Fonseca Port – A 30-year path towards Sustainability by David Fonseca Guimaraens
25th April, 2020
My interest in the Port Trade started at an early age with adventurous trips to the Douro Valley with my father, Bruce Guimaraens, in the 1970s and the mischievous sipping of Port at the visitor centers in the Port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia.
I studied winemaking in the new world of Australia. Shortly after I returned home in 1992, my father and I, together with our recently joined viticulturist Antonio Magalhães, converted an important area of Fonseca´s Quinta do Panascal vineyard to organic viticulture.
The lessons learned from this innovative move, the first of its kind in the Douro Valley, were to shape all of our viticulture from then onwards, so much so that today they continue to be a major inspiration for our family’s culture of sustainability.
An area of vertical planting (Vinha ao Alto) and another area of two-row earth terraces (patamares) were selected as the two blocks of vineyard to be converted to being managed organically. At the time, these were the two methods of choice for planting mechanized vineyards in the Douro. Vertical planting, the planting method for when the natural slope of the terrain is shallow and for slopes with a gradient above 35o, the option was for building a horizontal terrace planted with two rows of vines to enable a tractor to circulate between the rows.
We quickly learned that the organic management of a vineyard planted vertically brought the same challenges as did the vineyards in most other regions where the terrain is much flatter and terracing is not required. However, it was in the two-row terraces, the vineyard model of choice for mechanizing the vineyards of the steep slopes of the Douro, that we realized that this method of planting was not a viable option. It became evident that the tendency in the 1970s and ‘80s was for the intensive use of pesticides for all forms of agriculture as the miraculous solution for reducing costs and increasing production. The natural compounds traditionally used in the region were discarded in favour of the “modern” chemicals. Dependence on aggressive residual herbicides was crucial for the viability of the vineyards on the two-row terraces.
It was specifically the dependence on herbicides where we faced our greatest challenge, one that was aggravated by the move the region made from the 1970s onwards – more mechanized vineyards, in detriment to the traditional stone-terraced vineyards. The region exchanged the inert schist walls for live earth embankments where the only way to control weed growth was to resort to aggressive residual herbicides. The solution was for us to change the way we plant our vineyards on slopes greater than 35o.
Our experience of organic viticulture at Panascal showed us that in the hot, dry climate of the Douro Valley, there was a low incidence of diseases compared to other wine regions. This led us to return to the use of natural substances such as sulphur and copper sulphate across all of our vineyard holdings.
Moreover, although the continuous use of residual herbicides eliminates weak and fragile weeds, it encourages the growth of the more resilient summer weeds, a dangerous vicious circle that leads to a greater use of herbicides as well as resistance to some herbicides.
As the obstacle to using mechanical means to manage the grass cover on the terrace walls is the inside row of vines, the solution was to remove this altogether and plant terraces with only 1 row of vines on the outer edge, thereby providing access to the slope and eliminating the need to use any herbicide on the slope. With one-row terraces, grasses are allowed to grow freely during the dormant season of the vines and when spring comes they are kept under control with mechanical means. The stubble of the grass also helps consolidate the embankments against erosion.
If on the one hand, planting one-row terraces provided a solution for a sustainable way of managing our grass growth, on the other hand the irregular earth terraces that replaced the traditional stone wall terraces in the region, brought serious erosion problems from rain.
It was here that in the spring of 2000 Antonio Magalhães and I were very fortunate to visit the Benziger family winery in the Sonoma Valley. As we arrived at the winery there was an enormous downpour of rain. At the entrance to the winery there is a vineyard on a steep slope where vines were planted on terraces that had been built longitudinally by Chinese immigrants many years earlier. The rainwater ran in a controlled manner down to a drainage point at the end of the terrace. It was a Eureka moment! This was the obvious solution for our terraced Douro vineyards.
When we returned to Portugal we set out with our bulldozer contractors to find the best way to build these terraces. It was in the rice fields of southern Portugal that we found the solution of using laser guidance systems to guide the bulldozers during the construction of new terraces and give them the longitudinal slope that would ensure that the surplus rainwater flowed to a drainage point.
The eternal discussion between reducing production costs through mechanization versus higher financial returns to cover production costs has plagued the region for many years. The obsession with mechanizing vineyards and replacing people by machines resulted not only in creating a greater dependence on chemicals but also in increased problems with erosion. It also led the region to turn its back on much of the empirical knowledge acquired over generations, upsetting much of the balance our vineyards possessed.
This is where the issue of vine density also comes into play. In the Douro valley, the natural arid conditions are one of its principle characteristics, and the traditional vineyards in the region ensure a high planting density. With the move towards mechanizing the vineyards, this factor was sacrificed in order to make this easier, with the result that vine density was reduced by some 50%. As these vineyards mature, production per hectare becomes much lower than the traditionally high-density plantings, which is why many producers now resort to irrigation to bolster their yields.
For a region that has for 300 years cultivated its vineyards without resorting to irrigation, how can we, now in the 21st century, when we know water is an increasingly scarce resource, accept a move to this unsustainable practice?
It is much too often easier to resort to irrigation rather than to look back to our traditional high-density plantings and field blends as the natural solution for the Douro. The history of the region has taught us that a low yield per vine, multiplied by a high number of vines per hectare, is the best form of ensuring a production that will contribute to a better financial sustainability for our viticulture.
Sustainability is a very broad term and can mean different things for different people. I look at sustainability from three aspects:
Social sustainability – to me this is often overlooked and is usually placed second to environmental sustainability. When chemicals are applied intensively in agriculture, the people who are most affected are those who work in the vineyards. Reducing chemical use reduces their exposure and risk.
Working in the vineyard is considerably more pleasant than working on a factory floor or in an office. However, the hardship of certain vineyard operations in mountain viticulture should not be overlooked. Simplification of viticulture practices and a certain degree of mechanization can alleviate the most arduous vineyard work.
The final object of social sustainability is to create a culture of pride and respect for those who work in the vineyards, and naturally, a decent wage to go with it.
Environmental sustainability – conventional/sustainable/organic/biodynamic – which one or a combination of all four? In my opinion, only the conventional form is definitely out of the question. Of the other three, each option is legitimate and I value each of them equally.
In the Douro Valley, the move to mechanize the vineyards destroyed the balance of Nature and their place in a sustainable environment. This makes the task of restoring their sustainability extremely expensive and can only be done over time as the only way to do this is to replant those vineyards.
The most important factor, which unfortunately is not recognized by the people in the Douro, is that when you are planting or replanting a vineyard, you are effectively a landscape architect. The use of powerful bulldozers and the desire to plant the maximum number of vines in a given area has led to a serious mutilation of too much of the Douro landscape. Finding the right balance between installing a productive vineyard, mitigating erosion and preserving areas of natural biodiversity and features of the landscape are the responsibility of every landowner.
Economic sustainability – in order to practice social and environmental sustainability, there must be a sufficient financial return to enable this to happen. Agriculture in general suffers from this problem, and in mountain viticulture where a large number of small property holders has traditionally divided the effort, they become victims of their number. Small property holders who do much of the work themselves rarely value their labour properly into their production costs. Large property holders have difficulty in incorporating the real costs of employing labour for the work required.