Some of the best wines in Portugal come from a surprising source: a remote, gusty island in the Azores
Pico Island, in the Azores, is one of the planet’s most challenging wine regions. The weather is unpredictable, the volcanic terrain makes planting nearly impossible, and the island’s centuries-old viniculture system, which has been protected by UNESCO since 2004, never fully recovered from the destruction wrought by phylloxera in the 1800s. Yet, despite these obstacles, last year the Azores Wine Company (AWC) managed to produce The Wine Advocate’s top-rated white wine in Portugal, its Vinha dos Utras 2019.
When AWC, now led by Filipe Rocha and António Maçanita, rented a plot of land on Pico in 2014, there were only about 300 acres of vineyard being farmed using the island’s traditional system, in which growers surround small rectangular plots with volcanic rock walls called currais to protect the vines from wind and sea salt. It took a team of 30 people three years to restore an additional 300 acres at AWC, a project that required the building of more than 500 miles of rock walls. Today, even after the efforts of AWC and other ambitious vintners, there are only about 2,500 acres of fully restored traditional vineyard on the island—less than 10 percent of what once existed.
“They call us the vineyard of crazy guys,” Rocha says, laughing as we jolt through one of AWC’s vineyards in the sort of 4X4 you might expect to see on a desert safari. When we clamber out to get a closer look at the island’s three indigenous grape varietals—arinto dos Açores, verdelho, and terrantez do Pico—we have to crouch below the currais to hear his explanations over the wind. The vines truly would be decimated without them.
It may all seem like a lot of trouble, but when you attend a tasting at AWC’s recently opened winery, a gorgeous modern facility that produces around 90,000 bottles a year and also has a restaurant and six apartment-style accommodations for overnight stays, it becomes clear why these Portuguese oenophiles are expending so much energy. The richness of the volcanic terrain and the salty air that blows in from the Atlantic Ocean (maresia, in Portuguese) is apparent in every sip. As the team at AWC continues to experiment, one thing seems certain: We can expect many more award-winning wines to come out of Portugal’s wild Atlantic archipelago.
“Texture, acidity, and saltiness come together in Azorean wines in a way you can’t replicate,” Rocha says. “Now we want to communicate that to the world.”
Three More Pico Wineries to Visit
A Cerca Dos Frades
In 2015, Tito Silva began restoring 200 acres of Pico vineyards. His father and grandfather used to grow wine for family and friends, but he is the first in his family to attempt a project of this scale. Among the standouts visitors can try is his A Cerca Dos Frades Terrantez do Pico Branco 2019.
Fortunato Garcia’s wines—which come in extremely small releases and sell for upward of $500—can reach an ABV of 19 percent or more without being fortified, thanks to Pico’s volcanic soil and unique climate and the vintner’s removal of the leaves from the vines days before harvest. Tastings by appointment only.
The Pico Island Wine Cooperative
Founded in 1949, the island’s wine cooperative brings together the grapes of 250 different growers to produce some of the best Pico wines every year. (Don’t miss the 2019 verdelho or the 2020 arinto dos Açores.) The cooperative offers tastings, guided tours of the winery, and culinary experiences.