The prestigious BES Biodiversity Prize has been awarded this year to The Fladgate Partnership for its project ‘A New Model for Viticulture in the Douro Region’. This annual prize is sponsored by Banco Espírito Santo, one of the leading Portuguese banks, in partnership with CIBIO, the Centre for Research in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources.
The prize was created to recognise innovative projects in the fields of research, conservation and management of biodiversity in Portugal. The award is judged by a distinguished independent panel consisting of leading specialists in environmental systems and conservation, including a senior representative of ICNB, the National Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Biodiversity.
The theme of this year’s prize was ‘Biodiversity and Companies’, with companies from all fields of activity being eligible for the award. The prize was awarded jointly to The Fladgate Partnership and to the Noudar Nature Park, a conservation and tourism project located in the Alentejo region.
The Fladgate Partnership project ‘A New Model for Viticulture in the Douro Region’ is the culmination of many years of sustained investment and research in the vineyards of the group’s three historic Port houses, Taylor, Fonseca and Croft. These represent a surface area of over 500 hectares distributed among 11 A-classified estates and have been the main beneficiaries of the 27 million euros of investment made by the group in the Douro valley in the last ten years. Over the past decades these vineyards have seen the introduction of many pioneering techniques of vineyard management and landscaping, establishing The Fladgate Partnership as one of the world’s leading exponents of mountain viticulture.
The Douro Valley is one of the most impressive examples of mountain viticulture, with approximately 28 thousand hectares of vineyard (62% of the vineyard area of the region) planted on hillsides with a gradient of over 30%. Many of the oldest of these historic vineyards are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Fladgate Partnership’s project defines a model for sustainable vineyard cultivation on these steep hillsides. The model incorporates a number of innovative techniques and strategies which work together to create a balanced and diversified ecosystem while at the same time guaranteeing the outstanding quality for which the company’s Port wines are renowned. The model is based on the construction of narrow terraces each of which supports only one row of vines. The terraces, which are separated by earth banks, are engineered using earth-moving equipment in which the operator is guided by an innovative laser orientation system which allows the terraces to be inclined at precisely 3° to the horizontal. At this inclination, a balance is achieved between rainwater run-off and its penetration in the soil, avoiding the topsoil erosion which constitutes a key challenge in mountain viticulture and major source of environmental damage.
The system is also designed to eliminate completely the use of chemicals to control unwanted vegetation. This is achieved by allowing unrestricted access to the earth banks, which are not as tall and are therefore more accessible than those used in conventional systems, allowing any natural plant growth to be cut back mechanically. Alongside the vines, control is achieved by sowing a temporary carpet of selected plant species. This remains between November and late Spring, preventing invasive plants from taking hold, and then dies back naturally with the onset of Summer and can be mown mechanically to form a natural mulch between the vines, reducing water loss and restoring natural organic matter to the soil.
Other components of the model include the plantation of olive trees along the vineyard boundaries and the conservation of indigenous vegetation on slopes too steep to cultivate, ensuring the diversity of plant and animal life too often depleted in areas of intensive viticulture.
Perhaps the most critical aspect of all is the correct selection of vine varieties and their distribution within the vineyard, ensuring that each variety is optimally located and able to thrive naturally, developing its own unassisted resistance to drought, disease and vineyard pests, while continuing to produce high quality and perfectly ripened grapes. This is particularly important in mountain viticulture with its varied topography and diversity of microclimates.
The Fladgate Partnership’s model represents an innovative blueprint for sustainable and environmentally sound viticulture in the Douro. However its components are based on experience gained by the group over many decades of research and development and on a long tradition of pioneering work in the vineyard.
This tradition is exemplified by John Fladgate, whose work in finding workable solutions to the widespread problem of oïdium (powdery mildew) earned him the title of Baron of Roêda in 1872. Quinta da Roêda is the famous Croft estate which is today the beneficiary of a major vineyard conversion project.
Another example is the pioneering work carried out at Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas by the firm’s partner Dick Yeatman. Yeatman understood that an important key to successful mountain viticulture is a thorough understanding each individual vine variety and its optimal location within the vineyard. In 1927, and again in 1935, he established the first single-variety plots with the objective of studying the behaviour of individual vine types and their contribution to the character of the wine. This work has proved fundamental to today’s understanding of the classic port vine varieties.
More recently, there is the pioneering work in organic vineyard management initiated in 1992 at Fonseca’s Quinta do Panascal. This has provided important insights into the application of sustainable organic techniques in the specific environment of the Douro Valley which have also contributed to the viticultural model.
Commenting on the award of the BES Biodiversity Prize, Adrian Bridge, Managing Director of The Fladgate Partnership said: "The Port companies that make up The Fladgate Partnership have a long tradition of leadership in the area of viticultural research and development and of investment in the estates which are the source of their iconic wines. They have also been committed over the centuries to preserving the unique character of the Douro Valley and its environment. It gives us great pleasure to see this recognized independently by such a prestigious award as the BES Biodiversity Prize.” He added: "We hope that this viticultural model will make a decisive contribution to a sustainable future for viticulture in the Douro Region and to the preservation of its unique environment.”
The award ceremony, which took place on 4th May, was attended by the head of The Fladgate Partnership’s viticultural team, António Magalhães, who was responsible, together with Technical Director and Winemaker David Guimaraens, for the development of the winning project.