Portugal's Pico Wine Region: Wine Heritage in the Azores Islands

The Azores, Portugal's Atlantic archipelago, are remote, to say the least.  This group of islands is located about 950 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal's capital, smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The Azores were uninhabited when Portuguese explorers began to settle them in 1439.  Today, the Azores still belong to Portugal, and the archipelago makes up one of the country's two autonomous regions.

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The Azores have a unique place in Portugal's winemaking history.  While the Azores' three wine regions have yet to achieve DO status, one of the Azores' IPRs (Indicação de Provenencia Regulamentada), Pico, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Pico Wine History

Winemaking came to the Azores soon after settlement began in the mid-15th century.  According to some reports, Franciscan friars brought the verdelho grape to the Azores.  When winemakers on Pico Island discovered that this grape variety made good fortified wines, Pico was on the map.  Over time, Pico's winemakers exported their fortified verdelho wines to mainland Europe in increasing quantities; in fact, after Czar Nicholas II of Russia was deposed and executed, searchers found wines from Pico in his imperial cellar.

Pico's winemaking success came to a sudden halt when oidium and phylloxera arrived on the island.  The verdelho vines succumbed and winemaking in the Azores nearly failed altogether.  Those who did replant concentrated on disease-resistant varieties.  It was not until the 1990's that growers once again turned to the traditional grapes of the Azores and began to plant verdelho, arinto and terrantez.  Production began to increase, and the three IPRs of the Azores - Pico, Biscoitos and Graciosa - were established in 1994.  Pico's most famous wine, the fortified verdelho, is now classified as a Vinho Licoroso de Qualidade Produzido em Região Determinada (VLQPRD), or "quality liqueur wine produced in a specific region."

Geography, Soil and Climate

The Azores are volcanic islands, surrounded by miles and miles of water in every direction.  The nine main islands in the group are known for their rugged landscapes, beautiful flowers and moderate climates. 

Pico Island's highest peak, usually called "Pico," (the word means "peak" in Portuguese, after all), rises 7,710 feet above sea level and dominates the island's landscape. Soils on Pico are, of course, volcanic in origin, with basalt and clay predominating.

The archipelago's mid-Atlantic location means that the greatest threats to the grapes are wind and sea water, not harsh temperatures.  In fact, temperatures are quite mild all year round.  Average temperatures range from about 58 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 72 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer months.  Rain showers are common.