Geography, soil and climate are the keys to the most precious treasures of the Azores: the wine. Surrounded by miles of water in every direction in the mid-Atlantic, wind and seawater are the greatest threats to the grapes, not the harsh temperatures. In fact, with low seasonal temperature variation and equally low season distinctions, average temperatures range from about 58 º F in winter to 72º F during the summer months.
Back in the 15th century, when the Portuguese settlers from the mainland discovered the nine islands, they started planting vineyards and making wine. The rugged landscape led the vines to grow in little pens surrounded by stonewalls made of volcanic rocks – which protected them from the winds and kept them warm during the night.
Azorean wines traditionally are made mainly from three varietals.
Verdelho grapes are believed to have been brought by Flemish settler. Arinto is a versatile grape variety usually used in the production of blends and sparkling wines. Terrantez is a white Portuguese grape that makes a sweet, fortified wine.
The Azores has three regions are already qualified as Quality Wines Produced in Specified Regions under the European Union wine regulations: Pico, Biscoitos and Graciosa. Two are fortified (16%+) and wood-aged: Pico (grown on two small coastal patches of the island) and Biscoitos (the northern coastal section of the island of Terceira).
Biscoitos: suited to make fortified wines
Resembling large black cookies (biscoito is ‘biscuit’ in Portuguese – possibly meaning the black rock on the coast, or the sea biscuits one made on Terceira), the volcanic rocks with rounded and smooth shapes are used to create the vineyard area and its patterned walls. This wine region on Terceira Island produces mainly fortified wines, made predominantly from Verdelho - the same type of grape used on the famous wine-producing island of Madeira. Volcanic soils are known for being naturally fertile, great for producing grapes, and therefore wine, with higher acidity – one of the main reasons why Biscoitos wines benefit from a good balance of acid and sugar, not achieved in other Azorean vineyards. A wine museum covers the history and traditions of the local wines, offers tastings, and as a small wine shop.
Graciosa: light bodied table wines
Today, Graciosa Island produces a combination of fortified wines and a light-bodied table wines made mostly from Verdelho, but also from Arinto and Terrantez grapes. The introduction of new grape varietals, such as Fernão Pires and Malvasia Fina, along with modern techniques, is modernizing the wine production in this mid-Atlantic island.
Pico: Vineyard Landscape – A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The vineyard landscape of Pico is divided up into small parcels of different sizes, each one separated from its neighbors’ by low walls. Pico was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004 for their exclusive design. Not surprisingly, the area is still used to grow grapes. According to some reports, it was Franciscan friars who brought the Verdelho grape to the Azores. And once winemakers on Pico Island discovered that this varietal made good fortified wines, Pico start to export Verdelho wine to Europe. Their success was compromised by the arrival of the phylloxera on the island. The Verdelho vines succumbed to disease and winemaking in the Azores nearly failed altogether.
Only in the 90’s growers turned once again to traditional grapes like Verdelho, Arinto and Terrentez and production began to increase again. Pico's most famous wine, the fortified Verdelho, is now classified as a "quality liqueur wine produced in a specific region." Today, Pico is best known for its fine white wines. The Pico wine museum explains how the grapes are grown, how the wines are made, and covers the history of the wines, once enjoyed by the Russian royal court.
Several other grape varieties, both red and white, may be planted for use in regional wines. Inevitably, in this cool climate, it is mostly white grapes, but there are some good, lighter-bodied reds, including Merlot, just one of the many international grapes finding their way to the Azores.