Portugal’s Alentejo Rises to the Climate Challenge

Alentejo’s big sustainability efforts are starting to provide a competitive edge for wine producers who have obtained third-party certification from their WASP (Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Programme) membership. Barnaby Eales reports.

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Vineyards and wine route in Alentejo (Photo: Richard Semik/stock.adobe.com)
Vineyards and wine route in Alentejo (Photo: Richard Semik/stock.adobe.com)


  • Alentejo has introduced a third-party certification for sustainability. Producers have to fulfil 86% of 171 sustainability criteria.
  • WASP has led to 20% less water consumption, 30% less electricity consumption. 62% of its members monitor water consumption. Increased recycling and composting are also part of the proposed measures.
  • The programme comes ahead of an EU legislative proposal to counter greenwashing.
  • It will be important to see if consumers are willing to pay a higher price for grapes grown under WASP criteria.
  • The CVRA, Alentejo’s wine board, is addressing issues such as packaging and labour. The most urgent, however, is how to deal with the water crisis.

WASP: New Third-Party Certification for Alentejo Producers

WASP takes a broad perspective on sustainability including environmental, economic, and social factors. It puts emphasis on eco-efficiency, biodiversity, the reduction of emissions and operating costs and in wine cellars and vineyards. Under its transparency policy, it monitors and compares sustainability data shared by producers and holds workshops to support and promote the exchange of information between producers.

Before applying for third-party certification, WASP producers have to meet 86% of 171 sustainability standards established by CVRA management.

João Barroso

“WASP is not a greenwashing communication tool, but a work tool for producers, helping them to efficiently adapt to and develop resilience against climate change.”

João Barroso
Sustainability co-ordinator at Alentejo’s wine board (CVRA)

Nevertheless, the CVRA admits that some producers who have become WASP members have not regularly reported their sustainability efforts. This highlights the disparity of sustainability levels adopted by producers; some have advanced far more than others. To address these issues the CVRA is considering moves to make CVRA membership mandatory with stricter enforcement rules.

EU Legislation

The third-party certification which started in 2020, five years after WASP’s creation, has come ahead of EU legislative proposals to crackdown on greenwashing, announced in March.

If approved, retailers and producers will only be permitted to display sustainability labels and seals if they are based on an independent third-party certification system or established by public authorities.

EU Crackdown on Greenwashing

On 30 March 2022, the EU Commission published the first part of its Circular Economy Package to make sustainable products the norm. If approved, it would include the following rules:

  • Retailers and producers would only be permitted to display sustainability labels and seals, if they are based on an independent third-party certification system or established by public authorities.
  • “Digital product passports” would be rolled out for all regulated products to improve consumer information available about a product’s environmental sustainability.
  • Only clear, verified, and non-misleading claims about the environmental aspects of products would be permitted.
  • Environmental characteristics like a product’s environmental and social impact would be added to the list of main product characteristics.
  •  Claims such as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘nature’s friend’, ‘ecological’, ‘environmentally correct’ and ‘climate friendly’ are listed as examples of misleading generic environmental claims.
  • Products should only be marketed as “made with recycled material,” if the entire product and not only the packaging is made of recycled material.

Approval by the Swedish Systembolagat

In 2021, Sweden’s Systembolagat approved WASP certification for its new Sustainable Choice label, which it says is providing credible sustainability choices for consumers.

Systembolaget explains its decision to approve WASP certification as based on an annual review and comparative study carried out by Intertek, an independent consultancy company. Intertek provided WASP with a score of 11 out of 12 on its sustainability rating.

Reach of the Programme

Of WASP’s 500 or so producers, 11 wine producers have obtained third-party certification since 2020. This low percentage of certification is partly due to rules covering the entire supply chain. Under WASP ‘chain of custody’ rules concerning raw materials, producers have to ensure that 60% of the area where grapes are grown, including wine bought in from outside their estates, is eligible for certification.

Casa Relvas, for example, has obtained certification for the wines it produces from grapes grown on its estate. But not all the portfolio of wines of this big producer has been certified as its grape and wine suppliers may not have fulfilled the criteria.

Reasons Not to Join

Meanwhile, growers who have less time and resources and have not joined the WASP programme, seem to perceive it as onerous and time-consuming. Not all producers can dedicate a staff member to sustainability or they simply have other priorities. And despite WASP’s campaign, some growers are not fully aware that the scheme is free to join.

To facilitate joining, the CVRA is pushing for sustainability costs to be included in the EU’s agricultural funds to help growers and producers finance green moves.

From Waste Management to Social Factors  

Meanwhile, the CVRA is tackling further matters. One is the vast amounts of plastic waste packaging, which until now could not be recycled. As from July this year, producers will be to sell back label packaging and other plastic packaging to Silvex, a plastic and paper solutions company for the creation of plastic by-products and recycling, thus improving waste management.

