WWC20 – Herdade dos Grous, Alentejo

Herdade dos Grous - aerial view

This entrant to our sustainability heroes competition writes, 'Hi! My name is Maria Amélia Vaz da Silva. I used to work at the marketing department of Alentejo Wine and Vine Growing Commission (CVRA), and by then I was already a big fan of your writing competitions. At the CVRA, I was working close together with the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program (WASP) and this subject became one of my standard themes in wine production. I can’t imagine a better way of producing wines. Last May I started to work at Herdade dos Grous, one of my favourite producers in Alentejo. I was invited for Public Relations and Marketing, but this is not the reason why I’m sending you this story. The reason that took me to write this article is because I do think that these people, in which I recently include myself, do a fantastic job towards sustainability. I hope you like it!' Links to other competition entries, all unedited and published as they come, can be found in this guide.

I was a cork stopper from Herdade dos Grous Red

But I wasn’t born like that! I came from a cork tree with more than 100 years, who lived in a beautiful cork oak forest in a land called Alentejo. Over there, we were known as montado.

I thought my education was finished when I celebrated my 9th anniversary and I was pulled from my tree. Until then, I learned most of the good values that mother Nature teaches us, and I realised my family was a noble one! We were considered one of the most particular ecosystems, with a very delicate balance that only exists in some of the Mediterranean areas. In Portugal, the country with the largest extension of cork oaks in the world (34% of the world area), the montado is legally protected, its destruction prohibited and its exploitation encouraged, and making Portugal the main world exporter and manufacture of cork. And Alentejo, the largest region in the country, is the perfect place for us!

My adventure was about to begin! I was becoming a cork stopper and by then, I couldn’t suspect what my long life was supposed to be.

As a cork stopper, together with a group of friends, we were dressed with two elegant birds and a name – Herdade dos Grous. ‘What was that?’ I recall thinking! After a short and comfortable trip, we arrived to an astonishing place! It was a large mosaic of extensive crops. There was the montado, olive trees, cattle, sheep, vegetable garden, vineyards, a dam, and a beautiful hotel, spread across the place. ‘I’m going to like this!’ I said to my friends.

I realised on the first day, that place was special! It all seemed to me very familiar, somehow! Me and my friends were taken to a warehouse nearby the main office. And that was great because from there we were able to see everything happening and listen to all the conversations. That was how I got to know that wine company called Herdade dos Grous.

At the Herdade, the Portuguese word for a big agriculture farm, the team was young and dedicated. They all, men and women, seemed quite focus and motivated for their work. I heard them cheerfully talking about the parties the company organised for them on Christmas, at the end of the harvest, and what made me more curious – the environment day on June the 5th. On that day Herdade dos Grous invite their neighbours, the people from Albernoa (the nearest village) and the children from its school, some VIP’s and all the workers of the Herdade. It has been like that since 2018, and on this day they let the guests know how they work. Hearing them speak made me realise why that place seemed so familiar. It looked like these guys had the same teacher as I did – mother Nature. The respect for the land was enormous.

People looked worried when they talked about climate changes. I could understand they have been working for a long time with climate change in mind. Regarding adaptation, they have been developing action plans towards integrated sustainable farming, looking beyond the vineyards, and considering the whole landscape mosaic, which I could see from my place, grasslands, olive orchards, parklands and oak trees forest. I remembered hearing in my school days, all of this landscape diversity composes the fundamental ecological network that supports our journey towards higher climate resilience, sustaining not only today’s business, but the evolution of a business model that will guarantee that the next generation of human kind will have at least the same, but ideally better conditions for enduring sustainable farming.

So, as I said, climate changes were one of their concerns, and due to that, they had some practises I got to know quite well. Here are some of my favourite ones:

  • Herdade dos Grous has been developing a step by step biodiversity and ecosystems strategy, mainly focused on land mosaic promotion and defining and restoring the fundamental ecological network composed by seed mixes that promote soil protection and weed control, hedgerows and habitat banks for pollinators of wild plants and attracting animal species that benefit the vineyards and other farming plots;
  • The new planted vineyards follow an exposure E-W, avoiding sunburn and allowing valuable varieties to grow at their best levels;
  • Highly controlled water management, using probes to determine irrigation at the strictly necessary regarding the plant’s needs, not only for good farming practices, but also to preserve the groundwater levels and the wetlands that are also part of the landscape mosaic;
  • They mainly grow regional grape varieties, which are more resilient to extreme weather episodes, specially drought and heatwaves;
  • They have installed a few bird of prey and bat boxes for maintaining ‘aerial support’ regarding pest control, from moths to rodents, and when I left they were defining new sites for new boxes to increase the populations of bats and owls;
  • There are bee hives in some strategic places of the Herdade. They say the honey is fantastic and the bees are important pollinators and play a significant role in balancing biodiversity, by going into a biological struggle with some pests;
  • Packaging and paper are mostly FSC certified;
  • The glass bottles were chosen with lower weight for smaller carbon footprint
  • They have installed solar panels for a swifter transition towards sustainable energy

These are just some of the best practises in the vineyards and in the winery, having in mind the climate changes.

Another thing they talked about was the carbon footprint. All human activity has an impact on Earth’s environment. The carbon footprint measures the impact that human activity has on our environment in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, expressed in units of carbon dioxide (CO2).

At Herdade dos Grous, actually, most of the sustainable farming practises, mentioned previously, either in the fields or in the winery, intend to lower their carbon footprint, and the main reason is because they are aware of their responsibility to help hampering the effects of climate change, regardless of how small their impact can be. They do it very consciously!

I also realised they are partners of an important regional program of sustainability. It’s called the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program, and within that program and due to their own strategy, every year they establish and monitor some goals with the only purpose of reducing their carbon footprint. Herdade dos Grous started to calculate its carbon footprint in 2016 in a partnership with the University of Lisbon (FCUL), and since then their average is 1,46 kg of CO2 (eq) emissions per bottle of wine, being the worldwide benchmark in between 0,75 and 2,2 kg CO2 (eq), according to the latest study of that University. Not bad for a start!

It was a good life, being there and watching all the movement. But the day came when one of the workers took me and my friends for the bottling machine. Suddenly there I was, inside a bottle of Herdade dos Grous red. It was an amazing sensation, after knowing all the production circle, and understand I was a part of it. It all made sense!

My bottle was packed inside of one of the FSC cases, and sent to one of the restaurants in the region. When my bottle was ordered by a nice couple, the sommelier took me off and I could still hear them enjoying the wine. Their smiles meant they had made the perfect choice for that meal.

But my journey was not finished! As I told you at the beginning, my life was a long one. From that restaurant I went to a recycle container and started another adventure. But this is another episode, with new people and new places. Maybe you will see me again as a shoe, or as a frame, or a bag. You see, I was taken to a manufactory of an artist who works with cork!