Sustainability in Portugal: stories from the field

We look at two important players in the field of sustainability in Portugal to learn more about how they have gone about increasing biodiversity on their estates.

Red clover planted as a cover crop between the vines at the Symingtons' Quinta do Ataíde in the Douro’s Vilariça Valley
Red clover planted as a cover crop between the vines at the Symingtons' Quinta do Ataíde in the Douro’s Vilariça Valley

Symington Family Estates has been based in the Douro Valley for 150 years, with the fifth generation now at the helm. No wonder then, that taking a long-term view is etched into their DNA. Herdade do Esporão has been established in the Alentejo region of southern and central Portugal a mere 50 years, but their location, at the heart of the montado ecosystem – a unique savannah-like forest of cork and holm oaks – has had a profound impact on their approach, making them more careful about how they farm their vineyards and olive groves.

A commitment to better-quality wines 

Both organisations are impressive in both the scale and commitment of their enterprise when it comes to sustainability, but both would admit that their primary motivation initially was the production of better-quality wines. What’s apparent too is that collaboration, not only with scientists, but with those who work the land has informed their decision-making.  
Both talk about the length of time taken to study the land and improve their farming practices and the importance of attention to detail. Rob Symington (one of the fifth generation and Director of Marketing and Sustainability) says that his family first became interested in this area in a meaningful way in the early 1990s when they looked to agriscience and research and development projects to grow grapes more sustainably.

The importance of collaborative research 

They planted their first research vineyard at Quinta da Cavadinha, studying the Douro grapes in depth and assessing their suitability to different terroirs. Their findings helped to refine their planting policy but also led them towards organic conversion in their vineyards, as well as encouraging the growers from whom they buy grapes to seek their advice and assistance for low-impact viticulture. 
A healthy biodiversity is essential for balanced ecosystems, a critical factor in wine production. Encouraging habitats for insects to maintain a stable food chain is vital – birds will feed on these rather than the grapes. Bee populations are vital for pollination during flowering. Cover crops between vine rows are sown by both the Symingtons and Esporão to return nutrients to the soil and promote soil health by encouraging micro-organisms.  

Herdade do Esporão
Cover crops between the vines at Esporão in the Alentejo. Much research and attention to detail has gone into choice of plant to attract natural predators, feed the soil and increase biodiversity


The Symingtons are also important sponsors of other projects in the region (we wrote about their work with Rewilding Portugal in our Autumn 2021 1874 magazine - see page 6 of the PDF on the link). The UTAD Wildlife Rescue Centre in Vila Real is a specialist unit with an international reputation for nursing injured birds and other wild animals and returning them to the wild. Over the past decade, many birds of prey (among them, peregrine falcons, red kites, eagle owls) have been returned to nature across their Douro vineyards.

European Kestrel
Old dry-stone walls provide a haven for birds in the Douro

The Symingtons also work with Porto University’s Research Centre for Biodiversity and Genetic Resources who have identified two of their properties, Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinto do Tua, as the last havens in the Douro of the endangered black wheatear (oenanthe leucura), or ‘Port wine bird’. The walls of the old dry-stone terraced vineyards provide the ideal habitat – ‘testament,’ Rob says, ‘to the minimum-intervention precision viticulture we pursue which strives for minimum impact on the surrounding ecosystems.’

Growth means better rather than more.
João Roquette, Chairman of Esporão

João Roquette, Chairman of Esporão, tells us that they set out 50 years ago with ‘the desire to make the finest wines in the Alentejo region, at nature’s pace, with minimal impact on the environment.’ Like the Symingtons, they too concluded that organic farming is the best way to achieve this. Protecting the soils increases resilience in the vineyards, leading to healthier, more balanced grapes that require less intervention in the winery and produce wines, ‘with greater identity and sense of place, without having to use products that are harmful to our health and the environment.’

Not just a question of organic farming 

João says that it took 14 years to convert their vineyards to organic certification but that they have seen a remarkable improvement in their land and their wines. With 623 hectares, (they now also have properties in the Douro and Vinho Verde), they represent 18% of the country’s organic production.

Years of study have resulted in Esporão treating each part of their estates differently, reorganising vineyards to reinstate original water lines, for example
Years of study have resulted in Esporão treating each part of their estates differently, reorganising vineyards to reinstate original water lines, for example

The work they’ve done over the years has led them to be ‘strong believers in biodiversity’. Listening both to consultants and employees, they treat each area differently to achieve best practice for all their vineyards and olive groves. This has resulted in their reorganising vineyards to reinstate original water lines and the planting of thousands of shrubs and trees around them to promote healthy ecosystems. 
As with the Symingtons, much of this work is founded on research, underpinned by attention to detail, starting in 2009 with a now annual survey to establish all the pests present in each vineyard – spider mites, green leafhopper, grape berry moth, cotton leafhoppers to name but a few – and identify the plant species which attract their predators.

The importance of cover crops and hedgerows 

This is the thinking behind 14,058 metres of protective hedgerows amongst the vines made up of species like rosehip, honeysuckle, mulberry, blackthorn, laurastinus, pomegranate trees, buckthorn, bay and elder. As well as providing habitats for these natural predators they protect the grapes from burning in Alentejo's strong winds and scorching summer temperatures. 
To complement this natural pest control, thanks to some sophisticated analysis of ultrasound recordings, five species of bats have been identified within the vineyards whose diet includes vine-damaging moths. To encourage the bats to stay and breed, they have installed shelter boxes in their vineyards.

Bat boxes provide shelter at the Herdade do Esporão. They feed on moths that damage the vines, and the boxes encourage them to settle and fight pests in a natural way
Bat boxes provide shelter at the Herdade do Esporão. They feed on moths that damage the vines, and the boxes encourage them to settle and fight pests in a natural way

Cover crops, João tells us are ‘one of the most important parts of our agricultural activities. The cover can be permanent or temporary, planted with a single or various plant species, using flora native to that site.’ After harvest they assess which seed to use, and in the spring the vineyards are ablaze with colour from clovers, beans and other native plants.

A vineyard nursery ‘museum’ for future generations 

In 2010 Herdade do Esporão put down an important marker for the future establishing 10 hectares of experimental vineyard nursery planted with 189 varieties. Over 21,500 plants include all the main Portuguese vines along with obscure native grapes with potential and international contenders that could be suitable for the Alentejo. Winemaking Director Sandra Alves says it’s a lifetime project and that they have already learned so much from their studies. She told us, ‘In the future, our goal is to keep a viticultural heritage for the next generation to take up the mantle and continue studying the behaviour of varieties within the context of climate change.’ 
All of this complements the words of Esporão’s Chairman on the future of the business, ‘growth means better rather than more.’ But perhaps the last word should go to Rob Symington, keen climate activist as well as representative of the latest generation of his family business:

Any form of overproduction, exploiting resources with scant regard to the environment is untenable and ultimately unsustainable. This not only makes a difference to the quality of the wine in our glasses, but also to safeguarding that we can continue to have wine in our glasses at all.
Rob Symington
Joanna Goodman

Senior Editor

Joanna Goodman

Part of our Marketing Team for over 30 years, Jo has been editor of Society News for much of that time as well as contributing to our many other communications.

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