Another is the social factor. Although WASP members have to prioritise using local labour in the vineyards, the CVRA wants to further strengthen social obligations such as improved labour conditions. This might even lead to higher prices. Barroso says growers are already seeing slightly higher prices for grapes grown under WASP criteria.

Further Sustainability Challenges


Francisco Mateus, Chairman of CVRA, says Alentejo would clearly benefit if DOC wines accounted for at least 50% of sales.

“Increasing the value of sales will always depend on market trends. However, this raises questions: Are consumers willing to pay more? Can we sell all the production at higher prices? Will it pay all the bills? Turning to sustainability may add value to each bottle while we’re reducing the negative aspects (emissions, waste, water…). It is a path for Alentejo.”

Less is More?

In order to maintain a balance between supply and demand, Mateus says the CVRA currently has no plans to introduce new limitations on production or yield.

That said, reducing production volumes and yields to increase quality and value of wine sales is the key facet of sustainability for Alentejo producers grappling with the impact of climate change. And some have already made big efforts to do so. One example is Herdade de Coelheiros, who 10 years ago produced as many as 500,000 bottles of wine each year, its annual production is now about 100,000 bottles.

And Casa Clara no longer buys in grapes for its wine production. It is experimenting with terraced vineyards and says it has reduced yields on average by 20% in recent years.

“There has been a major reconversion of the business. Yields range from 4,500 kilo per hectare to 6,000 kilo per hectare,” says Carlos Roque do Vale, founder of Casa Clara. Average yields at Herdade de Coalheiros are 6,000 kilos per hectare for red grapes and 9,000 kilos per hectare for white wines.

Facing up to the Water Crisis

Despite the efforts of some WASP members water supplies in the Southern European region remain a constant concern.

Climate conditions, however, vary in Alentejo. “More than half of our vineyards are not irrigated,” says João Raposeira, manager of Alentejo producer Herdade de Coelheiros, which is located inland, but on the same latitude as Lisbon. “There is enough moisture in the soils in vines planted lower in the valley where there is good drainage,” hesays. Regenerative agriculture, including using cover crops and canopy management, is helping to maintain soil moisture levels, he says.

Water Control and Irrigation

In other parts of the rregion, tougher measures are necessary. WASP producers have adopted several water retention methods, including the use of drip irrigation and technology, such as electronic irrigation systems which monitor and control water consumption. Since 2016, Producer Casa Clara has reduced its water consumption from 3 L per litre of wine made to 1.86 litres of water per litre of wine made in 2020. Meanwhile the adoption of energy efficiency measures has led to a 39.1% drop in energy consumption.

“Last year, we started irrigating at night rather in the day.” 

“Last year, we started irrigating at night rather in the day,” says Carlos Roque do Vale. Faced with lower rainfall and drought, Casa Clara, which produces about a million litres of wine each year, is the one of the latest WASP members to have obtained third-party certification.

A regional approach can help when adapting to climate challenges. WASP members have reduced consumption (in both vineyard and winery) on average by 20%. This may not be enough. Barroso says a WASP objective is for producers to use a litre of water to make a litre of wine.

Low Rainfall and Drought

But having recorded low rainfall since last Autumn, wine producers in Southern Europe are facing the prospect of another hot, dry summer. “May was the worst month for drought in the Alentejo in 96 years,” says Barroso.

Producers obtain water from rainfall and aquifers. 20% (4,700 ha) of Alentejo’s vineyard area is supplied by Portugal’s Alqueva, the largest artificial lake in Western Europe, built 20 years ago. For now, Alqueva has sufficient reserves. Wine producers use far less water than other agricultural sectors such as corn, almond, and olive growers; vineyards make up about 3.5% of agricultural land in Alentejo.

“There’s probably not a single solution for the water crisis in Alentejo.”

That said, faced with a drought, several growers in Alentejo have this year called for more access to water from Alqueva. “There’s probably not a single solution for the water crisis in Alentejo,” says Francisco Mateus, Chairman of CVRA. In the long term, “desalination plants (which remove salt form sea water) could be a way to address this, but it seems to be a very expensive technology that the government is not comfortable with,” he says.

“The major challenge is how to use the existing water (rain, aquifers, and dams) to maintain vineyards and keep the businesses profitable. Success stands in the balance.”

Role for Bush Vines in Southern Europe?

Castilla La Mancha is now investing in the protection of bush vines. Much of its vineyard area however has been converted over the past 20 years to irrigated vertical shoot positioning viticulture funded by more than €1bn of EU funds - non-DO vines (bulk wine) yields are as high as 20,000 kg per hectare.

Bush vines, which retain more moisture and humidity, and which generally do not use as much water and can be managed to lower their temperature, amount to just 0.7% of Alentejo vineyard area. 40% of Alentejo’s bush vines are more than 50 years old. Alentejo’s maximum production is 58hl/ha and maximum yields are 7.7 tonnes per ha. 

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