The wine islands of the Azores
The planting of vineyards and the making of wine was introduced to the Azores not long after the first Portuguese arrived in these nine uninhabited islands in the 15th century. Today, there are DOC wines on three of Islands--Pico, Graciosa and Terceira (Biscoitos). Wine is also found on Santa Maria (São Lourenço) and on theI island of São Miguel in Caloura - the Vinho de Cheiro, which is a light red wine with a fragrant scent.
The Island of Pico
Pico is both the highest point in all of Portugal and one of two UNESCO World Heritage winelands in Portugal. Pico’s giant peak soars about the clouds some days. It is impressive from any angle. Pico was settled in 1460, beginning at Lajes, the first island municipality. It is the second longest island in the Azores and it remains largely forested. Most villages are set along the sea, with houses made of black stones joined by white mortar.
Pico makes an excellent white wines One of the best-known wines of the Azores is the Verdelho from Pico. It is easily found in the markets and being served as an aperitif or after dinner drink. In the 19th century, even the Czars of Russia sent ships here to bring back the volcanic wines of Pico.
All along the western coastal rim of the island, two-foot handmade stonewalls shield the grapes from the sea winds and elements, to produce a unique vintage with a hint of lava. The walls keep the grapes warm at night and break the gusts that can come off the Atlantic.
From Escalada ao Pico Park visitors can scale Portugal’s highest mountain and Quinta da Rosas, a forest park with exotic species. The interior of Pico is mostly a natural park with well-marked trails. The climb up to the 7,700-foot summit can take about 3 hours, but the views are worth it. There are also trails along the coastline, offering spectacular views.
Two museums now mark the history of what was once a bustling whale trade in Pico. In Lajes, an excellent museum traces how the people of Pico took to the seas in tiny boats to land huge whales. In São Roque, a former whale processing plant shows how industrial whaling worked.
Whale watching in the Azores began on Pico and Espaço Talassa was the first company to take visitors on the ride of a lifetime.
On the island of Graciosa, about 45 miles north of Pico and just west of the main town of Santa Cruz, we find vine-growing estates. Like on Pico, the vines are protected by dark basalt stonewalls, marking a good portion of the landscape along the north coast. Azoreans know Graciosa for its fine wines and brandy, both made from the Isabella grapes that are locally grown.
It is here that Terra do Conde wine is produced. Terra do Conde winery on the Caminho do Jardim road will show visitors around and invite them to partake in tastings, pairing the wine with the pastries typical of Graciosa.
Farmers work hard to keep the land in balance, rotating grapes with other crops. Oxen are often used to work the fields and it’s not uncommon to see dairy cows throughout the island.
The main town of Santa Cruz da Graciosa wraps around a small bay dotted by historic churches that date back to the 16th and 18th centuries. The houses are bright and whitewashed. The island has several active geysers from its volcanic past. At the center of the island, several extinct volcanic craters are surrounded by low hills. The grottos at Algar do Carvão run deep into the red earth, while the sulfur cavern at Furna do Enxofre leads from an ancient crater into a lava cave with an underground lake. Visitors can use steps to climb down into the crater’s depths. At the bottom is a cave with a grey mass that still bubbles beneath the rocks. A tunnel above leads to the edge of the crater, offering sweeping views of the entire island.
The north coast of the island of Terceira is famed for its white wines. Grapes were first grown here more than four centuries ago when vines of the verdelho grape were brought in from Sicily. Terceira means "the third," earning its name because it was the third discovery among the nine Azorean islands
The wide bay and beach at the pretty town of Praia da Vitória are well worth a visit, as is the lake at Caldeira de Guilherme Moniz, which is the biggest body of water in the Azores after the ocean.
Casa Agricola Brum, the main winery on Terceira, has a wine museum open to the public. Francisco Maria Blum, or Chico Maria as he was known, started his wine company in the 1890s and the business is now operated by the family’s fourth generation.
Terceira includes a wine museum at Canada do Caldeiro, Biscoitos, Terceira (00 351 295 908 305; www.casaagricolabrum.com) opens 10 a.m-noon, 1:30- 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday from October to March; and until 5:30 p.m. from April to September. The museum closes during the third week of September when the grapes are being harvested. Entrance is free to the public.
Terceira's strategic location in the Atlantic made its harbor extremely important. The main city, Angra do Heroísmo, once prospered with international commerce in sailing days. Today, the city is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city features a mix of the cosmopolitan and the traditional, with plenty of well-preserved streets and monuments.
Terceira’s coast is dotted with quaint fishing towns, beaches and lava rocks. To the north are both a rocky coast and a mix of forest and vineyards. To the south are cattle grazing lands and the coastal area surrounding Angra, with its parks and hotels.
Away from the coast, Terceira is a wild and hilly landscape perfect for walking or hiking. Much of the interior of the island is a nature reserve. From the heights of the Serra do Cume, a visitor can look down on a patchwork of small farms, stonewalls and grazing cattle.
Wine is still making history in Portugal
Since the days of the ancient Greeks, Portugal has produced wine and attracted visitors. Today Portugal is producing some of its finest wines ever and each year it attracts more American visitors than the year before. A decade of major investment in winemaking and the wine tourism infrastructure has reaped real benefits. Sales of Portuguese wines jumped more than 35 percent in 2010 and the number of American visitors rose by more than 13 percent over the year before.
Visitors to Portugal are rewarded with close-up views of a modern wine trade that is still steeped in history. In the Douro Valley of northern Portugal, for example, a significant quantity of the grapes is still pressed by foot in shallow, open wine fermenters called lagares.
Wine is woven into history here
This land has been cultivated in grapes for centuries. Meanwhile, the grapes themselves have evolved. Portugal now has well over 200 indigenous grape varieties and these are just now being discovered on the world’s wine stage. They are offering wine enthusiasts a fresh alternative.
By the 1750s, the first designated wine-producing region in the world was created in Portugal’s Douro River Valley. This was the first time that production standards were compulsory and wines had to meet strict quality regulations.
The resulting Port wine industry became legendary and its wines coveted the world over.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization (UNESCO) recently designated the Douro Valley in Portugal’s Azores Islands as a World Heritage site worthy of eternal conservation.
Over the last 25 years there's been a revolution in one of the world's oldest continuing industries. Local growers now value quality over quantity, they invest in state-of-the-art equipment and they modernize every aspect of the production except for the two-dozen native Portuguese grape varieties.
Many of Portugal's centuries-old estates have now opened their own inns to welcome travelers. When fall and harvest time arrive, visitors are invited in to share the traditions, tastes and colors of this ancient industry with modern overtones.
Visitors can enjoy a tour or a complete overnight stay throughout the 20 designated wine regions Portugal has to offer. Often the vineyards include harvest demonstrations and tasting dinners. Many of them come with sweeping views over the river valleys and fields of Portugal’s wine country.