways to preserve resources and looking at every step in the wine production process under the magnifying glass. How can we save resources? How can we preserve the environment and biodiversity in a simple and natural way? How can we make useful savings in the production process without hindering the quality of the final product? My organisation recognized the importance of these questions in good time. Already three years ago we decided to implement a sustainability plan. Together with leading producers and academia we have developed a programme of 108 criteria (in time we plan to expand the number of criteria) that reach from the vineyard through the cellar into community involvement and distribution. At all these stages it is possible to reduce impacts, preserve resources, and promote social equity while keeping a healthy business.

Which criteria, for example?

In the vineyard one should take a critical look at how pesticides and herbicides are used. Are there alternatives to chemical products that would also protect the vines? For example, several producers in Alentejo decided to plant cover crops between the vine rows. This not only promotes the creation of organic matter in the soil, water retention and fights erosion but also creates a natural environment to attract beneficial organisms (insects) that keep down the populations of harmful organisms. In the long-term the producer also saves money, because it costs much less to naturally manage the vine rows than to use chemical sprays.

Another example?

The use of water in wine cellars is a very obvious example. Ask a winemaker how much water he needs to clean his stainless steel tanks and often he can’t tell you how many litres of water he actually uses. So we put the question to winemakers another way: “how many times do you need to fill the tank with water before it is clean?” – “Perhaps twice!” he mostly answers. So, we then know that to clean a 1,000 litre tank he needs roughly 2,000 litres of water. 2,000 litres! The possibility for an enormous saving there is obvious!

How do you convince the producers to get involved with sustainability? It seems like a lot of work to go through a company examining 108 criteria.

Of course it is a lot of work, however, our program is entirely voluntary. Our members decided without any external compulsion to examine these questions. Of course, what encouraged them to do are the potential massive savings. Every litre of water that isn’t used not only helps the environment, but also the bank account of the winemaker. Only when my products are competitive in the market can I hand over a solid wine enterprise to the next generation.

What was the most satisfying moment for you since you began to accompany the Alentejo winemakers on this path?

The most beautiful moments are when twenty or thirty winemakers are sitting at the table, exchanging ideas and we only have to give them small impulses, because the discussion has already gained its own momentum. Then you hear things like, “how did you do that?” or “really? I never thought about it, but now that you say that it makes total sense.” And the best of all is when a successful winemaker suddenly says, “yes, that’s how my grandfather used to do it!” Because that’s exactly how it is. This isn’t rocket science. We aren’t reinventing the wheel. It is all there and all you have to do is think out how to implement it. And when you think about it carefully, it is simply about not wasting anything.

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Facts & Figures

There are two seals that distinguish the geographic designation or indication of origin for wines from the Alentejo:

Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC), in english, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). In Portugal the new pan-European designation DOP is used parallel to the older designation DOC. Wines with protected designations of origin may only be grown within eight viticultural districts (Borba, Évora, Granja-Amareleja, Moura, Portalegre, Redondo, Reguengos and Vidigueira). Additionally there are regulations in place regarding maximum yield per hectare and grape varieties permitted, as well as a prescribed sensory evaluation of every wine.

Indicação Geográfica Protegida (IGP), in english, Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). All of Portugal is divided into a total of fourteen ‘regional wine’ districts. Formerly designated as ‘Vinho Regional’, the new pan-European designation serves to indicate a protected geographic origin. Here as well, both designations may be used in parallel. The established guidelines and regulations for production of regional wines are less strict than those governing the DOP/ DOC wines. However, many Portuguese wines of distinguished reputation be- come classified as ‘regional’ wines because the producer has chosen to use grape varieties that are not permitted for DOP/DOC wines. The relaxed regulations governing PGI wines allow more possibilities for the expression of individuality, although there are certain regulations that prevail governing the choice of grape variety and minimum alcohol content.