The Hidden Vineyards Of The Azores

  • By Somm360
  • 07 Jun 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
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Vineyards on Pico - Credit : Pablo Gad

Over 400 years ago the Azores islands, situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, some 1,450 km west of Lisbon (and 3,900 km from the eastern coast of the United States), had been a major player in the world of wine, exporting wines all over the globe. This Portuguese archipelago consists of nine volcanic islands: São Miguel, Santa Maria, Faial, Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, Flores, and Corvo.

Discovered somewhere between the 14th and 15th centuries, and then settled around 1429, it wasn’t long before vines were brought to the islands. Some say that these first plantings were introduced by Henry the Navigator, who brought back vine material from Crete (Candia) or perhaps Cyprus, while others speak of Franciscan monks transplanting from both the island of Madeira and mainland Portugal. A recent study indicates that Verdelho is likely to have been born in the Azores through a natural crossing of Savagnin with a Portuguese grape now lost, and also that Terrantez do Pico and Arinto dos Açores are descendents of Verdelho, demonstrating that the grape has to have existed in the islands for centuries to produce desendency.

Over time, the youngest island of Pico (just 300,000 years above the sea!) grew to prominence when it came to both vine plantings and wine production. Known as “Ilha Preta” or the “Black Island,” due to its black basalt lava rock, this island was named after the tallest peak in mainland Portgual, Ponta do Pico.

Whatever the origins of the islands winemaking, by the peak of its production, the island of Pico alone was home to some 3,005 ha of vineyards with over nine million litres of wine production annually. In André Jullien’s 1816 book Topographie de Tous les Vignobles Connus he notes that all nine islands were producing an astonishing 30,000 pipes (an equivalent of 13.4 million litres) annually, and exporting to Brazil, the United States, Russia, England, Holland, and Angola. Indeed, it is thought by many that the Azores helped to satisfy these countries’ seemingly insatiable thirst for sweet, fortified “Madeira”. It is recorded that Thomas Jefferson was a fan of Azores Wines, preferring “Fayal” (the name for Pico wine in the old days, as it was the port of departure), even when he was in Paris and had acess to French wines.

So what happened to this global wine power in the interim? Unfortunately the impressive Azorean wine industry was struck down by the triple threat of Powdery Mildew (1850), Downy Mildew (1870), and finally Phylloxera (1880), all introduced accidentally from the United States, and utterly decimating the wine industry, bringing it to its knees.

Today one can see evidence of this once great wine superpower if one journeys into the almost impenetrable forests of Pico. Here one can observe, hidden under the dense forest canopy, great swathes of abandoned and wholly overgrown “currais”, small and rectangular “vineyards” designed for up to six vines and protected by one metre high lava/basalt dry-stone walls.

It is commonly thought that these walls were constructed to protect the vines from the briney spray of the often ferocious Atlantic ocean, but today it is understood that these were also born of necessity, as the small plots had to be cleared of these rocks to allow for viticulture.

Having seen the vast, lost potential of these ancient vineyards, the Azores Wine Company are in the process of recovering and replanting around 100 ha of these in order to highlight the native grape varieties of the region, namely the Arinto dos Açores, Terrantez do Pico, Verdelho, and Saborinho, as well as developing fortified wines in homage to the famous Pico wines that travelled the world over 400 years ago.

Having been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004, the recognition of these mysterious hidden vineyards of Pico is a fitting tribute to the region’s almost forgotten wine history.

Vineyards on Pico - Credit : Pablo Gad