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.
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.
Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture – A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Pico wine region consists of a narrow band of land that stretches along the island's northern, western and southern coastlines. There is little protection from the strong winds that blow in off the Atlantic or from surges of sea water. The enterprising inhabitants of Pico Island found a unique way to grow wine grapes in spite of the unfavorable climate and weather. They simply hauled basalt rocks to their vineyards and stacked them to create a network of walls high enough to protect the vines from the ravages of nature.
Vineyard ownership on Pico Island is a complex issue. Most vineyards are divided into extremely small plots of land, called "currais," some of which contain only a few grapevines. As a result, the protective walls, built over several centuries, protect all of the currais and thus resemble a series of rectangles assembled in a complex pattern. The effect is astounding; you can gaze out at row after row of dark grey rectangles, precisely aligned along the seacoast, or walk out into the vineyard to see the grapevines themselves, sheltered in groups inside the rock walls.
Pico Grape Varieties
Pico's list of approved wine grape varieties is quite short. Verdelho, arinto and terrentez are the only grapes permitted in Pico fortified IPR wines. Several other wine grape varieties, both red and white, may be planted for use in regional wines.
Visiting Pico Wineries and the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Because Pico is an island, you'll need to fly or cruise to its capital, Madalena, to visit the wine region. You can fly from mainland Portugal to Ponta Delgada on neighboring São Miguel Island and connect to Madalena from there, or you can take an inter-island cruise and visit not only Pico but also the archipelago's other inhabited islands. If you're staying in Horta, on Faial Island, you can take a half-hour ferry to Madalena and drive from there to wineries and Pico's World Heritage Site, which is near the city.
Pico has only a few wineries. Most of the island's wines are made at the Cooperativa Vitivinícola da Ilha do Pico in Madalena, which makes fortified verdelho wines (Lajido) as well as regional wines and table wines under the Terras de Lava, Frei Gigante and Basalto labels.
Pico Winemaker Leonardo Ávila Silva recently established Adega "A Buraca" in San António. Here you can discover the history of the verdeho grape and Pico winemaking as well as see how items related to winemaking, such as barrels and tools, were made in days gone by. You don't need a reservation to tour the facility, but you'll need to contact the winery in advance if you'd like to sign up for a tasting tour. "A Buraca" has an ambitious agenda, including offering visitors a chance to participate in the September harvest. (Contact the winery for details.)
The Future of Pico Wines
While Pico's winemakers are limited by climate and geography – it's hard to expand your vineyard space when you live on an island, and shipping wines abroad from an Atlantic archipelago is also difficult – there will always be a local and tourist market for Pico's wines. By achieving UNESCO World Heritage Site status, Pico's unique winegrowing area has earned the region the recognition it deserves. Still unknown is the impact cultural tourism will have on demand for wines from Pico.
For now, Pico remains an interesting stopover or world heritage travel destination. Let's hope that the positive changes in winemaking currently occurring on the Portuguese mainland will also find their proper places in the Azores.