Producers in the Portuguese winegrowing region of Alentejo— whose vineyards encompass about 18,000 hectares, or almost a third of the country—have made significant gains in sustainability under the guidance of the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program (WASP).
Launched as a membership program in 2015 by the Comissão Vitivinicola Regional Alentejana (CVRA), WASP offers a certification path that aims to tackle environmental and societal challenges while reducing operational costs and improving the economic health of its members.
“In developing WASP, we benchmarked the most relevant international schemes on sustainability, being strongly inspired by the OIV [International Organisation of Vine and Wine] guidelines as well as [those established by] the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and Wines of Chile, due to the similar characteristics of these [three] regions,” says João Barroso, sustainability manager at the Alentejo Regional Winegrowing Commission, which works with the CVRA to implement the program.
“We also received input from the University of Évora and the Alentejo Winegrowers Technical Association as well as individual Alentejo grape growers and wineries.” Since the program’s inception, its membership has grown steadily and currently comprises 411 wineries and vineyard owners representing approximately 45% of Alentejo’s considerable vineyard area.
Much of that growth can be credited to the support and incentives WASP offers free of cost: In addition to consultancy and assistance with implementing and monitoring sustainability-related practices in the field, the program provides training led by Barroso that’s focused on water, energy, and waste management in both the vineyard and cellar, representing a key value-add for the hundreds of members that have participated.
WASP in Action
The program’s impressive gains over the past five years are indicative of an organization that is striving to build a big membership through inclusion. While the majority of members are already certified organic, it’s not required; others are also part of the Integrated Production of Wine—a separate sustainability program launched in South Africa in 1998—which allows for the limited application of synthetic inputs in the vineyard.
Instead of excluding them, WASP opts to focus on reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides by providing education about alternatives such as cover crops to increase organic matter in the soil and the application of natural nitrates.
In addition, the use of sheep, geese, and bats is encouraged for both managing insect populations and pruning vines. “We are mostly focused on promoting biodiversity in the vineyards with auxiliary insects and cover crops,” Barroso explains. “By establishing ecological corridors and buffer zones around our [members’] vineyards, we have increased the number of insect-eating mammals and birds and have significantly reduced the use of pesticides and spraying.”
WASP participants have also decreased their dependence on pesticides by using equipment that captures and recycles spray drift, reducing chemical use by up to 50%. Another top priority is water conservation, as the production of just 1 liter of wine requires 14 liters of water on average. Producers are reducing their consumption by installing water meters, closely monitoring use, and implementing water-management plans while improving maintenance on their irrigation systems; as a result, some are now using as little as 1.2–5 liters of water to produce 1 liter of wine.
For WASP members, an indirect effect of adhering to these sustainability-driven practices has been better wine quality, according to Barroso, who notes that “savings as a result of conservation can be used to invest in better equipment and next-generation technology.”
Among the producers looking to the future is Herdade do Esporão, which has developed a 9-hectare vineyard to test 180 grape varieties (about 150 of which are indigenous to Portugal) in order to identify those best adapted to the warming climate. “Alentejo consistently has the highest average summertime temperatures in all of Europe,” says Barroso. “We are not planning for climate change; we’re living it.”
The Path to Certification
In order to officially verify its members, WASP launched its third-party certification in July 2020. Producers can work with one of four certifying bodies: SGS, Bureau Veritas, Certis, and Sativa. After conducting the first certification audits in late November, Borroso says that “we anticipate having our first certified producer by the end of the year and at least five producers certified by the first quarter of 2021.”
To become certified, producers must reach what’s known as the “developed” level for each of the requirements defined in the program’s 18 chapters; they also must source at least 60% of their grapes from vineyard areas also registered in the WASP program.
WASP’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed: It was recognized by the European Commission with the 2019 European Rural Innovation Award and is now one of the EU’s Rural Innovation Ambassadors for 2020. The program’s initiatives have drawn the attention of researchers and sustainability groups from the University of California, Davis; Wines of Chile; Italy’s Viva la Sostenibilità nella Vitivinicoltura in Italia (VIVA); and many others hoping to draw inspiration from its progress to improve their own practices.
Over the next five years, Barroso expects WASP to continue making gains toward its overall goals as a result of promoting the use of ecosystem-management services specifically designed to make vineyards and organizations more resilient and adaptable to climate change.
“Climate change is not a one-region or one-country fight,” says Barroso. “Alentejo and Portugal have benefited from learning from other world regions, and we are now proud to also be looked at as a sustainability frontrunner.”
Tasting Notes from WASP-member Producers:
Herdade do Rocim 2017 Olho de Mocho Reserva Branco This monovarietal Antão Vaz shows crisp, mineral citrus and a touch of vanilla; the lush body reflects five months of daily lees stirring.
2019 Peceguina Antão Vaz Exotic floral and tropical-fruit aromas point to a ripe style on the palate, with lemon and grapefruit flavors and a saline, mineral finish.
Luis Duarte 2019 Rubrica Branco This blend of Antão Vaz with Verdelho and Viognier offers delicate aromas of white blossom and a creamy body with notes of white peach and young pineapple.
Herdade do Esporão 2012 Vinha das Palmeiras Alicante Bouschet Scents of violets, sweet tobacco, and dark berries announce flavors of red and black plums as well as dark spices in a structured medium body.
Carmin 2017 Monsaraz Alicante Bouschet Bright aromas of black plum, mulberry, and dark earth lead to a medium-bodied wine showing cedar and black pepper as well as tasty, still-youthful tannins.